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Promoting Kashmir

In the medieval capital of Srinagar, houseboats stood in a row along the main lakeside promenade, their garishly painted signboards—Miss Manhattan, English Beauty—promising exotic adventures. Outside the city, facing the broad expanse of Dal Lake, were the 17th-century terrace gardens created by Moghulemperors, where water ran through elaborately carved pavilions, and where on the peanut-littered grass young Kashmiri men and women sat on surreptitious dates, not kissing, touching, or even talking much, but simply happy to be together.

I didn't really notice the Kashmiris except to wonder at their exotically pale skin, long woolen cloaks, and the slight resentment they seemed to harbor toward Indian visitors. I didn't think much about them afterward. It was as if the shawl- and rug-sellers, the drivers of taxis and shikaras (gondolas), the countless touts, and the red-cheeked children standing outside huts with rose-laden mud roofs existed merely to frame my subsequent nostalgia for Kashmir.

Years passed before I could wonder at my political innocence. Just beyond the snowy hills of Gulmarg was Pakistan. India and Pakistan had fought two wars over Kashmir; Pakistan, which had come into being as a separate homeland for Indian Muslims during the partition of British India in 1947, had always claimed the Valley, which was part of the then independent kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, and largely Muslim. In 1948, Pakistan-backed invaders from the tribal areas near Afghanistan —later the birthplace of the Taliban—had reached as far as Gulmarg before being repelled by Indian security forces.

India managed to persuade and coerce Muslims, who account for up to 97 percent of the Valley's population, into accepting its rule. But it fulfilled only a few of the promises of autonomy it gave to Kashmiri Muslims at the time of partition in 1947, and instead controlled Kashmir even more tightly through a series of corrupt officials and rigged elections. It equipped Kashmir with little more than the infrastructure for tourism and the country's traditional economy of horticulture and handicrafts. By the eighties, a better-educated and more articulate generation of Muslims was chafing at the lack of democracy and economic development in the Valley.

In 1987, I had little inkling that I was visiting Kashmir in the last peaceful days it would know for 15 years. Political protests over a farcical election had erupted in the Valley earlier that year. Soon afterward, groups of angry young men started crossing the border into Pakistan to receive arms training in camps run by the Pakistani military. In 1989, Pakistan-backed militants began murdering and kidnapping Hindus and pro-India Kashmiris. Hundreds of thousands of men and women demonstrated in the streets of Srinagar, shouting "Azadi! Azadi!" ("Freedom! Freedom!").

The Indian government responded with a brutal crackdown, sending thousands of soldiers into the Valley; they are estimated to number between 300,000 and 750,000. Security forces arrested hundreds of young men suspected of being militants, torturing and sometimes killing them. Unprovoked firings on demonstrators cost hundreds of lives.

I returned to Kashmir in the spring of 2000, to report on the anti-India insurgency. By then, more than 30,000 people—militants, soldiers, and civilians—had died. I stayed at the InterContinental Grand Palace, a former residence of the Maharajah of Kashmir, overlooking Dal Lake, where I turned out to be the only guest. The man at the reception desk was unexpectedly cheerful when, on my first morning, I asked him about the situation. "Everything is fine today, sir," he said. "There is no problem at all; there is as much violence here as in any Indian city."

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