Blood and Tourism in Kashmir

Blood and Tourism in Kashmir

Until 1989, before the start of the armed rebellion against Indian rule, foreign and Indian visitors flocked to the valley. In 1987, according to a government survey, Kashmir welcomed 700,000 tourists. Three years later, as violence gripped Kashmir, the number fell to just 6,000. Those who survived on tourism ate their savings and scraped together different work.

Tourists on a water taxi in Kashmir (draskd, 2011, Flickr creative commons)

Last summer, during an overnight bus trip from New Delhi to Srinagar—the summer capital of the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir—I met a young man, with non-branded aviator sunglasses perched on his head, accompanied by two Canadian male backpackers about his age. He responded to the questions of his traveling companions in English with a mix of British and American accents. “You’ll love this journey,” he assured them. “You are going to heaven.”

He gave them two bottles of mineral water and some biscuits before retiring on a seat beside me. The bus was crammed with people from across North India: Punjabis, Biharis, and a handful of Kashmiris. As we drove out of Delhi, the man with the aviators tapped me on my shoulder. He asked me in Hindi if I was interested in trading my window seat for his aisle seat. I declined curtly.

In return he offered a handshake. He switched to Kashmiri. “Are you Kashmiri?” he asked me.“ Your accent sounds Kashmiri.”

This man was Amir Bashir, a twenty-year-old tour operator from Srinagar who’d worked in Delhi for three years. When I meet Kashmiris outside of Kashmir, the resulting conversations follow a familiar path: we briefly discuss our professional life before quickly identifying the Srinagar neighborhood where we grew up and figuring out who we know in common. These conversations almost always reveal a mutual connection, some distant cousin. In our case, there was no one.

But we quickly found common ground as Kashmiris in Delhi. We discussed how the city is faster-paced and more developed than Kashmir; the ease of commuting on the subway; how expensive clothes and restaurants have become. The conversation soon veered back to familiar ground among displaced Kashmiris: we agreed that if the valley had jobs and economic opportunities, neither of us would have left.

In Kashmir it’s inappropriate for men to talk about their girlfriends or even to speak to them in someone else’s presence, but Bashir immediately opened up to me, discussing how a difficult situation he’d encountered in Delhi had made his Japanese girlfriend very concerned for his safety. “She is very paranoid these days,” he said, slowly edging away to make a phone call. I only caught bits and pieces: “Hello sweetheart. Oh my god. Fuck me. I am sorry.”

After the call Bashir apologized and explained why he needed to speak to her so urgently. A few weeks earlier, he’d come to blows with a friend from Delhi who was hosting a dinner, after Bashir had unconscionably expressed his hatred toward the Indian cricket team. He was asked to leave the table but instead launched into a scathing anti-India rant, criticizing the Indian army and questioning its presence in Kashmir. “He hit me with a large spoon,” Bashir told me. “I pushed him away and ran off. Then he called my girlfriend and told her I will be hunted down soon. Now she is concerned about my safety.” For the rest of the journey, Bashir explained his fears about living both inside and outside Kashmir.

In tourism, guides play a crucial role. Apart from leading tours, the guides also prospect for tourists and sell them packages. Then they ferry them in a pattern where the cash flows from travel agents to transport companies to hotels—a loose confederation of natives from various Indian tourist destinations. Travel agents from Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, two of India’s most visited states, dominate North India’s tourism industry.

Kashmiri tourism is still haunted by the two-decade-old conflict. In 1990 the United Kingdom issued a travel advisory that warned British citizens about Kashmir’s insurgency—a guerilla war waged by separatists and those who wanted to join Pakistan. Though Kashmir is relatively calm compared to the 1990s—the number of militants has plummeted and fighting is mostly confined to remote areas near the Indo-Pak border—the advisory remained in effect until 2012.

If tourists pour into Kashmir, other states anticipate a decline in their share. So guides from other states often exploit this fear to discourage tourism to Kashmir. Last winter, when foreign skiers thronged Gulmarg, a world-class ski resort in Kashmir famous for its powder, the government of Himachal Pradesh began an aggressive television campaign. “They even resorted to rumormongering,” Bashir complained in Kashmiri. “They scare expats by saying that Kashmiris are terrorists and are in the business of kidnapping foreigners. They will never let us live happily.”

After a twenty-two-hour-long journey, I exited the bus in Srinagar. Bashir climbed on the roof of the bus and released two travel bags into the laps of his clients. After that, he bummed a cigarette from one of them. He wasn’t carrying his own backpack, he said, because he is always on the move.

“I am going back now, back to that hell,” he said, blowing smoke rings from his cigarette in the air.

Until 1989, before the start of the armed rebellion against Indian rule, foreign and Indian visitors flocked to the valley. In 1987, according to a government survey, Kashmir welcomed 700,000 tourists. Three years later, as violence gripped Kashmir, the number fell to just 6,000. The gun-toting militants became a common sight near butcher shops and corner stores. Almost every other day, grenades were lobbed on army convoys and gunfire was exchanged in dark hours. The Indian security establishment came down heavily on the citizenry, turning a land often called “heaven on earth” into the world’s most militarized zone, with a ratio of one Indian soldier to every ten civilians. Those who survived on tourism ate their savings and scraped together different work; some became shawl vendors, while many left the valley to look for jobs in Delhi or Bombay.

In response to the insurgency, India has refused to budge from the position that Kashmir is an integral part of its territory. On the other side, Pakistan, also party to the dispute as per a 1949 United Nations resolution that calls for a referendum on Kashmir’s status, continues to send fighters backed by Pakistani intelligence services into the valley. Though the armed insurgency has decreased in the last few years, perpetual police atrocities—juvenile detentions, denial of court trials, imposition of draconian laws—have inflamed Kashmiris, turning them hostile toward India. Youths often throw stones at police and security forces.

The Indian security establishment came down heavily on the citizenry, turning a land often called “heaven on earth” into the world’s most militarized zone, with a ratio of one Indian soldier to every ten civilians. Those who survived on tourism ate their savings and scraped together different work.

With people stuck between hope and hopelessness, it’s hard to imagine Kashmir’s tourism industry flourishing. Among the region’s 4 million Muslims, most of the younger generation is jobless and uncertain about the future. The middle-aged and elderly remain psychologically wounded from the 1990s, when their society seemed to fall apart. They still hold painful memories of army sieges when men were asked to evacuate their homes while soldiers searched for weapons. They can’t forget moments when even children were interrogated for hours on end about the possible locations of militants.

Having grown up in this atmosphere of fear and suppression, Kashmiris have trouble identifying as members of India’s mainstream middle class, which has watched its fortunes rise since liberalization in 1991. Bashir, even though he works and lives in Delhi, still feels like an outsider.

On June 8 I thought of Bashir after reading a news report that Kashmir was again India’s “most visited” tourist destination. A few months earlier, in February, anger over the secret hanging of Muhammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man convicted of masterminding a 2001 attack on India’s parliament, made a return to massive pro-independence demonstrations a possibility. Most Kashmiris regard the Afzal trial as unfair. After the hanging, the valley observed a strict shutdown for several days and stone-throwing protests were reported in various districts. Kashmir’s state government has campaigned for the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Power Act, which allows Indian soldiers to effectively kill anyone on mere suspicion, but Indian police still employed heavy-handed tactics against “potential stone throwers” and separatist leaders, who were either detained in prisons or in their own houses. To tackle stone throwers, the police adopted a carrot-and-stick policy. The protesters are lured to join the police force or detained without trial; teenage stone throwers are asked to spy on one another. But much to the surprise of people inside and outside of Kashmir, tourists continued to flock to the valley. With hotels and resorts overwhelmed by visitors, room rates and the price of plane tickets skyrocketed.

Later in June I drove to New Delhi’s Connaught Place, a tourist hub comparable to New York’s Times Square, to see how Kashmiri travel agents were reacting to their long-awaited season of prosperity.

Yasir Iqbal, a twenty-seven-year-old tour guide from Srinagar, was bantering with two small-time hustlers selling “original” wristwatches clasped in fancy velvet boxes. A stout man with flushed red cheeks, Iqbal spoke impeccable Hindi, even employing the snarky street-smart vocabulary of a Delhi native.

“Tourism is in my blood,” he told me, “We are boat people.”

Iqbal was four years old when the militancy began. His father had supported the family with modest earnings from rowing a boat on Dal Lake, Kashmir’s most famous tourist destination, but when tourists began abandoning the valley he struggled to make a living. His family moved to Khajuraho, a medieval temple town in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh famous for its erotic sculptures. His father sold Kashmiri shawls on the streets frequented by tourists.

Iqbal’s parents enrolled him in a local school. For the next sixteen years, he lived a relatively normal Indian life: he played cricket with his neighborhood friends and watched Bollywood movies. He idolized Sanjay Dutt, the Al Pacino of the Indian film industry.

In 1999, when Iqbal had just turned fourteen, India and Pakistan went to war over Pakistani incursions into Kashmir’s Kargil district. In every corner of Khajuraho, Iqbal heard people talking about the war. When one of his best friends asked him what he thought of Kashmiris killing Indian soldiers in Kashmir, Iqbal said he regretted any loss of lives. His answer wasn’t convincing enough. “Traitors,” his classmates roared. “Kashmiris are traitors.”

Iqbal began to feel vulnerable. He separated himself from his Hindu friends and tried to befriend Muslim classmates. He still couldn’t fit in. “Indian Muslims are too religious,” Iqbal explained. “They can’t take jokes well.” Iqbal was confused: he felt neither Indian nor Kashmiri.

After finishing high school, Iqbal lost interest in his studies. In 2003 he joined his father’s business, moving to a remote district in Madhya Pradesh to sell shawls door-to-door. After some time, he sensed communal tensions brewing between Hindus and Muslims. A few months later, they culminated in a low-intensity two-day riot. His parents asked him to return to Khajuraho.

Like many Kashmiris, Iqbal entered the tourism industry. In Khajuraho, he worked as a daily wager for a local tour company. For the next six years, he traveled across the country, navigating routes for foreign tourists. “I have memorized the entire map of India, state by state,” he told me. “I can walk through the Taj Mahal blindfolded,” he added, laughing.

In the winter of 2010, he moved to Delhi to earn a better living. Like other Kashmiris, he found renting an apartment difficult in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Even his permanent residency in Madhya Pradesh made no difference. “I thought the landlords would take me as a proper Indian citizen,” he said. “I was ready to pay the rent in advance, but everywhere I was asked to disclose my ancestry because they somehow figured out that I was a Kashmiri.”

Iqbal gave up on the idea of living in a fancy neighborhood. He tried not to hold any grudges, preferring to view the discrimination as a larger Muslim problem. He simply moved to Okhla, one of Delhi’s Muslim ghettoes.

In the early summer of 2010, a teenage student was shot dead by police in Kashmir. The boy was returning home from a private tutor. The next day Kashmir exploded in anger. Thousands of young men took to the streets, shouting slogans of independence. In response, Indian troops and police opened fire on them. Over the next three months, the police and paramilitary shot dead 112 young Kashmiri protesters.

Iqbal watched this bloodshed on YouTube: an unarmed cleric shot in the leg while walking to a mosque; the body of a nine-year-old boy with a bullet hole in his head; the body of another nine-year-old who was beaten to death.

The macabre images severed his allegiance to mainstream India. His suspicion of the Indian state grew steadily with the killing of each civilian. Every night, as he tried to sleep, he felt filled with a rage that he couldn’t articulate to anyone else. Protests were followed by killings and killings followed by protests. A few days later, he ran into an acquaintance named Imran Jeelani in a bustling alleyway in Connaught Place. He felt comfort in being able to talk about Kashmir. “It’s painful to be far away and watch our brothers getting killed mercilessly,” Iqbal said.

Jeelani, a thirty-eight-year-old tour operator, and Iqbal became friends. They looked out for each other and openly discussed their insecurities as Kashmiris in India.

Jeelani’s shop, tucked away from the crowds of Connaught Place, was furnished with teakwood chairs and tables demarcated by glass fences. Paintings of Hindu gods hung on the whitewashed walls and a poster map of India was spread on a large desk where Jeelani worked. He seemed uninterested in talking about the return of tourists to Kashmir. “Kashmir is very uncertain,” he explained. “Anything can happen and everything will come to a halt. So let’s not get carried away.”

A graduate of the London School of Economics, Jeelani has lived in Delhi for about eight years. He spoke slowly with measured sentences that seemed to match his serious face. He has read many historical accounts depicting Kashmir’s recent and ancient history. When I asked him what brought him close to books, he said, “Tragedy.”

In April 2004, during the Indian parliamentary elections, his cousin Aasiya Jeelani, a reporter at a local English newspaper, drove out of Srinagar with two of her colleagues to verify reports of bogus voting being carried out in north Kashmir. The Indian government was making desperate attempts to engineer a new victory rather than suffer another humiliating defeat to separatists. The country’s leading newspapers and television channels repeatedly showed long queues of voters at polling booths to validate the claim that Kashmiris had joined the Indian mainstream and were transitioning from militancy to democracy. Apart from a few hundred workers of pro-India political parties, however, the people of Srinagar avoided the polls and obeyed the separatists’ calls to boycott the elections. But in far-off districts away from the media glare, the army forced villagers to vote for their candidates.

Before Aasiya could reach any of those voting locations, a landmine explosion ripped apart her car, killing her and injuring several colleagues.

“I was in Dubai at that time,” Jeelani said. “My mother called me and said Aasiya is dead. I couldn’t believe it. All I could do was cry.”

Jeelani’s personal response to Kashmir’s unresolved conflict is now mostly confined to social networking sites. One of his Twitter feeds reflects his growing frustration toward both India and Pakistan. On January 16 two Indians discussed the beheading of an Indian soldier on the Kashmir border, allegedly by the Pakistani army. A conversation ensued in which one commenter belittled the Pakistani army; the other wanted to “try to speak peace” between the two countries. Jeelani felt he had to respond: “What do you mean by speaking peace?”

A few minutes after telling me the story, Iqbal shepherded a tall white turbaned Sikh man to his desk. The man enquired about the cost of a three-day visit to Kashmir. Iqbal showed him the prices and the man asked for a discount. The negotiations started. In the end, Jeelani agreed to a 20 percent discount.

“You must see Kashmir,” he told the man. “It’s beautiful.”

Mehboob Jeelani is a staff writer at the Caravan, a monthly magazine published in New Delhi.