Kashmir: Paradise once again?

 

At Kashmir’s Royal Springs golf course, Javed Ahmed looked through the large glass windows of the clubhouse on to the manicured fairways.

The official was understandably proud; the course has been voted the best in India and one of the finest in the region. The fifth hole, which looks out across lakes to the mosques of the Srinagar’s old quarter, is especially famed. Part of his job is to promote the course to the world, to show there’s another side to the Kashmir of newspaper headlines. "We are trying to get the tourists to come," said Mr Ahmed. "This is one of the top 10 golf courses in the world. We want them to come and enjoy themselves."

Barely an hour earlier, in a graveyard shaded by walnut trees, the body of Firdous Ali Dar was laid to rest. According to the police, Mr Dar had been making a bomb when it exploded, fatally injuring him. His body was wrapped in a white winding sheet before being covered in a red blanket. Blood seeped from his head.

Kashmir, long fought over by India, Pakistan, and Kashmiri "nationalists", may be at a cross-roads. Twenty years after the start of a separatist insurgency and a subsequent military operation that has killed at least 70,000 people and turned this once-peaceful valley of fruit trees and farmland into one of the most militarised regions in the world, Kashmir may be poised to turn a corner in its battle between the Kashmir of old and the Kashmir of limitless potential.

As officials point to a drop-off in militant activity and seek to promote the valley as a Himalayan Eden, a plan is underway have some of the estimated 500,000 troops return to their barracks. The start of such a plan, promoted by the state’s recently-elected and energetic chief minister, could begin as early as August.

Yet on the other hand, there is no shortage of reminders of the old Kashmir, of the clashes and violence that has kept the tourists away. This month, for instance, towns across Kashmir have been brought to a standstill as a result of demonstrations in the aftermath of the rape and killing of two young women from the southern district of Shopian, a crime locals have blamed on security personnel. And as Mr Dar was buried, amid tears and wailing, the crowds who chanted for "freedom" for Kashmir were adamant that the would-be bomber had died a martyr.

Farooq Shahis the state’s director of tourism. On the wall of his office hangs a poster that reads "Paradise Once Again". "In my country I have no competitor. If you come to Kashmir we can show you the world. We have trekking, paragliding, heritage, boats trip. You name any product and we have it," said the likeable Mr Shah.

Last year Kashmir drew 600,000 tourists but just 25,000 were foreigners (compared to 100,000 foreign tourists in 1989). Of those the majority were from the Middle East and the Far East. Americans and Europeans, are staying away. "The challenge is dealing with the media," Mr Shah added. "The media has put it into people’s minds that Kashmir is not a safe place for them to come."

Officials stress Kashmir has a low rate of crime and that the most notorious incident involving foreign tourists – six were kidnapped, just one escaped alive – took place in 1995. A German backpacker was seized and killed in 2000. They wish Britain and the US would change their longstanding, cautious advisories for the region. And the efforts of Mr Shah may be making some headway. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of foreign tourists trickling into Kashmir is slowly rising. "The 1990s were terrible. Things are getting better," said Gulam Butt, a houseboat owner whose celebrated vessels have attracted high-profile visitors ranging from Nelson Rockefeller to George Harrison to Michael Palin. "Up until the 1990s it was mostly foreigners. Now it’s mainly Indians."

The tourism department and Mr Butt have received a boost from a perhaps unlikely source. In its August edition, Condé Nast Traveller magazine will feature Srinagar as a suitable destination for its well-heeled readers and suggests they may wish to bob on one of Mr Butt’s boats. "There is a distinct momentum for change," it says.

Yet the biggest boost for Kashmir’s image could come from a recently-announced plan to begin pulling Indian troops out of Kashmir’s towns. Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s home minister, has said troops would be retained for counter-insurgency and cross-border infiltration but in urban areas local police, under the control of the state government, would be responsible for security.

The plan’s success is likely to depend much on Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, who took over from his father last year. He said he had been heartened by the peaceful elections held recently, despite calls for a boycott from separatists. A review of the tasks per-formed by troops which could be taken over by police could open in August.

"It could be [historic]. It definitely could be," said Mr Abdullah, dressed in a linen suit and peacock-purple tie as he poured coffee in the garden of his Srinagar home. "We would obviously need to get the J&K police able to fill the gaps and not have it being a case of our guard being weakened."

Mr Abdullah, 39, said he believed the demilitarisation – designed to diminish the feelings of many Kashmiris that they are under an army of occupation – could happen before any "political settlement" for the state. The aim of his own party, the J&K National Conference, is to revert to the constitution Kashmir enjoyed between 1947 and 1953, when the state enjoyed broad autonomy, ceding only defence and foreign affairs to Delhi. He be-lieves the Line of Control (LoC) that marks the de facto border between Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir should disappear and there should be greater trade and travel between them.

Delhi remains remarkably sensitive to talk of "settlement" for Kashmir, whose Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh decided in 1947, contrary to most expectations, that his 70 per cent Muslim majority state (Kashmir itself is probably 95 per cent Muslim) should join newly-independent India rather than Pakistan. The two countries have fought over Kashmir on three occasions and despite reports that a settlement between Islamabad and Delhi was on the cards as recently as 2007, since the Mumbai attacks progress has halted. In January, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, stirred huge controversy in India when he suggested finding a resolution for the Kashmir dispute would "help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms".

Those who struggle for Kashmir’s independence, albeit peacefully, say they want less disruption, especially demonstrations and strikes that close towns and cause hardship for traders. Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, who heads the All Parties’ Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of groups calling for independence from India, said separatists were open to negotia-tion. Mr Farooq, under house arrest as a result of the strikes organised by the Hurriyat in response to the events in Shopian, said that having Indian troops stopping Kashmiris and demanding identity cards had to end. "People feel humiliated," he said.

His group supports the move towards demilitarisation. "India has to create an atmosphere where people can see and feel the change to move further for the resolution of the Kashmir issue," he added.

Some voices that warn demilitarisation by itself will solve nothing if the role of the army is simply transferred to a better-armed, better-equipped police force. A similar move happened in the early 1990s. "The problem is that we will be giving the police more authority," said Khurram Parvez, of the J&K Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights group.

Mr Parvez was optimistic that various parties and groups are talking a more moderate language. He said the number of disappearances and killings was markedly down.

Others are also optimistic. At the Royal Springs, set against the backdrop of crenellated mountains, a group of senior Indian Air Force officials were enjoying a round. They particularly sucked in the beauty of the 5th hole. One of the players, a pilot with a shaved head who asked not to be named, suggested the place was unique. "The trouble," he said, as he lined up his shot, "is that the tourists just don’t know about it."

Simon Calder on other war zones

*Bosnia-Hercegovina

The scars of war are still in evidence in the capital, Sarajevo, more so in the historic city of Mostar, although the city’s famous bridge has been symbolically rebuilt. But the real attraction of is the superb mountain scenery, which can be enjoyed in splendid isolation even in peak summer.

*Nicaragua

The Contra War of the 1980s did Nicaragua no favours, and the economic dereliction continued through the 1990s. But travellers in 2009 will discover a nation that works in a basic manner, rich in natural beauty, from the volcanos of Lake Nicaragua to the lotus-eaters’ resort of San Juan del Sur, and supremely cheap and cheerful. Just beware of public transport. Q: How many people can you get on a Nicaraguan bus? A: Two more.

*Laos

Tap "most heavily bombed country in the world" into a search engine and "Laos" will instantly appear. During the Vietnam war, the Americans indulged in what can only be described as deep-pile carpet bombing. But, as you float serenely down the Mekong that laces through this reclusive South-east Asian nation, there is not a trace of conflict. Whether you want the best-value massage this side of Saigon, or to explore temples untouched by munitions, Laos should rate highly.

Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, 29.06.09

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/kashmir-paradise-once-again-1722951.html

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About Marc Leprêtre

Marc Leprêtre is researcher in sociolinguistics, history and political science. Born in Etterbeek (Belgium), he lives in Barcelona (Spain) since 1982. He holds a PhD in History and a BA in Sociolinguistics. He is currently head of studies and prospective at the Centre for Contemporary Affairs (Government of Catalonia). Devoted Springsteen and Barça fan…
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