Tourism amidst armed conflict in Kashmir
By Asif Bhat
Kashmir has been described as ‘the paradise on earth’ for its mesmerizing and breathtaking beauty – a stunning and charismatic piece of land that abounds in natural beauty. The natural beauty of the Valley has deservedly won high praise and even extravagant encomiums from travellers and several others whose accounts of the manifold charms of the vale make for fascinating reading. An Iranian poet, Toghra of Ishphan, portrayed Kashmir thus:
Tell me what land can boast such treasures,
Is aught so fair, is aught so sweet?
Hail! Paradise of endless pleasure!
Hail! Beautiful and beloved cashmere!
In his memoir, Mughal Emperor Jahangir wrote:
If one were to take Kashmir, whole books will have to be written …. Kashmir is a garden of eternal spring, a delightful flower-bed, and a heart-expanding experience for dervishes. Its pleasant meads and enchanting cascades are beyond all description. There are running streams and fountains beyond count. Wherever the eye reaches, there are verdure and running water, the red rose, the violet and narcissus grow of themselves; in the fields, there are all kinds of flowers and all sorts of sweet-scented herbs, more than be calculated.
The most notable European to travel Kashmir over the Banihal range was none other than Francois Bernier, a French physician attached to the Mughal court at Delhi in the 17th century. Conferring on Kashmir the title, ‘paradise of the Indies’, Bernier writes lyrically:
The numberless streams which issue from the mountains maintain the valley and hillocks in the most delightful verdure. The whole kingdom wears the appearance of fertile and highly cultivated gardens. Villages and hamlets are frequently seen through the luxuriant foliage. Meadows and vineyards, fields of rice, wheat, hemp, saffron and many sorts of vegetables among which are intermingled trenches filled with water, rivulets, cannels, and several small lakes, vary the enchanting scene.
In his extensive travel, the German baron, Charless Hugel, “described Kashmir as the most wonderful object in the world.” It is interesting that Thomas Moore, who is celebrated for “Lalla Rookh”, sang the beauties of ‘the vale of cashmere’ in undying verses despite the fact that he never visited Kashmir. The immense popularity of “Lalla Rookh” in the middle of the 19th century invoked the curiosity of many travelers across the world about Kashmir. While describing Kashmir Moore writes:
Who has not heard of the vale of cashmere,
With its roses the brightest earth ever gave,
Its temples and grottos, and fountains, as clear
As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave?
In a kind of historical spectrum, references of enough accounts of travelers and many others on the bewitching valley show how the lover of natural beauty, down the ages, not only ornamented the bounties that nature endowed Kashmir but also found this a beautiful theme of literature.
In a sense, we can say that historical monuments, forts, gardens, place of religious importance, hill resorts, etc. add grandeur to the state. Ornamented by wildflower, snow-capped mountains, immense glaciers, and glittering lakes, made their appearance as jewel in the water. This also resulted in making it one of the most attractive and popular tourist destinations in the world.
Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry and the most vibrant activity in Kashmir. It always proved to be a right vehicle for developing the valley’s economy. The role of tourism is essential in the economic development of the Kashmir. The tourism industry employs a large number of people, both skilled and unskilled. Hotels, travel agency, and transport benefited a lot from this industry. It generates foreign exchange and promotes cultural activities as well as the traditional handicrafts sector.
As I already said, Kashmir has always been described as a heaven on earth because of its beauty and glamour. But this paradise has been filled with much more fearsome roars of guns. The conflict between Pakistan and India over the ownership of Kashmir resulted in several wars as well as human rights violation, thousands of deaths, and atrocities. The condition of violence from 1989 is so frightening that civilians are killed on a daily basis. The fighting between the Indian security forces and the militants, which manifested in several forms including collateral damages, has turned Kashmir from a land of visitors to a land of mourners. There have been scores of reports on different forms of atrocities involving rapes, deaths in custody, torture, extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearances. The enduring conflict has not only resulted in loss of precious human lives but took a heavy toll on the tourism industry which has been the backbone of Kashmir economy. Before the outbreak of armed insurgency in Kashmir, it was considered as the best tourist destination. However, with the eruption of violence in late 1980s, Kashmir lost much of its significance as the most preferred tourist zone. The people who used to visit religious places are also filled with fear of being killed. Economy in Kashmir has been completely shattered due to the ongoing turmoil. There was a time when thousands use to visit the valley, but now only hundreds visit the valley. Violence has also directly affected other important sources of livelihood, such as agriculture, horticulture, and the handicraft industry. The news of conflict often causes postponement and withdrawal of travel planes to the Kashmir valley. One should not deny the fact that attacks on the tourists is perceived as attack on the government; that is why tourists are sometimes attacked to show their anger against the government. It is seen as an easy method to pass on their message to concerned authorities, who often ignore their grievances.
Although the increase of tourists has registered growth even after the nineties, the figures have come nowhere close to the tourist arrivals in the pre-militancy period. Tourist spots have been totally or partially occupied by army camps and pickets. The historical sites, including the world famous Mughal Inns, were occupied by the Indian forces. Frisking kept the local excursionists away from visiting various tourist destinations, especially the far-flung ones. Collateral damage has affected numerous cultural and spiritual buildings. More than 180 historical structures were destroyed during militancy in the state. If we look at the statistical data of tourists who visited Kashmir, it shows till the 1980s it was quite good but from 1989 onwards it shows downward trend. Statistics after 2010 showed that tourism had started gaining momentum but this momentum was short lived as far as contemporary situation is concerned. The 2016 unrest in Kashmir, which broke out after the killing of Hizb Commander, Burhan Wani, popularly known as the ‘Poster Boy’, resulted in protests across the Valley. As the unrest and consequent curfew spread, thousands of tourists left the Valley immediately as they found that the supposed normalcy would take a long time to come.
The shocking ripples of conflict and unbridled fear affected Hindi Cinema (Bollywood) too. Kashmir has been one of the most fascinating subjects for Bollywood with a number of movies set in the Valley. However, there are only few films which made a sincere effort depict Kashmir without making a suitable backdrop for dealing with themes such as terrorism. Notable among these are Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) and Noori (1979). In almost all these movies, Kashmir tourism was promoted. Bollywood’s romance with Kashmir came to a halt in 1989, when Filmmaker Muzaffar Ali’s Zoonie was stopped unexpectedly mid-way during shooting. The period saw the emergence of armed conflict in the valley. Thus Bollywood got new themes to explore in the context of Kashmir. And this time it was not the mesmerizing Kashmir, but the piercing roar of blasts and guns.
Militancy in Kashmir has always appealed to Indian films. It has been getting immense attention from Bollywood directors, who reinforce the stereotype. Recently addressing a function, attended by several Bollywood stars, the Chief Minister of Kashmir reminded the film industry of its “warm and affectionate” relationship with Kashmir. Asking the Bollywood directors to renew their connections with Kashmir, Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti has appealed to the film industry to act as a promoter of state’s tourism.
The biased reporting by almost all the national and international news agencies declared the valley as a “land of militants”. The rhetoric of violence and turbulence in Kashmir has created unimaginable fear psychosis among the travelers, who were enthusiastic of exploring the bountiful valley. In this regard, the Indian media houses portrayed the image of the Valley in a negative light. Instead of highlighting the plight and crisis in the valley, they are more interested in proving it as an area of ‘militants and mischief’.
The turmoil anywhere in the world affects the economy directly and Kashmir is no exception. Tourism related infrastructure – transportation, restaurants, shopping malls, support services, travel services, recreation and entertainment, wealth and emergency services, etc. – should be kept safe and secure. In order to reclaim the charismatic image of Kashmir, the print and electronic media have to work hand in hand with the tourism authorities. Proper utilization of social media would be very fruitful in this context. Seminars and programs related to Kashmir tourism should be conducted so that Kashmir regains the glory and prestige that it had in the realm of tourism.
Asif Ahmad Bhat is a Research Scholar at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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