Con­demned by the past

The Pak Banker - - Front Page -

THERE’S some­thing about Kash­mir that has al­ways tugged at my heart­strings. And this was even be­fore I had vis­ited the land of­ten un­o­rig­i­nally com­pared to paradise, in the words of Mughal Em­peror Ja­hangir. Al­though the Kash­miris of­ten com­plain of In­dian Mus­lims’ ‘in­dif­fer­ence’ to their predica­ment, I am sure I am not alone in my sen­ti­ments. In fact, Kash­mir has al­ways en­joyed a spe­cial place in the hearts of most In­di­ans – and Pak­ista­nis.

Does it have some­thing to do with all those movies ro­manc­ing Kash­mir? From Shammi Kapoor’s black and white fea­tures im­mor­talised by those glo­ri­ous Rafi songs to the spell cast by Yash Cho­pra’s mod­ern clas­sics (how apt that the mas­ter re­turned to the val­ley for his swan song with his favourite ac­tor!), In­dian cinema’s love af­fair with Kash­mir goes way back. But Bol­ly­wood alone can­not ex­plain our affin­ity with Kash­mir.

For a large, crowded and of­ten hot and hu­mid coun­try, Kash­mir with its snow-capped moun­tains, ver­dant val­leys and cool, heav­enly springs was more than a pretty pic­ture post­card – it was the per­fect get­away where we could es­cape our hum­drum ex­is­tence. It rep­re­sented the ul­ti­mate es­cape in ev­ery sense of the word. No won­der so many of our films have the lead pair lazy around in shikaras (house­boats) on the pic­turesque Dal Lake.

It was love at first sight when I vis­ited Kash­mir in 2003 as part of the ef­forts of the new ad­min­is­tra­tion headed by Mufti Mo­ham­mad Say­eed to bring back tourism to the trou­bled paradise. My friend M Ashraf, who headed Jammu and Kash­mir’s tourism depart­ment in the crit­i­cal post-in­sur­gency years, never stopped think­ing of ways to re­vive the cru­cial in­dus­try on which the econ­omy and liveli­hoods of his peo­ple de­pended.

That week, spent travers­ing the length and breadth of Kash­mir and stay­ing in the mag­nif­i­cent ho­tel by the Dal that used to be the res­i­dence of the Ma­haraja, re­mains un­for­get­table. The char­ac­ter­is­tic Kash­miri hos­pi­tal­ity that I en­joyed, not to men­tion the un­beat­able Kash­miri cui­sine, have stayed with me ever since.

Those fond mem­o­ries came rush­ing back this week on read­ing a rare ode to Kash­mir by Adrian Hamil­ton in Bri­tain’s The In­de­pen­dent. Hamil­ton is a hard-nosed news vet­eran and sel­dom does trivia or, what in my trade, is known as puff pieces, which may be why this one, ‘In search of a cooler, calmer Kash­mir’ comes as such a breath of fresh air. Even as he is in­stantly cap­ti­vated by the nat­u­ral gran­deur and re­splen­dent beauty of Kash­mir with reg­u­la­tion ref­er­ences to the Dal and shikara rides, the vet­eran jour­nal­ist and ob­server in him is con­scious of the prom­ise of what would have been – the awe­some, and un­re­alised, po­ten­tial of the mag­i­cal land.

“There’s been more than 20 years of visi­tor drought since the state of emer­gency was de­clared in this haven of a coun­try, a land that would be in­de­pen­dent but has been di­vided be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan since its Hindu ruler de­cided to go with In­dia rather than Pak­istan at in­de­pen­dence,” says Hamil­ton be­fore point­ing out that “there’s not a Kash­miri you meet who doesn’t feel that the skies are lift­ing, how­ever tightly they cross their fin­gers and mut­ter about con­tin­ued In­dian oc­cu­pa­tion. Hope is in­fec­tious, which makes it a mar­velous time to go to Kash­mir.”

The skies are in­deed lift­ing. The tourists are back in Kash­mir in their thou­sands, most of them from across In­dia. How­ever, they are a tiny frac­tion of what Kash­mir would and could have been re­ceiv­ing if its true po­ten­tial were tapped. Ashraf and his bosses dreamed of start­ing di­rect in­ter­na­tional flights to Sri­na­gar and turn­ing its heav­ily for­ti­fied air­port into an in­ter­na­tional one. A reg­u­lar visi­tor to Dubai in its boom years, he would end­lessly mar­vel at the emi­rate’s growth and talk of sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion of the Kash­miri econ­omy if the tens of thou­sands of Gulf vis­i­tors, and those from around the world, chose the val­ley for their an­nual va­ca­tion. “Tak­ing a di­rect flight to Sri­na­gar from Dubai or Jed­dah...it would be so much cheaper and bet­ter than go­ing to Europe or (the) Far East,” he would rea­son.

A decade on, that dream re­mains a dream. Kash­mir’s yearn­ing for change – at least on the tourism and econ­omy front – is re­peat­edly frus­trated by the harsh geopo­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties that have made this paradise a pris­oner all these years. Ashraf re­tired a bit­ter and frus­trated man, con­clud­ing that no mat­ter how hard the Kash­miris tried they couldn’t es­cape their re­al­ity. Their present and fu­ture re­main hostage to their past. Af­ter decades of ef­forts and per­sua­sion, the In­dian gov­ern­ment fi­nally ac­corded the ‘in­ter­na­tional’ sta­tus to Sri­na­gar air­port in 2005 with Congress pres­i­dent So­nia Gandhi re­ceiv­ing the first ‘in­ter­na­tional’ flight in Sri­na­gar in Fe­bru­ary 2009 amid much fan­fare. One swal­low, how­ever, does not make a sum­mer. And one weekly flight to a for­eign des­ti­na­tion does not make Sri­na­gar an in­ter­na­tional air­port, as Ashraf points out. Even that lone Air In­dia flight from Dubai was dis­con­tin­ued within six months.

Nearly a decade ago, when I had vis­ited Kash­mir from Dubai aboard an In­dian Air­lines flight, I had to stop over in Delhi for the night and wait un­til af­ter­noon the next day be­fore I could move to a dingy do­mes­tic air­port for the Sri­na­gar via Jammu flight. Lit­tle has changed since even though Sri­na­gar air­port to­day calls it­self ‘in­ter­na­tional.’

“Sri­na­gar in­ter­na­tional air­port is a joke played on Kash­miris by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment,” says Ashraf. Al­though he’s happy with the fact that, thanks to the rel­a­tively “set­tled po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions” in the state and near end of in­sur­gency in the past few years, the tourism sec­tor is limp­ing back to nor­malcy, he points out that the “high end tourism” that brings in real rev­enues still skips Kash­mir.

“Our main hand­i­cap apart from the im­age of an un­safe des­ti­na­tion is the lack of di­rect con­nec­tiv­ity to in­ter­na­tional air routes. To visit Kash­mir to­day for­eign­ers have to pay an add-on fare from Delhi to Sri­na­gar and back,” not to men­tion the phys­i­cal in­con­ve­nience of stopovers and end­less wait­ing hours, he ar­gues. So what gives? What are we afraid of? Why are di­rect in­ter­na­tional flights to Sri­na­gar still a no-no for a gov­ern­ment headed by a lib­eral econ­o­mist? Es­pe­cially when the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion over the past few years has dra­mat­i­cally im­proved and the ‘in­fil­tra­tion’ from across the bor­der has also to­tally stopped, ac­cord­ing to Delhi’s own ad­mis­sion.

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