Condemned by the past
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.