Peace, tourism and political games in Kashmir

The recent push for tourism in the region may be more political than previously thought.

While praise is heaped on tourism, its actual contribution to Kashmir's economy is unknown [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

For a second summer in a row, the Indian establishment and media are agog with Kashmir’s bumper tourism season.

The heavy inflow of tourists, after a gap of 23 years, when India had practically sealed off Kashmir to the outside world, is interpreted as a loss of popular appetite in Kashmir for dissident politics. The constant refrain is that the Kashmiri dissidents, who don’t accept Kashmir’s union with India as final, no longer command the popular support they did a couple of years back. The inability of the dissident leaders to mobilise Kashmiris on the scale as in 2008 and 2010, when hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris rose up against Indian rule, defying severe clampdowns, braving bullets and teargas canisters, is also portrayed as a sign of the transforming political climate in Kashmir.

While it is evident that recently Kashmir hasn’t seen mass demonstrations that marked the 2008 summer protests or the intifada-style street confrontations that marked the summer of 2010, the assumption that Kashmiris have either reconciled to a future with India or believe tourism will obviate their long-lasting political demand – that of right to self-determination – is spurious.

The actual reason behind the ostensible calm is that intense police and paramilitary crackdowns have muzzled Kashmiri protests. The government keeps tight tabs on dissident activities. Hundreds of political activists are behind bars. Those who are not jailed are either restricted from moving from their localities or kept under round-the-clock house arrest. Strict restrictions are imposed and public spaces cordoned off to preempt public meetings and rallies.

Ordinary Kashmiris also face the repressive state apparatus, and live under the constant threat of violence, incarceration and humiliation. Hundreds of Kashmiri youth, many in their early teens, who are seen as potential street organisers, are constantly on police radar. They are often cornered on slight pretexts and slapped with draconian laws, like the Public Safety Act, which allows authorities to keep them in jail without trial for months.

Additionally, the infrastructure for military control that was built up during the years of heightened counter-insurgency operations has remained quite pervasive. An estimated 700,000 Indian soldiers in Kashmir are spread out among the civilian population and have turned the region into a tightly controlled grid.

Hindu pilgrims on a journey of faith in Kashmir. Click to see more pictures [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

The military has shown no inclination to withdraw. Ironically, therefore, in spite of claims of change in the political climate and a precipitous drop in Kashmiri armed rebel activity – admitted openly even by the Indian army commanders in the region – the longstanding security build-up has continued. Even the representatives of the loyalist local government find themselves in an embarrassing situation of being unable to convince New Delhi to withdraw the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been held responsible for widespread human rights violations.

This irony is a tacit admission that “peace” in Kashmir is an enforced calm.

After the 2008 summer protests, local elections conducted later that year were also interpreted by India’s Kashmir experts to be marking a turnaround in the popular mood in Kashmir – an interpretation that was deflated in 2010, when even bigger protests shook Kashmir.

Why euphoria?

The actual significance of tourism for Kashmir’s economy remains unknown. Siddhartha Prakash, an Indian scholar, has pointed out in “Political Economy of Kashmir since 1947” that in 1987, the last big season before the violence started, tourism accounted for “approximately 10 per cent of the state’s income”. During the next 23 years of violence, tourism contributed virtually nothing to Kashmir’s economy. Before 1987, international tourists constituted a significant portion of those visiting Kashmir. They spent on high-end handicraft products and, with lesser cultural inhibitions (food taboos, for instance), on local small businesses, like restaurants. Although tourism is a one season activity, cash from the summers circulated within a small segment of the local population.

“If they criticise the unregulated influx of tourists, the establishment blames them for trying to ruin the livelihoods of Kashmiris.”

Over the last few years, the composition of tourism has changed. This year’s estimates suggest that despite close to a million people who have visited so far less than 20,000 are international tourists. With packaged tours organised from New Delhi or Jammu (a city outside the Kashmir valley), the little money budgeted Indian middle-class tourists spend largely circulates outside of Kashmiri reach. Most Indian tourists are Hindus, who rarely eat in Muslim-owned restaurants, neither are they known to buy high-end handicraft products. There is an even smaller economic advantage to Kashmir from the hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims who visit the Amarnath cave shrine in the region’s southeast. If anything the huge influx of people from the Indian plains puts the ecologically fragile pilgrim route in great peril, with drastic potential environmental consequences.

In reality, the ramped up tourism and pilgrimage is not so much about economy, as about shoring up nationalist fervor.

For an Indian visitor to Kashmir an entire spectrum of signs, images and discourses fills his baggage of desire and expectations. Whether as a tourist, a traveller or a journalist, Kashmir lifts the visitor out of the complexities of the Indian popular politics and lands him within the simple binaries of Indian nationalism.

Coming to Kashmir is like a nationalist pilgrimage, where, alongside pleasure trips to its verdant valleys, the tourist connects spiritually with the so-called “idea of India”. The more Indians make the trip, the harder the nation integrates. The burgeoning number of middle-class Indians that have been visiting Kashmir, as tourists or as pilgrims, over the last few years, reinforces Kashmir in the popular imagination as “the integral part” of the Indian state’s “sacred” territoriality.

Cultural projections

John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing, argues: “The way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe.”

The tourist knows and believes what he has read from history textbooks written by nationalist historians, what he has seen in the cinema, what he has heard from popular hagiographies of the founding leaders of postcolonial India.

It is, indeed, writings of leaders, like Nehru, who established the first rarified prisms through which to look at, and desire Kashmir. The Indian mainstream cinema then popularised this prism and produced Kashmir as a “territory of desire” – an image coined by author Ananya Jahanara Kabir of territory bereft of its people, and their deep cultural traditions and political struggles. Huma Dar, whose scholarly work traverses the cinematic strategies deployed in the Indian nationalist “fetishisation” of Kashmir, argues in “Cinematic Strategies for a Porno-tropic Kashmir and Some Counter Archives” that there is:

A complete and excessive focus on the “natural” parts of the valley that show no or minimum signs of indigenous human habitation… (a) resolute centering of Hindu temples and Hindu ruins in Kashmir…foregrounding anything but Kashmiri Islam and Muslims.

Apart from these deeper ideological efforts that turn Kashmir from a territorial borderland into a nationalist heartland, the Indian nationalist discourse about Kashmir is translated into catchy signs and images, which become part of everyday education in nationalism.

So, when the Indian visitor comes to Kashmir, in buses and cars on the road that connects the country with Kashmir, he is reminded of his importance to the national project by the thousands of signs placed along the route that read “Kashmir is India’s crown”, “Kashmir is India’s atoot ang (integral part)”, “Welcome to the abode of Baba Amarnath” (a Hindu deity), or even more deceptively “Love Kashmir, love India”. As he glances from majestic peaks and deep gorges to these signs, the visitor also learns the importance of Kashmir to the Indian nationhood. Those who arrive by plane escape some of this schooling, but their flight from India’s hot plains into the cool, lush mountains is just a momentary trance, which is interrupted as soon as the plane lands at the heavily – fortified airport-cum-military base in Srinagar. 

Tourists are hastily driven off to lakeside hotels or houseboats in Srinagar or to mountain valleys and meadows, where they don’t see or hear about the violence – scarred life of Kashmiri people. Confronting a local Kashmiri brings into play the perceptual training that has gone into portraying natives as the dangerous “Other”, who needs to be kept under control if Kashmir is to be retained as part of India, while the figure of the Indian soldier and the military camps every few hundred metres reassures the tourist.

To see Kashmiris as the “Other” makes the violations of their human and political rights, and the daily humiliation of living under occupation, invisible and inaudible. But as Berger points out: “To look is an act of choice”, and like dialogue, “seeing is a reciprocal act. Soon after we see. We can be sure that we are also being seen”.

So, despite the delightful vistas that Kashmir offers, the Indian visitor confronts an “Other”, who is hospitable, but nevertheless resents the visitor; who refuses to assimilate into the latter’s nationalism and deconstructs the Indian nationalist version of history with his dismissive waves of hand, as he drives his lecturing tourists to their houseboats or up the mountains. The native sees the Indian tourist as a foreigner and mockingly looks on as the tourist socialises with soldiers and takes pictures with them. For the Kashmiri, the Indian soldier is not a friend. He is the threatening, ubiquitous figure of occupation.

Old labels

Dissident Kashmiri leaders understand the ideological motives behind the discourse around tourism. They understand reasons behind the extension of pilgrimage time from the traditional 15 days to two months and from a few thousands pilgrims to hundreds of thousands. But if they criticise such policies, they are labeled communal Islamists. If they criticise the unregulated influx of tourists, the establishment blames them for trying to ruin the livelihoods of Kashmiris.

With the international community reluctant to put pressure on India (and missing out on a potential market for their goods and capital) and Pakistan, the traditional backer of the Kashmiri resistance movement, facing internal troubles of its own, the dissidents and ordinary Kashmiris are beleaguered.

With pervasive military governance, founded on the logic of repression of dissent in Kashmir, and the political stalemate looking to continue in the foreseeable future, the building resentment appears ready to break into another spiral of violence and death. Enforced calm and the discourse around tourism, rather than achieving a political resolution, are just adding fuel to that fire.

Mohamad Junaid is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the Graduate Centre, City University of New York. His research focuses on issues of space, violence and militarisation in Kashmir.