Kashmir’s Fragile Calm: Tensions Take Backseat to Tourism

Kashmir's reputation as an idyllic vale has taken a battering over decades of separatist insurgency and brutal crackdowns by the Indian military. But, while tensions remain and the quest for justice continues, tourists are flooding back

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Yawar Nazir / Getty Images

Skiers walk in India's famous tourist resort Gulmarg, located just miles from the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, Jan. 28, 2012.

The Saturday crowd at the Gulmarg gondola is a frenetic throng of saddled horses, kulfi stands, groups of students and camera-wielding teenagers. Most of the day-trippers eschew the option to ascend from the Kashmiri hamlet of Gulmarg by foot or horse, preferring instead to buy a ride on the wire to the electric green fields of the Khilanmarg plateau in the Himalayan Pir Panjal range. The metal pods sweep a steady flow of tourists over the tall pines and purple lupine, occasionally swaying to a halt that elicits whoops and whistles from the giddy passengers suspended hundreds of feet in the fresh mountain air.

Tourism is Kashmir is back in full swing, with visitors fleeing to the high valley to escape summer’s heat as a semblance of peace — or at least, less violence — has gingerly settled over these lakes and mountains. Indian operators in high-altitude getaways outside Kashmir — like Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s retreat — which surged in popularity when the conflict was at its worst, are fretting about the loss of business as domestic visitors are returning in droves to the fabled destination. Last year, over a million tourists visited the region, and officials say they’re expecting more than twice that number in 2012.

(PHOTOS: The New ‘Kashmiri Intifadeh)

That’s good news for a region grappling with the combustible combination of lots of young people and not enough jobs. Despite the packed gondolas and the flotillas of supine tourists being paddled around Dal Lake’s glassy waters, the valley’s internecine conflict is never really not there. Since the late 1980s, tens of thousands of people have been killed by a separatist insurgency and India’s ensuing military crackdown. Civilian and military deaths have decreased tremendously since the conflict was at its peak in the mid-1990s, but tensions remain. On June 25, for instance, a 200-year-old Muslim shrine burned down in the capital, Srinagar, sparking protests against the slow response of firefighters that rapidly transformed into violent demonstrations against the Indian state as a whole. Even on uneventful days, security at the local airport is worryingly tight, and, with hundreds of thousands of Indian security forces still stationed around the region, camouflage trucks are ubiquitous on Srinagar’s clogged streets. A woman in Delhi, upon hearing about my weekend getaway to Srinagar, said that even though she grew up spending her summers there, she wouldn’t ever choose to spend a holiday in a place with so many gun-toting soldiers around. “I wouldn’t be able to relax,” she said.

She’s not alone. If Kashmir’s worst days are behind it, the painful act of facing atrocities committed during the bloody conflict still lies ahead. Last August, a report from Jammu and Kashmir’s State Human Rights Commission concluded that over 2,000 unidentified bodies, which the group acknowledged could belong to civilians, had been dumped in dozens of unmarked graves near the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. Residents had long been reporting to police that their family members were disappearing over the years, and for years the answer they got was that they must have slipped over the border into Pakistan to join the fight against India. “For years, Kashmiris have been lamenting their lost loved ones, their pleas ignored or dismissed as the government and army claimed that they had gone to Pakistan to become militants,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said last year as the organization called for an investigation into the deaths. Parvez Imroz, a lawyer whose advocacy sparked the official investigation into the unmarked graves, also has documentation suggesting that, statistically speaking, as many as 1 in 6 Kashmiris has been tortured, according to an article that ran this week in the Guardian.

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On the other hand, for all the justice still to be done, many in Kashmir would probably just as soon forget about it — or at least put off thinking about it for a while and enjoy the sun and ice-cold kulfi. In an April article in the Indian weekly Open called “Sorry, Kashmir Is Happy,” Manu Joseph writes that he met plenty of everyday folks in Kashmir who seemed perfectly happy with the newfound calm. “Trauma in Kashmir is like a heritage building — the elite fight to preserve it,” Joseph writes. “They want the wound of Kashmir to endure because the wound is what indicts India for the many atrocities of its military. This might be a long period of calm, but if the wound vanishes, where is the justice?”

In Gulmarg, a steady stream of hearty souls who prefer to walk trudge uphill under the gondola. Even this high up, it’s hot, and halfway up, my hiking buddy and I take a break under a tree to watch people pass. A student in her school uniform — a plaid tunic, long pants and a headscarf — spots us and bounds over. “Please, can I have some water?” she pants, clutching a few plucked flowers and a small portable radio playing a scratchy tune. I hand her a bottle and she tips her head back to take a long, cold gulp. “Where are you from?” she then asks, still breathless. “Canada,” says my friend. The girl’s eyes widen briefly. “Well,” she says with certainty and a whiff of pride, “I’m from Kashmir.” And with that, she hops back onto the trail, leans into the slope and runs up. If kids like her are in charge someday, things might just be O.K.

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