‘Pearl of Kashmir’ sees fragile tourist revival
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Peace is slowly returning to Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir. For more than twenty years, this city of the Himalayas, nicknamed "the pearl of Kashmir" or "the Asian Switzerland", was plagued by violence and a separatist insurgency supported by neighbouring Pakistan, killing tens of thousands of people and scaring away tourists.
In 1990, the Indian government declared a state of emergency in Kashmir and issued a special act of law allowing one million soldiers to be deployed across the state. It equipped them with emergency powers to conduct large-scale search and detention operations. Purportedly, the Special Act was put in place to quell a separatist insurgency, backed in part by India’s arch rival and neighbour Pakistan. Many civil liberties were suspended, and the streets of Srinagar were transformed into a battleground that grabbed the world’s attention. Twenty-five years later, our reporters returned to Kashmir to offer a glimpse of the legendary valley of Srinagar, which is undergoing an important socio-economic revival.
The day we began filming in Srinagar, a curfew was declared in many parts of the city. A few days before, a young man had been killed when the paramilitary forces shot tear gas shells to dispel a crowd that had gathered to protest an upcoming visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The day of the curfew, the army was worried about protests over the “accidental” killing turning violent. Despite the curfew, we were able to move around the city quite freely, and even film army checkpoints - something that could have landed us in serious trouble as recently as five years ago.
Over the next few days, we met and filmed a range of people, including a young political cartoonist, an activist and entrepreneur, a houseboat manager reaping the benefits of revived tourism, and a family of Kashmiri Hindus who had moved back to Srinagar after having fled the city 22 years ago. We found, particularly amongst the youth, an overwhelming sense of the injustice that they have been subjected to. There was much conversation about the army’s continued use of violence and oppression, and the limits to freedom of speech in Kashmir.
But there was also hope. A decade ago, as the situation in Kashmir became less violent, tourists had begun to return to the valley, and by the time we began shooting in November 2015, the state had been welcoming over a million tourists for three consecutive years. The return of tourism has not only created a semblance of normality, but also revived the tourism-related economy, which had virtually disappeared during the conflict years.
It’s hard to deny that Kashmiris today enjoy much more freedom than they did even a decade ago, but the presence of the army and the Armed Forces Special Protection Act means that the youth of Kashmir are still not as free as their counterparts in other parts of India. The Indian government has, over the last few years, reduced the number of soldiers deployed in the state, and is even considering a complete repeal of the Special Act. But whether Prime Minister Modi’s conservative, right-wing Hindu government will be bold enough to take measures to withdraw the army is something that remains to be seen.
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