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A Surge in Tourists in Restive Kashmir, but ‘No Mental Peace’ for Residents


SRINAGAR, Kashmir — They come for the biggest tulip garden on the continent. They come for the snow-capped Himalayas. They come for the lakes. They come for the natural beauty that over time has enchanted Hindu kings, Mughal emperors, British colonialists and millions of regular people.

Tourists have returned in droves to Jammu and Kashmir, in what India calls a sign of how it has turned things around in the disputed region, where violent separatists have been active for decades. Three years ago, in a stunning move, India’s Hindu nationalist government cemented control of the Muslim-majority area, saying that would finally bring peace.

“The region was a terrorist hot spot,” Amit Shah, India’s powerful home minister and a key lieutenant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said recently. “Now it has become a tourist hot spot.”

But what lures visitors to the area offers only a brief escape for many residents, who remain stuck in an old cycle of fear, desperation and uncertainty.

At the tulip garden in Srinagar early this summer, Suhail Ahmad Bhat, a fruit seller from the nearby town of Baramulla, was taking in the beauty of a million flowers. “I feel good in the garden. But outside the garden, there is a sense of fear — lots of checkpoints, lots of guns,” Mr. Bhat said. “There is no mental peace.”

Like much of the rest of the world, Kashmir is emerging from the pandemic. But starting in late 2019, it also had to endure a different kind of lockdown, enforced aggressively by the Indian military. A punishing embargo cut off communications to the outside world as New Delhi revoked the state’s semiautonomous status and put local political leaders — even those long friendly to India — under house arrest.

For now, there is a new normal in the Kashmir Valley, the most restive part of the region, according to opposition leaders, analysts, residents and officials, more than a dozen of whom gave interviews. They say it is predicated on a heavy military presence that is quick to jail dissenting voices. With no avenues for democratic expression, many Kashmiris find themselves in the uneasy limbo that exists between a militarized state and militant separatism.

The heavy and constant surveillance has reduced the number of terror attacks, but a wave of assassinations of minority Hindus and the continued recruitment of militants suggest that the root cause of the problem — a separatist militancy that feeds on local grievances about the heavy-handedness of the Indian state — bubbles underneath.

The attacks on the Kashmiri Pandits, the local Hindu community, have forced many families to leave the region in large numbers, a painful reminder of an earlier migration.

The Hindu exodus from Kashmir in the 1990s came during the peak of the separatist militancy. Thousands of people were killed and tourism largely dried up. But as the situation in the valley improved, tourism picked up a decade later.

To bring in more visitors, officials in Srinagar set up the tulip garden in 2007. It is laid out across 30 hectares of land between Dal Lake, which is famous for its houseboats, and the Zabarwan hills. It has flowers in more than a dozen colors, and 68 varieties of tulips — from parade to Texas Gold — that bloom for a month late in the spring.

The garden is again drawing visitors after a recent cease-fire on the nearby Pakistan border, and amid a hunger for post-pandemic travel. The number of tourists in the Kashmir Valley, the government says, has increased to more than two million this year, a threefold jump from the previous year.

“The colors are so beautiful,” said P. Venkateswaran, who was visiting the garden with his wife, Chitra, from the southern city of Bangalore. “It’s magical.”

Shopkeepers and business owners say the reduction in political strikes — a regular feature of Kashmir’s messy politics — and the decline in large-scale violence have meant less disruption to business. But they pointed to a high rate of unemployment and low demand for goods to counter the government’s claims that it had ushered billions of dollars in new investment into the valley.

For Tanveer Khan, a master’s degree in commerce hasn’t helped with job prospects. He now runs a small garment shop, and he sees a bleak future.

“Firing, crackdown, grenades, arrests, bloodshed — I spent my childhood in that,” Mr. Khan said. “I wish my children do not see that life. But I do not see any hope.”

That view was rejected by Altaf Thakur, a spokesman for Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in Jammu and Kashmir. “Fear is almost negligible. Very few militants are left who, like cowards, carry out some targeted acts,” he said, adding that it will take time for the government’s investments to show returns.

“Development is taking place in every village and every town,” he said. “Roads are being constructed, electric lines are being changed, big projects are being constructed.”

In the meantime, free speech in Kashmir has also suffered. Many journalists and activists have been jailed over the past three years, often under laws that make bail difficult to obtain. Others report frequent harassment by the authorities, to the point where some of them have left the valley or abandoned their work.

“It is difficult to work now,” said Parveena Ahanger, who leads an association of parents protesting on behalf of thousands of youths who have disappeared in recent decades. “I am fighting for the past 30 years, I will not leave this fight.”

Kashmir has been disputed between India and Pakistan since the departing British colonial rulers partitioned India into the two countries in 1947. While a part of Kashmir is controlled by Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir joined the Indian union as a state through an agreement that gave it a level of autonomy.

It was this semiautonomous status that Mr. Modi revoked in 2019, fulfilling a longtime wish of his Hindu right-wing support base. The government has divided the former state into two separate “union territories,” Jammu and Kashmir as one, and Ladakh, along the border with China, the other — each directly ruled by separate administrators appointed by New Delhi.

Democracy in the region remains suspended. A challenge to the constitutionality of Mr. Modi’s move continues to go unheard at India’s Supreme Court, which critics say increasingly favors the government. Mr. Modi’s officials say Jammu and Kashmir will get to elect members of the legislative assembly in the future, but it is unclear if and when the status of full statehood in India’s federal system will be restored. One official pointed to the state of Punjab, riven by insurgency in the 1980s, to argue that “nation building” is a slow process and takes time.

“Peace is what every Kashmiri wants, but peace with dignity,” said Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister of Kashmir, who formed the state’s last government in coalition with Mr. Modi’s party. “Not this kind of peace where you are scared to open your mouth.”

Ms. Mufti was among the leaders put under house arrest three years ago. She and several other politicians in Kashmir said the government continued to restrict their movement, parking security vehicles outside their homes and sometimes even putting locks on their gates.

Since New Delhi took control, there has been a significant reduction in infiltration of militants from Pakistan, government data show, and a slight drop in terror incidents. But the number of civilian deaths, about 40 a year, has remained largely unchanged.

Officials in Kashmir have put the number of active militants in the valley below 100.

Lt. Gen. Upendra Dwivedi, the leader of the Indian Army’s northern command, which includes Kashmir, said the support for militancy from across the border now consists of the smuggling of grenades, pistols, and drugs — some of which are dropped by drones that fly over from the Pakistani side.

“Whatever is happening is very little and we are trying to reduce it even further,” he said.

But for many residents, the calm is an uneasy one.

Irfan Abbas, a chartered accountant who was at the tulip garden with a group of friends, was weary of the new normal.

“So much suppression, so much depression,” Mr. Abbas said. “It is like a volcanic situation — it can explode any time.”



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