Kashmir’s image problem persists - despite visible changes on the ground

These fault lines can be repaired by greater societal interaction – holding roadshows to attract tourists is one thing, but arranging inter-community interactions between Kashmiris and social groups in the rest of the country to dispel the mutual distrust is quite another one. The work is yet to begin on this front

Arun Joshi Sep 08, 2022
Kashmir’s image problem persists (Photo: Twitter)

Kashmir is “terror-free!” This oft-repeated statement by the government seeks to convey that the Valley, haunted by terrorist violence for the past three decades, has come out of its bad times. This argument is validated by a no-holds-barred operation against terrorists and the ecosystem in which they thrive. This hard approach to terrorism has certainly yielded results.

Kashmir is moving out of the shadows of terrorism and its overarching net of life-crippling violence and is now looking at normalcy in the real-time world. It is palpable - normal life has gained a greater degree of certainty; people are going about their daily chores without any fear of disruptions of yesteryears. Children are back to school and, more importantly, they are undertaking small journeys for picnicking to tourist resorts, watching in awe the hordes of tourists, adding to the sense of normal times. Tourists have come flocking to Kashmir from all over India. 

This year the Valley has recorded unprecedented tourist footfall. Official estimates put the tourist arrivals at 1.3 million plus to date.  They have enjoyed the beauty, and hospitality of Kashmir, have done intense shopping, and returned home with lifetime memories of this  “paradise on earth.”.  The locals endorse this view of the officials, as they also compliment the government for bringing about this pleasant change, in which tourists felt safe and spread by word of mouth about the place and its attractions. 

Thriving tourism in a changed Kashmir

The tourism sector enriched the economy. There are almost 700,000 people in the Valley, directly or indirectly dependent upon tourism – hoteliers,  transport operators,  artisans and fruit and dry fruit sellers. This is also beyond the economy. It is not all about the economy and eye-pleasing scenes, but a message that Kashmir has changed and is open to new ventures which were considered taboo not long ago because of the restrictions on trade, land and investment, imposed by the terror-filled atmosphere. Now, these clouds of uncertainty have started disappearing.

There, however, is an irritant. Kashmir’s changed situation is not accepted by many in the country as a land liberated from terrorism. For them, the Valley is the same as it was in the 1990s – when Hindu Pandits had to flee from the place because of the terrorism that killed them and forced their exodus, which is yet to get reversed even after more than three decades of their migration from the land of their ancestors. Based on this, they have formed a particular view about the place and the people – a land of terrorists from where no good can flow for the country. They cite the TV view of the bloody images to substantiate their thesis. Their thinking, and prism of looking at things, is through the world view of frenzied anchors on TV channels locked in a war of their own making to gain eyeballs for their channels. 

Two contrasting narratives are getting played out: one based on the fast-changing situation, which can be appreciated only by those who have seen the 1990s in Kashmir when normalcy was an act of treason by armed terror groups and their overground workers.  The disruption in life was a mark of the strength of what they used to call the resistance movement against the Indian state with guns and bombs. The fear was used to halt life in its tracks.  The bustling city of Srinagar used to turn into a ghost town by afternoon even when there was no curfew or call for shutdown. The air was filled with terror and fear.

A diametrically opposite stream of thought and articulation is that all this is temporary, as the land is still not willing to accept  "Indians” from other parts of the country. They view it through the prism of the plight of Kashmiri Pandits who had to migrate in the early 1990s  because of the constant fear of getting killed, targeted, and harassed because they were faced with the resistance campaign that the terrorists had launched with  Pakistan’s backing. 

They have also got yet another point in their armoury. A recent announcement by the  Election Commission that “ordinarily residing” citizens in J&K would be entitled to enrol as voters, and cast their votes in the assembly polls, has evoked a near-unanimous strong reaction from Kashmir’s locals and political parties. They are unwilling to accept that, with the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the election laws have changed and the people from other parts of the country working in J&K have this right. They want to maintain the same position as was before the end of the special status of  J&K prior to August 5, 2019. It has triggered a 'us versus they' narration.

But perceptions need to change

Kashmiris experience this negative opinion about them when the students studying outside Kashmir are often harassed, and also when they are denied rented accommodation. This has created mutual distrust. The government, despite its successes in changing the situation in Kashmir, has not been able to neutralize the misperception about Kashmir. The targeted killings,  especially that of the minority communities in recent months, have created fresh misgivings.  These killings are not seen as acts of terror by gun-wielding terrorists but they blame the entire people for the tragedies.

The government has not been able to dispel all the wrong impressions about the valley- it is one thing to say and claim that Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is dying, but to reinforce Kashmir’s image as a peaceful place where Indians have nothing to fear is quite different. Kashmir is tagged as the land of terrorists by these sections, without realizing the consequences that their thinking and articulation can entail for the nation.

This affects the government efforts in two ways - one, there are vociferous elements reluctant to accept the changed reality despite having partnered with Kashmir, like other places, in contributing to tourism and tapping other areas of normalcy. Second, this tag hurts the local populace that nurtures doubts about themself in the overall prism of India, as they feel that India despite the constitutional changes is not willing to accept them as normal citizens of the country.

These fault lines can be repaired by greater societal interaction – holding roadshows to attract tourists is one thing, but arranging inter-community interactions between Kashmiris and social groups in the rest of the country to dispel the mutual distrust is quite another one. The work is yet to begin on this front.

The government should encourage social and even religious groups to engage on their own without making their efforts visible, as its goals of achieving peace and harmony in Kashmir depend to a large extent on a better perception of Kashmir and its people with those from other parts of the country.

(The author is a senior journalist and author based in Jammu and Kashmir. Views are personal. He can be reached at ajoshi57@gmail.com)

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