Modi Wants to Bring Tourists Back to Kashmir
India’s government wants to turn the war-torn region into a renewed tourist hot spot.
Kashmir’s natural beauty is undeniable, as I learned on my first visit 25 summers ago. Glistening waterfalls spill from craggy, snowcapped Himalayan peaks. Stylish wooden shikaras glide soundlessly across the mirrored surface of Dal Lake, past diving kingfishers, soaring eagles, towering cliffs, and fields of wildflowers.
When the owner of the houseboat I stayed in gave me a hat to wear on the boat’s sunny rooftop, I noticed an inky scrawl on the inside. I lived in downtown New York City at the time and was stunned to find, looking closer, a note from fellow downtowner, rock god Lou Reed.
Yet Kashmir has been drawing famed visitors for eons. Four centuries ago, Mughal Emperor Jahangir fell so hard for Kashmir that he built a vast garden for his wife beside the Dal and named it Shalimar (“abode of love”). It’s a popular attraction today, as is a nearby seven-terraced garden and palace built by his son, Shah Jahan, shortly after gifting the world the Taj Mahal.
Hoping to highlight such glories, India has rolled out the red carpet for this week’s G-20 summit in Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s northernmost region. More than 100 delegates from dozens of countries are set to attend the tourism-focused conference, along with the guest of honor, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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This is Kashmir’s first turn in the international spotlight in nearly four decades, perhaps since India battled Australia in a one-day cricket match in late 1986. Kashmiri separatists started crossing into Pakistan for military training after the next year’s election, and by 1990 the insurgency had begun.
Some 60,000 people have since been killed in the insurgency as Kashmir has become one of the world’s most heavily militarized regions, host to around 600,000 Indian troops. The violence had largely subsided by the time Jammu and Kashmir lost its statehood in August 2019, when the Modi government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had granted the region a measure of autonomy.
New Delhi’s thinking behind the revocation—which also separated Jammu and Kashmir from Ladakh to the east, creating two union territories—was that the time had come to economically integrate Kashmir. “Give us five years and we will make it the most developed state in the country,” Home Minister Amit Shah said, announcing the move
Four years later, there are signs of progress. Militant recruitment has plummeted, and the regular street protests led by rock pelters are largely a thing of the past. The region welcomed nearly 19 million visitors in 2022 and is on pace for more than 20 million this year.
Srinagar has lately been spiffed up with refurbished sidewalks and footpaths and new street lights displaying the Indian tricolor flag. Along the shores of Dal Lake, beside Shah Jahan’s garden, the conference center hosting the event has been given a $1 million makeover.
This dovetails with other significant developments. Massive billboards promote a $366 million smart-city project that seeks to transform streets, parking, pedestrian areas, and more. Last September, the Kashmir Valley enjoyed its first commercial film showings in more than 15 years with the opening of a three-screen multiplex (Indian security forces have commandeered most of Srinagar’s old cinema houses to use as barracks and detention centers). In addition, Dubai’s Emaar Group plans to build a $60 million shopping center in Srinagar.
A bit farther afield, the government is working on a $1 billion, nearly 9-mile tunnel on the Srinagar-Leh highway that will shorten the drive time to Ladakh and is expected to reduce accidents and boost tourism. And the world’s highest railway bridge, over the Chenab River some 50 miles south of Srinagar and set for completion later this year, will finally give Kashmir a reliable year-round link to the rest of India.
The rub, however, is that the conflict is far from over: Kashmir remains a disputed and deeply unstable flash point for three nuclear-armed powers—China, Pakistan, and India—and its people face severe restrictions of movement and expression imposed by New Delhi.
While its ally China claims part of Ladakh, Pakistan has claimed Kashmir as its own since the country’s founding, along with that of India, in the Partition of 1947. Those two states have fought three conflicts over the region, the most recent in 1999, and last month Pakistan denounced India’s G-20 meet in Srinagar as “irresponsible” and “self-serving.”
Separatist violence has spiked as the summit has neared. In late April, militants assaulted an Indian military convoy near the Line of Control—the de facto border dividing India- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir—killing five soldiers. A Pakistan-backed terror group claimed that attack, and two weeks later likely mounted another that killed five more Indian troops.
Despite beefed up security and drone surveillance in preparation for the G-20, Kashmir saw four gun battles between militants and security forces in the first week of May. More recently, another gun fight broke out, and the Indian Army reported an infiltration attempt from Pakistan. Growing destabilization in neighboring Pakistan may be spilling over into Kashmir as the Pakistani military seeks to upset its rival’s plans.
As India’s only Muslim-majority region, Kashmir is largely free from the local anti-Muslim aggressions that are increasingly common in much of India under Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. But violence there does sometimes go in the other direction. Following several killings of local Hindus early this year in northwest Jammu along the Line of Control, the Indian government established armed citizen militias that patrol villages in the area.
Most G-20 powers, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France, have issued travel warnings on Kashmir, advising citizens not to visit. It’s not just about the threat of separatist violence; crime has festered amid the instability. As of March, Kashmir ranks second nationally—up from fifth in 2022—in drug abuse. The Kashmir Valley may be emerging as a drug hub, with regular drug-related violence and seizures along the border. Human trafficking is also surging, up 16 percent last year, with women the main target.
As a result, investment in Kashmir is down 55 percent since Article 370’s revocation, according to government data. This is unlikely to surprise locals who have been dealing with rising unemployment, now India’s third-highest rate. Such struggles and stressors are old hat in the valley. Nearly half of all Kashmiri adults have some form of mental disorder, and 9 out of 10 have experienced conflict-related trauma, according to a 2015 Doctors Without Borders study.
A December 2022 New York Times article highlighted Kashmir’s new normal, predicated on “a heavy military presence that is quick to jail dissenting voices” and “no avenues for democratic expression.” When it revoked Article 370, the Modi government vowed to return democracy to Kashmir after a period of central administration. But top local politicians remain under house arrest, and Kashmir has yet to hold an election.
Army checkpoints are ubiquitous and locals need to watch what they say, where they say it, and to whom. In early May, the Indian government blocked more than a dozen chat apps it said separatist locals were using to communicate with Pakistan. And nearly a dozen Kashmiri journalists and activists are behind bars, including Khurram Parvez, winner of this year’s Martin Ennals human rights prize, and Fahad Shah, founding editor of Kashmir Walla.
The United Nations’ special rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, last week accused India of using the G-20 to normalize the “brutal and repressive denial of democratic and other rights of Kashmiri Muslims and minorities.”
Even so, the Modi government has created a sense of optimism in Kashmir and beyond. India took over the G-20 presidency in December, and last month became the world’s most populous country, overseeing the fifth-largest economy. New defense and tech deals with the United States, in contrast to China’s unsettling spy balloons and saber rattling with Taiwan, left some analysts wondering if this might be the decade, perhaps even the century, of India.
The U.S. State Department recently reiterated Washington’s stance that Kashmir is a matter for India and Pakistan to resolve. Yet as in past decades, U.S.-made weapons have lately turned up in Kashmir: M4s and M16s left behind by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan were presumably found by the Taliban and given to militants in Pakistan.
Despite the uptick in violence, some U.S. officials see the G-20 as a potential game-changer. Former Rhode Island state Rep. Robert Lancia, who is now running for U.S. Senate and plans to attend, expects the event to be a milestone that “will pave the way for lasting peace and prosperity.”
Much like business leaders, government officials tend to minimize negatives and accentuate positives. But India seems to have gone a step further, turning its G-20 presidency into an ad campaign for its growing clout. One wonders if New Delhi is now hoping to marginalize Kashmiris in an effort to peddle a Potemkin village.
“The revocation of Article 370 and the state’s subsequent downgrading to a union territory alienated the people tremendously,” said Mohamed Zeeshan, political analyst and author of Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership.
He fears the Modi government may be in too much of a hurry to develop Kashmir. “The danger now is in looking for quick-fix solutions—that always backfires,” added Zeeshan. “You want to look at this as a marathon rather than a sprint, because building trust takes years.”
David Lepeska is a veteran journalist who lived in India and Kashmir for most of 2006 to 2009 and is the author of the forthcoming book Desiccated Land: An American in Kashmir. Twitter: @dlepeska
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