Indian-administered Kashmir, a mainly Muslim corner of a Hindu majority nation, was in the grip of a violent separatist insurgency when Andrew Whitehead first reported from there for the BBC in the 1990s. He’s gone back regularly, but his latest visit was his first for several years, and prompted him to reflect on what’s changed, and what hasn’t, over the period he’s known the Kashmir valley:
The flight into Kashmir was full – of Indian tourists. Every seat taken, and an air of holiday excitement. What a change from twenty years ago. Then, amid the separatist insurgency and equally brutal Indian army response, no one took the plane to Srinagar for pleasure. This time I came across scores of holiday makers strolling along Dal Lake and visiting the beauty spots. At a shop on Polo View, I queued behind a family from Delhi who spent seven-thousand rupees, a hundred dollars, on Kashmiri walnuts and almonds to take home with them. The number of Indian tourists, there are far fewer foreigners, has been edging up year-by-year as the violence has eased – so much so, I heard tell there’s been an appeal for Kashmiris to offer home stays, because of a shortage of rooms in hotels and on houseboats. In the nineties, even if there had been any Indian holiday makers, they would never have felt at ease in a Kashmiri home.
On my drive in from the airport, I spotted another sign of Kashmir’s bounce back – huge mansions being built on the outskirts of Srinagar. The place has always had more of an air of prosperity than many north Indian cities, and – while there’s certainly poverty and deprivation – some Kashmiris are now doing very well indeed. And not just in the city. At a saffron growing village just outside Srinagar, every house was lavishly appointed – sprawling, two or three storeys, not the sort of opulence I’d expected in rural Kashmir. And security? Well, what was once one of the most militarised spots on earth is now much more lightly guarded. There are bunkers and checkpoints, but many fewer than in the 90s – in Srinagar at least. I walked round the city at close of day with a colleague who has spent many years in Pakistan – we browsed at the paper stalls, said hello to the women selling fish on one of the bridges, and chatted to a teenager as we walked along the banks of the Jhelum river. He was astonished – Srinagar today, he said, felt safer than Islamabad or any other Pakistani city.
But it would be wrong to imagine that Kashmir has found peace. The numbers killed in the troubles amount to perhaps one-in-fifty of the valley’s adult population – a huge proportion when set aside, say, Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka. It’s still a society in trauma.
A Kashmiri who was a teenager when the armed separatism erupted said that in some areas, perhaps half the young men came to be embroiled in some manner in the militancy. A younger, upper class Kashmiri told me how his parents had sent him out of the valley to a boarding school, because it was safer. “The other kids there, Punjabis mainly, nicknamed me AK-47”, he said with a thin, resentful smile. He supports continued Indian rule. He’s in a minority. One Kashmiri intellectual whose opinion I respect ventured that for every Kashmiri who backs India there are three who favour Pakistan – and that both these camps are outnumbered by supporters of Kashmir’s independence.
Young Kashmiris may not be taking up guns, but the killing of scores of stone throwing but otherwise unarmed anti-India demonstrators by the security forces in the summer of 2010 reforged a burning sense of resentment. At a new university, the Islamic University of Science and Technology – both faculty and students told me there was nothing Islamic about it beyond the name – young men and women explained, in calm and considered tones, why the ebbing of the militancy doesn’t mean that Kashmiris feel any more Indian, why they remain unreconciled to Indian rule.
On my initial visits to Kashmir all those years ago, I used to see quite a bit of a bookish young man called Umar Farooq. He was then in his early twenties, and had recently assumed the role – on his father’s assassination - of Srinagar’s Muslim chief priest. He was a leading separatist. He still is. I called again at his home near Nageen lake. The years have been kind to him, more kind than they have been to the cause he champions. The reduced level of violence was no bad thing, he said. But if the armed militancy hadn’t worked, neither had India’s military presence. The young were even more alienated today, and the mood of resistance was still very strong.
So much has changed in Kashmir. So much remains the same.