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The Jehoshua Novels

Paradise regained in Kashmir?

Sanjoy Majumder | Srinagar

BBC – Some centuries ago, a Mughal emperor described Kashmir as paradise on earth.
The past few decades of violence have conspired to make it more like hell. But now Kashmiris are enjoying an unusually peaceful summer and the best tourist season in 15 years.

Indian and Pakistani officials are due to begin peace talks this weekend and Kashmir, which has been at the heart of differences between the two nuclear neighbours, will be top of the agenda.
Many are now hoping the two countries can put aside their differences and work towards a resolution of the long-running conflict.
Smiles return
In the heart of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, is Dal Lake.
This beautiful stretch of water lies between pine forests and the Himalayan foothills.
On a summer evening, tourists make their way to a row of brightly lit and exquisitely crafted houseboats, floating hotels bobbing gently on the water.
Abdul Rashid and his family have owned houseboats for generations.
He takes us on a tour of his boat, through wood-panelled living and dining rooms covered with Kashmiri carpets.
“Our bedrooms are very comfortable and our bathrooms have English fittings,” he says, his lined face crinkling into a smile.
“It’s been busy, very busy.”
After years of conflict, the smile has returned to the face of many Kashmiris.
More than 100,000 tourists, mostly Indians, have visited Kashmir this year compared to less than 20,000 last year.
Stark reminder
In a shop in Srinagar’s main market, Abdul Hamid spreads out brightly coloured shawls in front of an Indian family visiting from Rajasthan.
His voice is gentle but his sales pitch persuasive.
“You will not find quality like this anywhere madam,” he says, running his hand through the richly patterned weave.
“It’s pure Pashmina, 100%.”
Mr Hamid is delighted with the turnover this summer.
“It is fantastic, really good. Many, many people have been visiting Kashmir. The hotels are overflowing and you can’t get seats on flights. As for us, this is the most we’ve sold in 15 years,” he says.
But this is still Kashmir, where militant separatists have been battling Indian forces for decades.
A grenade attack that killed five Indian tourists recently is a stark reminder that violence is never too far away.
But for now, visitors seem undeterred.
Swati and her family are among a group of six adults and three children visiting Kashmir from Delhi and staying at the Royal Mumtaz houseboat.
She laughs at the suggestion that it was too dangerous to come here.
“Attacks can also take place in Delhi isn’t that so? Then why worry?” she asks.
Her husband Nitin chips in.
“We are glad we came. This place is very, very beautiful and everyone has been really warm and welcoming.”
Bus link
On the streets, however, the security forces are still taking no chances.
Captain Rajesh and his men are stopping buses on the main road, asking to see identity papers and frisking passengers.
Nearby, soldiers wearing flak-jackets and armed with automatic rifles keep a vigil from an armoured personnel carrier.
It is a daily ritual that is deeply resented by most Kashmiris.
“We are Kashmiris. Who are they to ask us to show our identity cards?” asks shopkeeper Sheikh Mohammad Yusuf.
Many are hoping the peace talks will change the situation.
One of the plans being discussed is a bus link between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
It is something that many here will welcome.
Riyaz lives in a village high up in the mountains, close to the Line of Control that divides Kashmir.
His cousins live on the other side but he has not seen them for more than 10 years.
“Over there, that’s Pakistani Kashmir,” he tells me, pointing at a similar village on a mountain just a few kilometres in front of us.
“I can see it but I can’t walk across.”
His uncle still finds it painful to talk about his brother who lives in Pakistan.
“We were born in this house but now he lives over there,” he says.
“It’s too difficult and expensive for me to make the journey. First we have to travel to Delhi for our visas and then take the bus or train across.”
Riyaz adds: “We have to travel thousands of kilometres just to make a journey that should not take more than 20 minutes.”
Like many Kashmiris, Riyaz and his uncle are keenly following the talks between India and Pakistan.
They are hoping for a breakthrough that will lead to an eventual family reunion.

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