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India: Srinagar, four years later
  • Srinagar
Srinagar, four years later. Four years since, on August 5, 2019, in what is widely described as a veritable coup d'état, the government in New Delhi had, by a brilliant technical expedient, swept away Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that enshrined the autonomy of the state of Jammu&Kashmir. Thus creating two Union Territories, Jammu&Kashmir and Ladakh, and wiping out in one fell swoop a conniving and corrupt political class and the 'disputed region' status of Kashmir. Simplifying greatly, if the state of Kashmir no longer exists, neither does the 'disputed region': disputed by Pakistan, which, it should be remembered, having illegally occupied half of Kashmir and later ceded part of it to China, on Kashmir continues to base much of its foreign policy and remotely continued to pilot for some thirty years a series of assorted jihadi groups that over time had mutated the region into a veritable war zone. Garrisoned by the Indian Army, subject to curfews so frequent they kept schools and stores closed for much of the year. The prophets of the jihad word had done the rest, opening fundamentalist madrasas financed with Pakistani and Saudi money, closing libraries, cinemas, theaters and art galleries, threatening musicians and actors, throwing paint and sometimes acid at girls who refused to wear the hijab. Cut off from development, from the rest of the country and the rest of the world, Kashmir had found itself economically on its knees. The lack of jobs, prospects and distractions had spawned a class of angry young people who clung to backward Islamism and armed struggle not out of conviction but only to protest against the government and the status quo, without even grasping the contradiction in terms that followed: they invoked the Internet, cinemas, theaters and shopping malls, in the name of a verb that denied all these things. Dark years or, as we would say, years of lead. From which there seemed to be no way out, especially when the abolition of Article 370 was followed by 'spontaneous protests' in which, however, instead of Kashmiri flags, Isis flags were flown, and when Pakistan had begun to invoke freedom for Kashmir, apropos and mostly out of hand, from every international platform. Counting, evidently, on the base of local jihadi trained over the years to act as needed and on maintaining the perennial state of war. Instead, surprisingly, India turned the table. And Islamabad discovered that no one wants to be free of freedom and a growing economy, and that, to put it somewhat crudely, no one makes a revolution if they have a full belly. In fact, four years later, Srinagar looks like a different world than before. A world in which the G20 Tourism Ministers' G20 was held in May without the slightest problem. A world of stores open and finally full of customers, of packed hotels with prices now skyrocketing, of house boats booked for a year and shikhara (the local boats) cheerfully carrying around droves of vacationers. Of luxury hotels and restaurants. And it affects not only Srinagar, but all the rest of Kashmir. Beginning with Baramulla, a town that has risen to the headlines only ever on the occasion of shootings, massacres and attacks. Baramulla has a 31-year-old mayor now. A boy who grew up in the leaden years who, like his entire generation, he says, can't take it anymore. All he wants is a normal life, and as mayor he fights for it. "People, ordinary people, have no idea what Article 370 was. All they want to discuss with the government, the problems they have, are jobs, government jobs. But this is our internal problem. What about Pakistan, what about the international community? Young people want jobs, they want peace. If this move by the government has brought and will bring investment to Kashmir, it is welcome. Although I don't vote BJP, and I am politically opposed to this government." And investment, truth be told, has come. Even from the UAE, which is investing in shopping malls, and, it is said, even from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which will follow suit. Quite a difference, compared to the serial madrasas. Meanwhile, the region's traditional exports are flourishing again: apples, cherries, almonds, saffron, lavender and even cricket equipment. Plus the 'usual' pashmina shawls, inlaid wood and painted paper mache artifacts, and an unexpected Cheddar cheese company. Gulmarg's golf courses and ski slopes are once again accessible, and taken by storm. Left to defend the human rights of Kashmiris, burdened with hordes of tourists and thriving business, are only two champions of human rights like Pakistan and China and a few sad and melancholy figures, in Srinagar, who make a living by taking foreign journalists around and telling them how miserable the lives of Kashmiris are: why it is better to be dead, than to live in prosperity but under 'the Indian yoke. China and Pakistan, on the other hand, cannot abdicate their roles: China because it has been trying for years to push the Belt and Road Initiative across Kashmiri borders, Pakistan because, without the enemy at its doorstep and without Kashmir to 'recapture' (P.S. Kashmir has never been part of Pakistan) it loses its raison d'être. Or rather, the army in Islamabad loses its main raison d'être: it is no coincidence that every Pakistani premier or president who has ventilated any opening on the matter has been taken out, symbolically or materially. And yet, now, as they used to say, the base, the hard core, is missing. Kashmiri kids are much more interested in becoming Influencers on Instagram or playing in garages than in making revolution. And you can feel it. Indian troops on the ground are still there, but people's perceptions have changed: they are no longer the enemy, but something to prevent yet another bomb blast or the famous 'pilgrim shooting' on Hindus who visit the Amarnath shrine in the summer. "The Indian attack on the Jaish-i-Mohammed training camp in Balakot sent a strong message. The abolition of Article 370, but more importantly, the wave of investment and openness that followed, did the rest," claims a senior local official. "The perception has changed, the atmosphere has changed. Before, to go to the office, I had four established routes that were constantly changing depending on the day. Now, I take the car and go alone by the shortest route. And if I'm late, they know it was traffic and not a bomb that slowed me down." Of course, the guard still remains high. Infiltration from across the border has not ceased entirely, and there have been sporadic incidents of violence. The most serious last April, just after Pakistan's (acting) foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, put on yet another show in Goa during an international summit. The intervention by Bilawal, in that role only because he was the son of the late Benazir, had not been about any international issue but only about the freedom of Kashmiris: not those in Azad Kashmir put in jail for blasphemy or forcibly conscripted by the Jaish-i-Mohammed, but those in India. Immediately after that, strangely enough, there was an attack in Poonch against the security forces. In the end, says a well-known intellectual, "It all comes down to the usual clash of cultures. One, on the other side of the border, that continues to allow people like Lashkar-i-Toiba chief Mohammed Hafiz Saeed to thunder that 'the Kashmir issue can only be resolved in one way: jihad, jihad, jihad.' And the other that instead in Kashmir exports tourists, investment and development." Bets are being opened on the outcome.
Francesca Marino