Finally, waking up to harsh realities

Change of heart in J and K separatist leaders

Tourists going around the tulip garden in Srinagar.

There appears to be a change of heart and that is definitely for the better. The decision of the separatist leaders in Jammu and Kashmir to welcome visitors to the state, which had been caught in the web of militancy for over two decades, has been welcomed by those in the tourism sector. Tourism is virtually the lifeline for this beautiful state, described as heaven on earth.

This positive change is likely to have its impact on political and security scenario. The separatists’ decision is likely to give a fillip to the state government’s stepped up efforts to promote tourism.  The hardliners in the state like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Mohammad Yasin Malik and Shabir Ahmad Shah have gone on record that they would be happy to have tourists coming in droves to the state. This is for the first time in the last 21 years that such a positive development has happened. The civilian unrest in the last three years beginning 2008 had completely shattered the tourism sector. The livelihood of lakhs of people depends upon tourism. The separatists, who spearheaded the unrest, are being accused of ruining the tourism sector in the last three years.

According to the business community, the state almost suffered a loss of Rs 80 crore per day due to the unrest and subsequent general strikes. Bowing to the public pressure now, the separatists were forced to change their attitude towards the tourism sector.

“The tourists and the Amarnath pilgrims are our honoured guests and they should be treated fairly,” said Geelani. His group has prepared pamphlets in three languages-- English, Hindi and Urdu-- for the visitors. These pamphlets brief them on the separatist movement in Kashmir. The separatist move is also aimed at driving home their point to the people from different parts of the country.

There is also a growing realisation among the separatists that they cannot remain isolated from the people and civil society. They believe that the visitors to Kashmir can help them in bridging the gap with people outside. “The visitors and pilgrims, if treated well, can be our goodwill ambassadors,” said a hardliner.

The change in the perception of separatists is also because of the deteriorating security scenario in Pakistan. The violent incidents in the neighbouring country are making them feel that too much of their banking upon Islamabad is not going to yield anything. They should come closer to the people in other states.

“Let me make it very clear. We are not against the people in India. We are against the wrong policies of the Government of India in Kashmir,” said Mirwaiz. He added that establishing contact with the people and civil society would help in “removing misconceptions regarding the movement.”

Shabir Shah and Yasin Malik visited a number of tourist spots and interacted with visitors. “I told them that Kashmir is very safe for tourists and they should also tell this to the people back home,” Shabir said.

Anil Kumar, a tourist from Delhi, said his interaction with separatist leaders helped him and his family gain more confidence while moving in different areas of Kashmir. “We are visiting the Valley for the first time. So naturally there was some kind of fear. But once we talked to the separatists, our fears were removed,” he said. Anil and his family extended their stay in Kashmir for four days.

Mohammad Ashraf, a tourist department official, said such initiatives by the separatists should have come much earlier. “Had they adopted this approach in the past the situation would have been very different today. However, better late than never. We hope that the move of separatists works better and benefits the people,” he said. Ashraf said if the situation remains better, 16 lakh visitors are expected in Kashmir this year.

Last year, 14 lakh were expected but due to turmoil only half of them reached the Valley.
Reyaz Ahmad, a police official, said the friendly gestures of separatists can help in promotion of tourism. “But on security front, we can not become complacent. The militants do not listen to separatist leaders and have in fact carried out attacks on them in the past if they went against their line. The militants can do any mischief as they have been indulging in like grenade attacks at tourist places. This time they know that public opinion would go against them if they commit such acts. We have to maintain vigil at tourist spots for the safety of the visitors,” he said.

Abdul Razak, a hotelier, said whether or not the militants would listen to separatists on tourism issue but they would think twice before carrying out attacks. “They will get more isolated if they resort to mischief. I am happy with the tourist rush. All rooms in my hotel are booked. But I fear that any untoward incident can change the whole scenario. I pray to the God that nothing bad happens,” he said.

Mohammad Ilyas, a tour operator, said that the state government must also try to attract foreign tourists. “The arrival of foreigners is almost negligible because of the advisories by their respective countries to their citizens not to visit Kashmir. With situation having improved, the government must make efforts to get these advisories withdrawn,” he said.

The European countries directed its citizens not to visit Valley after five foreign tourists were abducted from Pahalgam in south Kashmir in 1995. They are untraced since then and feared killed. However, their bodies were not recovered.

The tour operators also want night landing facility at Srinagar airport.

“Since the operation of flights is limited to day time only, large number of tourists from neighbouring states, who want to spend their weekends in Kashmir, are unable to do so,” said Abdul Majid , a houseboat owner in the Dal Lake area.

He added that if the night landing facilities are available at the airport they can reach Kashmir on Friday evening or night and return to their respective places on Sunday evening or night. “The operational time for flights at the airport has to be extended,” Majid said.

An official of airport authority stated that work is in progress to extend the duration of flight operations at the airport. “We also are making efforts for the night landing facility. But this will take some time,” he said.

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