Pahalgam, Kashmir: In a famous picnic spot south of the summer capital of Kashmir, the locals are back in force, having fun in scenes that were unimaginable during the dark days of the insurgency here.
For the first time in two decades, the people on the Indian side of the Line of Control live in relative peace, with tourists a more common sight and trekkers returning to the Himalayas that form a backdrop to life here.
“We are loving this peace,” said Imtiaz Ahmed, one of eight men playing football on the shores of the Lidder river in Pahalgam, around 100km from the capital Srinagar.
Used to living in fear with restrictions on their movements, Kashmiris are rediscovering freedom as violence declines in this conservative Muslim-majority region once described by a 17th century visiting emperor as a “paradise on earth.”
While militant attacks still take place—a grenade and a shooting incident in Srinagar this week left two policemen dead and nearly 30 others injured—violence has fallen to the lowest level since 1989 when the rebellion began.
According to official police records published on Monday, killings have dropped to one a day from 10 daily in 2001 and a peak of 13 in 1996 when the anti-India insurgency was at its height.
Local tourist officials say they are turning away visitors from state-owned accommodation because they have no rooms left. “The rush to Pahalgam is unprecedented,” said Rouf Ahmed, a senior tourism official.
Kashmiri violence has its roots in the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. The region is now split between the two countries along a UN-monitored line of control, but both sides claim it in full and have fought two wars over its control.
Security officials acknowledge the recent change, though there are no plans to reduce troop levels. “The level of violence has come down and there are significant signs of normalcy in Kashmir,” says Indian army spokesman J.S. Brar. He attributes the turnaround to “people’s desire for peace and more effective counter-insurgency tactics.”
“More and more people are providing us with information about militants,” he added.
Many link the decline in violence to a peace process started between India and Pakistan in 2004 to resolve all their pending disputes, including the one on Kashmir. India has put a pause on the process, however, after last year’s deadly Mumbai attacks which it blames on Pakistan-based militants.
In Srinagar, Tariq Dar, a 34-year-old engineer who grew up during the worst of the violence, said the calm was “bringing smiles to all the faces here.”
At dawn, he and his friends set out for a daily morning walk in a picturesque area of the city that until recently was out of bounds because of its proximity to the residences of top politicians.
“I had never imagined that this road would be reopened. It signals peace is here to stay,” says Dar, who aspires for an independent Kashmir state.
Later in the day, hundreds of residents could be spotted in Mughal-built gardens on the shores of Lake Dal, again enjoying picnics with their families.
The few liquor shops that have reopened are doing brisk business and in the evenings, young men and women crowd restaurants that used to shut by 6pm during the peak of unrest.
After the insurgency erupted in 1989, 51-year-old Abdul Rashid tried unsuccessfully to sell his ornately hand-carved tourist houseboat to feed his family.
He is now grateful as visitors return and is leading trekkers up the mountains that were once considered too dangerous to visit. “Going back to these mountains was my big wish. Thanks to Allah, the peace has made it happen,” he said.
In 1988 more than 700,000 foreign and Indian tourists visited Kashmir, but the number declined sharply as the insurgency intensified. Now the tide appears to be turning again.
In 2007, nearly 450,000 tourists visited, followed by 550,000 a year later. And in the first seven months of 2009, at least 380,000 tourists had already come to sample the pure air and breathtaking views.