Naeem Akhtar has an improbable role in the Indian government’s drive to revitalize Kashmir after 18 years of militant violence. His task: rebrand this heavily militarized Himalayan region as a global golfing destination. Akhtar, a permanent secretary to the government tourist department, the most senior bureaucrat in charge of tourism in Kashmir, readily admits that the challenge is “very difficult.”
“We face a lot of uncomfortable questions,” he said, overlooking the empty fairways of Srinagar’s Royal Spring Golf Course. “Tourists travel to relax. A tourist doesn’t want to come to a place that creates apprehension in his mind.”
Nevertheless, lyrical brochures have been printed declaring the state to be a “golfers’ paradise,” and officials have been dispatched to tourism conferences in Berlin, Dubai and London to persuade the world of Kashmir’s golfing attractions.Introduced by the British during the Raj, the game has recently become a symbol of the new, wealthy India. Kashmir’s government believes that golf will attract higher-spending tourists than the penny-pinching backpackers who still come to trek in the mountains and stay on Srinagar’s latticed wooden houseboats, thus contributing to the state’s revival.
In the winter capital, Jammu, the state is spending $6.2 million on building a new golf course scheduled to be completed later this year. (It will be the fifth course in the region.) This summer, an international airport is scheduled to open, which should, in theory, allow wealthy golfers to fly in from around the world.
The golf-loving chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has spoken of his desire to see the region become an “international golfing hub.” “People are still afraid of coming to Kashmir,” he said. “It is very important that people let go of their fears. There is a need to mobilize golfers across the world to come and play the game here.” International golfers remain in need of considerable mobilizing.
Peace talks between India and Pakistan have inched forward in recent years, and violence in Kashmir last year dropped to its lowest level since 1990, with 1,177 fatalities (down from a peak of 4,507 in 2001), only 164 of them civilians. Security analysts now describe the conflict waged by separatist militant organizations—some seeking independence from India, others seeking to join Pakistan—as “low-intensity.”
Tourism is undergoing a tentative recovery, although the US and most European countries still advise their nationals not to visit Kashmir (apart from the safer Ladakh region). In 2007, 450,000 tourists came, 25,000 of them foreigners, and officials hope to double that number this year.
But a gun battle between security forces and Lashkar-e-Toiba Islamist militants on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, on Sunday attracted unwelcome headlines. And throughout the world memories endure of the violence that has long crippled this region as the Indian Army fights insurgents who are backed, they claim, by Pakistan. “These small incidents are allowed to create a mindset that we are finding very hard to change,” Akhtar said.
In an office decorated with pictures of Kashmir bathed in autumn golds and spring flowers, Farooq Shah, Kashmir’s director of tourism, slammed his papers down on his desk with irritation at the mention of the continued cautious travel advisories.
“People are going to Sri Lanka. People are going to Israel and Lebanon. But why not Kashmir? It’s safer here than New York,” he said. “Terrorism is a world phenomenon now. In 18 years of trouble, we have had only 25 tourist victims.” No tourists have been killed here since July 2006.
It is clear that it will take all the skills of the tourism department’s promotional writers to persuade golfers (who, officials from the department admit, are typically comfort-loving, conservative and risk-averse) to travel to this city, a short drive from the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan, often described as the most dangerous nuclear flash point in the world. So far, despite the large government investment in golf, few foreigners have visited the state-owned Royal Spring course.
Kashmir in late March looks just as the brochures portray it. The landscape as it buds into spring is bewitching. The trees are heavy with pink and white blossoms, tulips and pansies are blooming and the willow trees are bursting into leaf. Horses pulling cart-loads of vegetables trot through the streets.
But the brochures make no mention of the disquieting presence of an estimated 600,000 Indian soldiers, visible at intervals of about 100mt, along the roadside, in bullet-proof vests, rifles dangling at their sides. A sign by the airport exit reads “Welcome to the Paradise on Earth,” a sentiment that is undermined by a tangle of razor wire to the immediate left, the fortress-like security fences and the line of armoured vehicles outside. Anyone flying to Srinagar is subjected to double security checks: Baggage is X-rayed twice and everyone undergoes two body searches. The move to promote Kashmir as a golfing destination has been politically contentious. Many have questioned the wisdom of spending so much on such an inessential project at a time when Kashmir’s citizens are struggling to cope with the fallout from the prolonged violence.
“The government is obsessed with showing to the international community that things are normal here,” said Pervez Imroz, a lawyer with the Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights organization based in Srinagar. “These golf courses are the big beautiful lies that they want to sell to the world community, part of the camouflage to disguise what is going on on the ground.” Tourists, he said, should be made aware of what he called continuing state-sponsored disappearances, torture perpetrated by the army and other ongoing human rights abuses. “We are really appalled that courses are made with state money, which should have been given to rehabilitating the victims of the conflict here,” he added.
©2008 International Herald Tribune
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