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How a trek in Kashmir revealed not just the beauty of the mountains, but also captured snapshots of change

In the ’80s, I travelled to Kashmir regularly and fell under its spell. As a student, I went on several treks, walking up from Khilanmarg to Gulmarg and then to Upper Dachigam National Park, camping in Sangergullu, and undertaking the final gruelling walk to Marsar Lake. The melting snow in the meadows around Marsar would sparkle with primulas and irises, painting the meadows pink and blue.

While the landscape had an ethereal quality, the mood on the street was not happy. You could sense a sullen resentment among the people. Then began the period of militancy. Tral, the base from where we used to walk up to Sangargullu, slipped into the grip of militants. The meadows of upper Dachigam, where the Kashmir stag came in summer, became the base for terrorist activities. It became difficult to hike or camp in remote parts of Kashmir.

I returned this August. With my son Kaustubh, I walked up from Aru to  Lidderwat. We camped in the meadow of Sekiwas on the banks of Lidder. Next morning, we walked up to the pristine Tarsar lake at 13,500 feet. Forty years ago, when my college friend Pallav Das and I had walked up to the adjoining Marsar lake, which was still frozen, he wrote in the snow,  Atmay Pratibimbh: reflection of your soul. Now, sitting on the banks of the Tarsar lake, watching the sublime reflection of the Pir Panjal mountains in its waters, I saw another magical image, one of a new beginning, staring back at me.

Change was all around. Trekking in Kashmir previously, you would only meet English, German, Bengali or Maharashtrian hikers. This time, the majority of the hikers we met were Kashmiris.

So, is there a pattern here? Sharing a traditional Kashmiri wazwan with one of the youngest elected MLAs of Kashmir at Adhoos in Srinagar, the conversation steered towards the current situation. “I can’t believe I am travelling without gunmen in the Valley today, or that I can sit and have lunch here with you without fearing the journey back home,” he said to me in fluent Marathi, a language he had picked up while studying in Pune. He had a grouse though. Whenever an untoward incident happens in Kashmir, he said, Kashmiri students studying across India face harassment. That has to stop, he added.

Festive offer

I encountered more happy stories. I was curious to find out what had led to this transformation. Another dear Kashmiri friend told me that after the abrogation of Article 370, only Army and Central forces retained their arms to tackle cross-border terrorism. The local police were freed to deal with local crime and law and order. The Central forces, he said, tracked and dealt with cross-border terrorists meticulously. However, previously the local police had acquired the unsavoury reputation of getting involved in interpersonal disputes and passing them off as terrorism. Now the Kashmir police are being transformed into a professional citizen-centric force.

kashmir, trekking Primulas and irises bloom on way to Marsar as the snow melts

On August 15, 2021, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Prime Minister Modi had announced that “we have started mission Karmyogi and set up a Capacity Building Commission to enhance people-centric approach…”.The Capacity Building Commission worked closely with the J&K police force over the last two years to train police station heads to work for citizens with empathy. We conducted a post-training impact evaluation by the Quality Council of India. Nearly 200 citizens, who had visited a police station both before and after the training, were asked to rate their experience anonymously. The number of citizens who expressed satisfaction with their interaction with the police station staff had gone up significantly. However, it is ASI Majeed’s experience, narrated at the Ram Munshi Bagh police station in Srinagar, which remains etched in my mind. He said, with his attitude to policing becoming more professional, he was able to solve a double murder and was touched when the family members of the victim told him, “aap police nahin, aap farishte ho” (you’re not just police, you’re an angel).

After the abrogation of Article 370, interpersonal disputes were not allowed to snowball into terrorist incidents. And peace returned. While civilian deaths due to terror attacks have declined from a peak of 127 in  2007 to 30 in 2022, the number of security personnel killed in terrorist attacks, too, has declined from 119 in 2007 to 30 in 2022.

On the other hand, tourist visits to Kashmir have increased exponentially. In 2023, 12.7 million tourists visited Kashmir—the number is expected to touch 23 million by the end of the year. In 2016, Kashmir received only 1,20,000 tourists. The tourism boom in Kashmir is driving an economic one like never before. Hotels are full, trekking companies are fully booked and taxis are hard to come by. Saffron and Kashmiri handicrafts are seeing great sales. The GDP of J&K rose by 15 per cent in 2022-23.

Paul Collier, father of conflict economics, studied the underlying reasons of why conflicts like those in Sierra Leone, Sudan, Congo and Afghanistan perpetuate or why they recur in these countries cyclically. He postulated that the basic duty of the state is to secure a monopoly over violence. As long as the state exercises monopoly over violence, non-state actors are unable to perpetuate a conflict. However, in states like Congo or Sierra Leone, which have fungible resources like diamonds and rare minerals, which can be controlled by  non-state actors, the state loses monopoly over violence. Non-state actors are able to fund the conflict through their control over diamonds or tungsten. In Kashmir, the absence of fungible resources poses the question: how was the conflict in Kashmir able to perpetuate over decades? The answer lies in cross-border funding of non-state actors by those sympathetic to religious extremists.

Post abrogation of Article 370, multiple steps were taken to stop terror funding, including strengthening relations with oil-exporting states and proactively plugging flow of funds to extremist organisations based across the border. Even more effective was the total sealing of the border. Focussed military action to plug infiltration has drastically reduced cross-border funding and export of foreign-funded militants.

However, the real magic in Kashmir can be seen in the economic revival of livelihoods. This is the great peace dividend for the people of Kashmir. Instead of staying cooped up in repeated bandhs, Kashmiris are now sending their children to study in Pune, Delhi and other cities. They are using their well- earned money and leisure to explore their own state. And the ubiquitous UPI digital stack is fuelling real economic growth rather than speculative trade in  land and gold. In Congo, Sierra Leone and Sudan, conflict re-occurred after every peace deal because losers in the peace deal were the combatants. Loss of arms disempowered non-state militia and lack of economic growth forced the ex-combatant to regroup in new militias and re-start the conflict. They are known as spoilers of the peace process. In Kashmir, revival of the tourism has given a peace dividend, which is an incentive to all  ex-combatants to not return to militancy. This is reflected in the negligible recruitment of people from the Valley into militant activities. Local recruitment of militants from Kashmir declined from 143 in 2019 to a mere 30 in 2023. Of the 47 militants killed in 2023, 37 were Pakistanis. For the first time in the 33 years of militancy, four times more foreign terrorists were eliminated than local Kashmiris. Of the 750 terrorists killed between 2019 and 2021, 83 per cent were local Kashmiri militants. However, by 2022, 43 per cent of the militants killed were Pakistani nationals.  Much of what I have written may seem unbelievable to many. To them I say: walk on the beautiful trails in Pir Panjal and you will see the truth for yourself.

The writer is Member, Administration, Capacity Building Commission, Government of India

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