Author: Saadut
•8:47 PM

‘Liquor shops should reopen in Kashmir to boost tourism industry in the state’, which is what was advocated by a main stream politician recently in Srinagar. On expected lines within Kashmir soon there were voices against this statement, but more surprising was the fervor shown by Indian media and people on social networks to grab the bait and customize the issue. Many claimed banning liquor was ‘against secular and democratic credentials’ while others termed it as religious extremism. Journalist @tavleen_singh went even a step further tweeting ‘How sad for Kashmir that it has become the centre of such intolerant Islam. It once was a place where women prayed in mosques.’ Were people like her trying to bake their bread in the controversy or are they really ignorant about the facts in Kashmir? Not only are women in Kashmir still praying in Mosques, have an equal place in Kashmiri society but they are also the most traumatized of all, in decades of conflict having lost husbands, sons and fathers to this turmoil. What was the relationship that these experts were trying to forge between demands for ‘ban on liquor’ and ‘women praying in mosques’ in Kashmir? Incidents of women campaigning for ‘prohibition’ in Punjab or rural Maharashtra have not been linked till date to any ‘conservative religion’ criticism or declaration of ‘democracy in danger’ by these social champions.

Liquor and cinema were never banned in Kashmir. In fact even during the turmoil years, two cinema halls were operational in Kashmir, ‘Neelam’ cinema in the heart of Srinagar and ‘Broadway’ theatre near the cantonment area, but most people avoided these places out of personal choices. In addition to the prevalent sense of insecurity looming large in Kashmir during the turmoil, where days folded up early and evenings were full of lurking danger, people were more concerned about securing their safety at homes rather than daring to venture out. Also these cinemas were seen as likely soft targets for violence. For all the years that it continued to operate in Kashmir, not able to sustain the show biz business model here, ‘Broadway’ theatre shutdown and changed the line of activity. This was purely for commercial reasons, rather than for any ‘nationalistic’ or ‘religious’ containment.

For those who were suggesting that ‘resistance of locals to opening of liquor shops in Kashmir’ had to do something with religious intolerance, such pathetic thought pointed to their mental fatigue. Liquor was never banned in the state and many liquor shops still exist in Srinagar. In mainland India prohibition is in place in Gujarat but we are yet to hear these experts point out to ‘prohibition in Gujarat’ as a result of religious intolerance or seen as a ‘threat to democratic and secular credentials’. The ‘prohibition’ not notwithstanding, fact is that Gujarat recorded 1.8 crore tourists in 2010 which included 3.2 lac foreign tourists. The government of Gujurat understanding the needs of tourism sector planned to spend Rupees 635 crore for developing related infrastructure over the next three years, setting targets of 2 crore tourists this year, including 4 lac foreign visitors. Incidentally the share of tourism revenue in the GDP of Gujarat was only about 1 per cent. In comparison, the tourist arrivals in Kashmir Valley this year had almost surpassed its pre militancy records of seven lac including almost 21,000 foreigners (some estimates put the figure at one million). Clearly J&K does not have a ‘tourism’ investment policy in place; in fact this June the chairperson of FCCI (Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry), during a tourism conference held in Srinagar urged the state government to come up with an ‘Investment Policy’ in J&K. The local industry has been pleading with the government since long to improve tourist infrastructure and resume many events in Kashmir, like the ‘sound and light show’ of Shalimar gardens, but not much headway has been achieved on this front till date. Of late the tourism sector in Kashmir has started showing significant resurgence, but this revival would fail in its tracks for want of required infrastructure and policy initiatives.  Contrast this to the fact that natural spots have been vandalized by unplanned and reckless constructions, arterial approaches that need upgradation and environmental degradation that is playing havoc with these natural resorts. In fact the authorities had turned such a blind eye to illegal constructions and forest grabbing in these hill spots that it took the High Court to impose a ban on constructions in Pahalgam in response to a PIL (Public Interest Litigation). 

With crippling infrastructure across the valley you don’t expect tourism to turn around by just wishful thinking. It surely needs more practical work on ground than any political speak. When you think of Kashmir what comes to your mind, lofty peaks, gushing rivers, clear lakes and blooming meadows. How many tourists conjure images of pubs and bars when they think of Kashmir? None I think. Kashmir is all about nature, but what has been left of these bounties of nature? The rivers are polluted downstream, constructions invaded right upto the river banks upstream, meadows collapsing and ever shrinking, the lakes dying a slow human engineered death.  The jewels of Srinagar, Dal and Nigeen lakes have succumbed to decades of human invasion and bureaucratic greed. It is these assets of the valley that drew tourists over centuries and it is here where the state has utterly failed. Years of half hearted efforts and billions of rupees for lake conservation could achieve nothing but accelerate the death of these water bodies. With unabated encroachment going on and thousands of tones of sewage dumped directly into the lake, the Dal Lake is reported to have shrunk from 25 sq kms to 10.56 sq km and its depth has decreased by four meters. In the interiors of the lake and more obvious towards Ashai Bagh Bridge, the government has left the lake to its own death with absolutely no conservation or cleaning efforts by the authorities. So much for the rhetoric of drawing tourists to Kashmir. And if Dal & Nigeen were no exceptions to rule, other lakes of Kashmir like the Wular and Manasbal are also staring at extinction.  When these attractions are gone, no amount of pubs and bars in Kashmir will be able to draw any tourists. What the tourism industry in Kashmir needs are sustained and honest efforts for conserving nature and rebuilding infrastructure that supports the industry. Approach roads that get choked by a slight increase in traffic, a national highway that blocks with a sudden sneeze of nature and an airport  that takes more hours to clear the drop gate than it takes to fly to Delhi are surely not ‘tourism friendly’. Incidentally the double laning of Pahalgam - Khanabal road started earnestly during the Chief Ministerial tenure of PDP’s Mufti Syed has still not been completed, 3 governments having changed since. No wonder traffic to Pahalgam struggles and snarls for miles on holidays. Not to speak of the two laning of Srinagar city, Dalgate – Zakura road (which also takes the traffic of Amarnath yatris on the Sonamarg route) that has been pending for decades in spite of clear plan earmarked for the same. The condition of other tourist places in Kashmir is surely no better.

Some years back I was travelling to Delhi and the then CM of Kashmir Ghulam Nabi Azad happened to travel in the same low cost airline to Delhi (Yes the CM was not using the state aircraft here, in fact was travelling economy class). While he was seated with his wife in the first row, I was seated in the second row. As the plane touched down in Delhi and Mr. Azad prepared to leave the aircraft he turned to some tourists who were seated in the front rows on the other side, greetings were exchanged and the visitors honestly replied ‘Kashmir gaye th’e Dal dekkhne, dekha Dull lake’ (We had gone to Kashmir to see the Dal lake but all we saw was a Dull Lake). Their emphasis on ‘dULL’ conveyed it all.   The dullness seems to have since spread to other natural spots of Kashmir too with the government inaction and apathy accelerating their erosion.

Kashmir needs to secure these natural bounties; it is a protected and rejuvenated nature alone with adequate supporting infrastructure that can sustain the local tourism industry.

When the tourists start marking their itinerary by the liquor joints available in Kashmir, it surely will mark the death of destination Kashmir. Then the natural ‘Paradise’ will exist no more.

9, November 2011
Author: Saadut
•8:49 PM

Recently there was row over conversions in Kashmir wherein a Christian pastor was accused of converting eight Muslim youth to Christianity by luring them with money. The row came into focus with the circulation of the Kashmir conversion video on internet and soon outrage and resentment was expressed locally prompting a senior religious leader of Kashmir Mufti Mohd Bashir-ud-din to seek an explanation from the accused Pastor C M Khanna of All Saints Church Srinagar. After some time the Pastor met him and according to the Grand Mufti, being confronted with proof the Pastor ‘confessed’ his role in conversions. The Grand Mufti further claimed that the Pastor had confessed having converted 15 boys so far adding that according to the Pastor “some NGO and intellectuals were with him in this mission and some of them had accompanied him to South Africa to preach Christianity”

Soon the local police took suo-motu notice of the issue and filed an FIR in Srinagar’s Rammunshi Bagh police station (FIR No 186 0f 2011 under section 153 A and 295 A) against Pastor Khanna. Local sources say that the conversions had taken place for paltry monetary gains; one of the youth is reported to have converted for a sum of Rs 5000. The poor laborer is reported to have converted in the hope of a financial aid but was shocked after being paid only 5000 Rupees (about 100$). According to local newspaper reports, other converts could have been paid between 5000 to 10,000 Rupees and after the news of conversions broke out, protests were held in some parts of Srinagar. Sensing the gravity of the situation and the likelihood of this conversion snowballing into a major controversy police detained all the eight converts. 

Hurriyat leader and a senior religious figure of Kashmir, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq called the issue of luring Muslim youths to conversion as grave "(The conversion of Muslim youth to Christianity) is a grave issue. Being the religious head and Mirwaiz, I am fully aware of my responsibilities” He further announced the formation of a committee to look into the matter.

If a person could convert his religion for 5000 Rupees, what would he do for the sake of 10,000 rupees? The ‘conversions for money’ has bought to fore the neglect of the Kashmiri society of its own morals. There was more condemnation of the social rot that the Kashmiri society has fallen to than there was of the Christian missionaries in Kashmir. Ironically the society has been allowed to slip into a materialistic coma, where all ethics have been antiquated, relegated to museums of past. This degradation of society did surely not happen overnight, it has been in the making for decades together, even much before the onset of insurgency in Kashmir. Although everybody in the society has to share the blame for such affairs of the society, majorly the blame is placed on the political and religious leaders of Kashmir. Most of the religious leaders have been known to use religion as a tool for self prosperity, often ignoring the collective welfare of the society and most of the politicians have been known to invoke religion for selfish political goals only. Not only have corrupt practices taken over the ethical structure of the society, the society has neglected the poor and downtrodden sections thereby leaving them exposed to search for means and ways for survival. While we may be on the forefront in denouncing these poor people for selling their faith, the society on its own has to own the responsibility to having neglected such sections of our society. The turmoil in Kashmir not only affected the economic structure of this place it also created conflict causalities, families of victims who were left to defend for themselves. Such families could either have lost an earning member or the opportunity to a livelihood, and the society hardly bothered about such families. Social care for the affected was minimal as the social safety net for the deprived did not exist in Kashmir and whatever existed of was eroded gradually.

Missionary work in Kashmir was promoted through education and often these institutions have proved to be good academic institutions. How many local institutions have been patronized by the society or local religious leaders to grow into such strong educational institutions? Fact is that the local society has failed in creating or developing institutes of excellence in basic elementary education, making admissions to missionary institutions sought after (only for academic sake). Excellent local academic institutions groomed by locals (Muslims) of yesteryears were neglected by both patrons and government, as a result of which they failed to keep pace with changing times.

Islam in Kashmir was propagated by preachers like Shah-e-Hamadan (came to Kashmir in 1372) who not only preached social equality but also bought along numerous craftsman to teach the locals craftsmanship thereby introducing many skills in the local economy. Some of these skills and artisanship that were handed over through generations stand at the verge of extinction mainly due to social and state neglect, affecting the very basic economic structure of the society.

Moral education, training on trade skills that survived generations and a social safety net for the under privileged were lost to collective apathy, making our weaker sections more vulnerable than ever. Ironically it is the weakest sections of our society that missionaries have been known to approach. And the state also did its bit by failing to promote avenues for the local crafts, accelerating the collapse of the work structure at the artisan levels. Not only did the state fail in implementing business continuity plans for the basic levels of society, they also contributed to the neglect of skill up gradation and education opportunities in Kashmir. Efforts by a Kashmir based religious group ‘Jamiate-Ahl-Hadees’ for creation of Trans-World University in Kashmir have still not borne fruit with the bill for setting up of the university pending with the state government for long. The idea of setting up the Trans World Muslim University was conceived in 1990 and in its present form the University envisages to be a modern learning centre offering courses in science and arts including a School of Designing aimed at helping the local handicraft sector in skill development and design creation. Pertinently in Jammu Mata Vaishnav Devi University is already running successfully under the aegis of Shri Mata Vaisnav Dev Trust. Locals in Kashmir have been accusing the present state government for accelerating the issuance of licenses for liquor shops in Kashmir but ironically withholding the permission for institutions of higher learning for the locals.

The biggest religious trust in Kashmir ‘Muslim Auqaf trust’ has also been accused to being used as a political tool by the parties in power. The ‘Muslim Auqaf Trust’ (now the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Waqf Board) is not only the custodian of all major Muslim properties in Kashmir but also manages most of the shrines here. The assets of this trust are estimated to exceed 2000 crores with the potential to generate huge revenues, but ironically the major part of its revenue (whatever is generated) is spend on the salary bill of its ever growing number of employees and the remaining part spend on maintenance and renovation of shrines (60 % on salaries and 35 % on maintenance), the social cause that should have the primary aim of any Muslim trust conveniently forgotten. Incidentally ‘Muslim Auqaf Trust’ was setup in the 1930’s with the primary aim of social development and major part of the income from these properties were envisaged to be earmarked for social causes like educational development, helping the destitute and betterment of society. Over the years the Trust worked like a fortress and National Conference gained absolute control over it. Late Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah used ‘Muslim Auqaf Trust’ as a political tool and the Hazratbal Shrine as a political pulpit for decades. Such was the government intertwined into Auqaf that when Shiekh Abdullah was dethroned Bakshi took over, not only the state power but he also inherited the affairs of Auqaf. After Sheikh came back to power, the reigns of ‘Muslim Auqaf Trust’ also were taken back. During all these decades of Political rule in “Auqaf Trust” accountability was unheard of and the “Trust” from “Auqaf” had slipped closer to power seats and farter from the society. The trust is often accused of recruiting more than the sanctioned number of staff, mismanaging properties, incurring excess expenditure and deviating from its basic aim of social service. This is a typical case of exploiting a religious institution for petty political gains. Had the trust been run efficiently and independent of political interference it could have really have ushered in a social renaissance and created support systems within our society.

Many in the state also believe if the concept of ‘zakaat’ was followed in principle by all, the downtrodden of the society could have been easily rescued. On the religious front the selflessness and the devotion to their religion shown by Christian Missionaries is found wanting from the religious leaders here. Most of them are seen to survive on some political patronage and with the exception of a few, many religious trusts have seen to have failed in addressing social concerns.

In a society where the new status symbol is ill-gotten wealth, where corruption has become a way of life, the politician and the preacher both cash in on this social anarchy, resulting is a gradual decline of moral ethics where faith can be sold for 5000 Rupees. The ‘conversion for money’ by these missionaries is deplorable but more condemnable is the self destruction mode that the society as a whole has been thrust towards. The onus for reform lies within the society itself. No amount of religious sermons will help when the claims of compassion for social change unless they are not translated into action.

Till that time the deprived and the denied will be exposed to selling their faith.

30th November 2011