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Since the Modi government stripped this region of its autonomy, travel restrictions have lifted and authorities want tourists to come back – but not foreign journalists. The Globe’s Nathan VanderKlippe visited and saw businesses locked up, hotels under guard and locals still seething about the new normal

Photography by Nathan VanderKlippe

The Kashmir Valley calls itself “Paradise on Earth,” a fertile plain dotted with fields of saffron and ringed by mountains. It’s a land coveted by centuries of empires – and the leaders of modern India, who with a swift constitutional change this year cemented their rule over a region whose natural beauty has long made it a concentrated seat of religious expression, intellectual flourishing and ethnic conflict.

But today, much of Kashmir, a region with a population of roughly seven million, has the feel of a sprawling ghost town, an expanse of ominous quiet. “Everything is closed,” says a druggist, one of the few who remain open to provide essential goods. “It will remain this way until India gives us back our rights.” At mosques and at Sufi shrines, old men and women mutter about “dark“ and “terrible” times that have descended.

From the shorelines of Srinagar’s iconic Dal Lake to the apple orchards of the southern valley, Kashmir is under “hartal,” a general strike that amounts to a population-wide revolt.

It is a mass protest by a Muslim majority population against the government of Narendra Modi, which in August said it would rescind a series of constitutional measures that had made the region legally distinct, ending a partial constitutional autonomy that had for seven decades rankled conservative Hindu nationalists. When the change was set in place on Nov. 1, Kashmir and its neighbouring regions, Jammu and Ladakh, came under the direct administration of the central government in New Delhi. Gone are legal measures that had protected a unique place by barring outsiders from owning land – but gone, too, India’s leadership has argued, are laws that held back social and economic progress.

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Bengal

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Pakistan to China,

claimed by India

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by China,

claimed

by India

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control

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LADAKH

JAMMU

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KASHMIR

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Jammu

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CHINA

IRAN

PAKISTAN

INDIA

Bay of

Bengal

0

550

KM

TAJIKSTAN

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Area ceded by

Pakistan to China,

claimed by India

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Siachen

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ADMINISTERED

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Area held

by China,

claimed

by India

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control

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LADAKH

CHINA

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Islamabad

Jammu

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Indian government, which heads the world’s largest democracy, has barred foreign journalists and some other observers, including opposition politicians, from coming to Kashmir in the wake of the constitutional changes. But on Oct. 10, authorities rescinded a travel advisory warning about threats of terrorist violence, with local officials saying they were moving to bring “life back to normal.”

So I landed here as a tourist, eager for a glimpse of the new face of a place India has described as on the cusp of becoming a world-class tourist draw. Strings of golden Christmas lights greet visitors arriving at the Srinagar airport today, glowing next to brightly coloured pictures of houseboats on placid lake waters. Srinagar is named after the Sanskrit for “town of abundance,” and in the city, signs proclaim, “Landscapes From a Fairy Tale.”

I followed an itinerary of the Lonely Planet variety, visiting mosques, hiking mountains, floating across Srinagar’s iconic Dal Lake and watching cricket bat-makers and silversmiths work willow and metal into objects of beauty.

Kashmir’s wonders have drawn travellers from afar for generations. “Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere, / With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave, / Its temples and grottos, and fountains as clear / As the love-lightened eyes that hang over the wave?” the poet Thomas Moore wrote in 1817.

But no visitor could come to Kashmir today and fail to grasp the tensions, nor the ways in which the Indian decision has sparked fear and fury in a dangerous and disputed corner of the world, wedged between two nuclear-armed countries – India and Pakistan – that have already gone to war three times over territorial claims here.


Saffron flowers grow in the fields of southern Kashmir. Many people's livelihoods depend on agriculture in the fertile region.

Both India and Pakistan claim the valley in its entirety, but only administer part of it. Earlier this year, the Modi government revoked the region's special constitutional status and split it into two parts, Jammu and Kashmir on the west side, Ladakh to the east.

India's military presence is visible everywhere in the valley, from streets and railroads to places of worship – even the fields of saffron.


The soldier waves and smiles from his perch on Hari Parbat, a fortified hilltop overlooking the Kashmir Valley. “Welcome to India!” he says.

It is a greeting that has taken on freighted new meaning, emphasizing the direct powers of administration now wielded by New Delhi, which has placed Kashmir, in every legal sense, under the full rule of the Indian state, maintained by this soldier and many thousands of others who keep armed watch.

Across a valley three times the size of Prince Edward Island, men with guns – shotguns and assault rifles, carried by soldiers on patrol and armed forces inside sandbag embankments and concrete bunkers built into the entrance of Hindu shrines – seek to keep peace with muzzles pointed at those who pass.

Open demonstrations are rare in Kashmir today, amid a military mobilization that, local media have reported, has brought some 80,000 armed forces to Kashmir – although some analysts estimate that the combined forces of military, paramilitary and armed police in the region number some 10 times that figure.

An Indian law, the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990, provides “security forces virtual immunity against prosecution for any human rights violation” the United Nations Human Rights Office noted in a report last year. It accused the military of using “excessive force that led to unlawful killings and a very high number of injuries,” even as armed militants “are believed to have been committing significant human rights abuses, including hostage-taking, targeted killings and indiscriminate attacks against civilians.” Tens of thousands have died. Many thousands have gone missing.

Graffiti is scrawled on shuttered storefronts.

Against that blood-drenched backdrop, the signs of protest, some silent, some overt, are everywhere.

“We are not part of India,” a young father tells me outside a mosque, grabbing me by the hand and insisting I listen. “They have all of their forces here. But it is an illegal occupation.”

Before August, the man worked as a teacher. Now he shows the palms of his hands to reveal a prominent row of callouses. With no classes in session, he has been working as a labourer, loading river stones into a truck, for 100 rupees a day, less than $2.

He shows pictures on his phone of his son who has, moments before, received his ceremonial first haircut at a shrine in Srinagar, a moment of celebration. The boy is not yet six months old.

“I named him Manan,” the man says, after Manan Wani, a scholar turned commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen who was killed last year. Mr. Wani, the teacher explains, was an inspirational leader in the “fight against the Indian occupation.”

The scale of the current strike has not been seen since 1989, a year of anti-Indian demonstrations that preceded the ugliest period in the region’s recent history. After police killed more than 40 protesters, the region came under attack from Islamic militants and roughly 140,000 Hindus fled. It was “a total insurgency of the entire population,” the political analyst Balraj Puri told Victoria Schofield, author of Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War, a history of the region whose title itself offers an unsettling portent.

Today again, seeds of retaliation are being sown.

At a centuries-old shrine, I listen as a shrine-keeper leads devotees in a prayer, asking for “prosperity for the country of Kashmir, freedom for Kashmir and a strengthening of the ranks of the martyrs.”

Perhaps the loudest expression of anger is written in graffiti that has transformed some of Kashmir’s historic and religious icons into signs of protest. “WE WANT FREEDOM” is written on a stone wash-basin outside Jama Masjid, the grand mosque that has been locked since Aug. 5. “YOU CAN KILL US BUT YOU CAN’T BREAK US” is scribbled on a wall beside The Bund, the walkway along the Jhelum River. In Anantnag, “FREE KASHMIR GO INDIA GO BACK” is scrawled on a shop-front, behind a heavily armed soldier who stands there, keeping watch. Other graffiti proclaims open support for militant insurgency. “ISIS,” “PAKISTAN” and “MUSA ARMY,” the latter a reference to the leader of an al-Qaeda offshoot killed in May, are etched onto historic walls in Shalimar Bagh, the most famous of Srinagar’s 17th-century Mughal Gardens. Those gliding past on Dal Lake’s gondola-like shikara boats could see another slogan written on a waterfront shop: “KASHMIR IS LAND OF MUJHEDEEN.”


In Srinagar, Nathan VanderKlippe took a ride on Dal Lake in one of the region's distinctive gondola-like shikara boats.

The Globe and Mail (staff)


Hours before announcing the constitutional change in early August, Indian authorities imposed a full lockdown on Kashmir. Razor wire barricaded streets, a curfew restricted movement and a full communication blackout returned the valley to a remoteness barely seen since before the British arrived.

Today, the digital blockade remains largely in place, with text messages and all forms of Internet access still cut off after more than three months. On the highway south of Srinagar, buses are parked on the sides of the road, unmoving, with public transit not yet resumed.

But the most restrictive measures have been lifted. A few large mosques remain closed, but temples, neighbourhood shrines and many of the region’s most important religious landmarks are open. Throughout the valley, the orange glow of sunrise is accompanied by the lyrical sound of the dawn call to prayer, echoing between frosted peaks.

The curfew is gone, land lines have been reopened, some cell phones can now make calls. Streets are jammed with tuk-tuks, motorcycles and cars. Banks are open and teachers returned to some schools in early November, although many parents kept students home in protest. South of Kashmir, long lines of trucks wait to load the apples they will transport to market.

A fruit vendor in Srinagar sits in an empty street.

Early one afternoon, I walk through Lal Chowk, a central market area in Srinagar, where three vendors sit on the side of the street behind neatly stacked arrangements of oranges and bananas. The remaining shops are shuttered. Only a restaurant remains open, although its door, too, is half-covered by a shutter.

Along a nearby bridge where a handful of women sell fish gasping in small metal bowls, a contingent of heavily armed soldiers marches back toward Lal Chowk. The reason isn’t clear until the next morning, when I pick up Daily Asian Express, a local newspaper.

Its front page is splashed with a picture of a man using a straw broom to sweep away a pool of crimson blood on the street. Not long before I crossed the bridge, a grenade was tossed into a group of vendors a stone’s throw away, killing one and injuring 40.

But if discovering my unknowing proximity to the attack was a rattling reminder of the vicious violence that has become commonplace here, it had little effect on the official narrative of a region returning to normalcy.

Just below the gruesome front-page image, the Express published an article about the return of “normal life,” saying Lal Chowk had “remained abuzz” all day – a description distinctly different from what I had seen – and concluding that “there was like pre-Aug. 5 situation and people were thronged to buy essential commodities at shops and vendors.”

The military, too, has helped broadcast a friendly face. At the Sikh Gurdwara Chatti Patshah, two soldiers wander onto the white marble of the courtyard. The brass casings of bullets are visible through the translucent walls of a magazine attached to one of their assault rifles. Clad in helmets and camouflage combat clothes, they slip under a metal roof to take shelter from a drizzle outside, sipping hot chai prepared by the temple. They beckon me to join.

“We are so happy you have come here,” one of the soldiers says, smiling. He assures me there is nothing to worry about in Kashmir. Some people have distributed “propaganda” about “various bad things,” he says. But the “situation on the ground is very normal right now.”

A soldier keeps watch at a roadside in Kashmir.

At home and in some foreign circles, the Modi government has won plaudits for its actions in Kashmir.

Days before I arrive, Indian officials guided a delegation of politicians from Europe, many of them from far right-wing parties, through Kashmir. “We need to stand by India in its fight against global terrorism” said Bill Newton Dunn, a British member of the European Parliament, adding that he “would definitely advocate what we have seen on ground zero.” The visit was dismissed as a stunt, and both the European Union and India’s own foreign ministry distanced themselves from it. In Kashmir, a boatman said the politicians had been paddled on Dal Lake by police dressed as locals.

But the constitutional abrogation has been politically popular across much of the country, satisfying decades-old grudges against special treatment of Kashmir, a place seen as a treasure that belongs to all of India.

I meet a couple from Mumbai on their honeymoon, smiling as they recount their time in Gulmarg, a high-altitude ski destination where they rode sleds and played in the snow for the first time in their lives. "It was the most romantic thing," he says. The snow was the reason to come to Kashmir, and the couple barely took notice of the armed presence on the streets. "Whatever the future of Kashmir, we have enjoyed it. It’s a paradise," he says.

More official reassurance issues from the day’s Greater Kashmir, a broadsheet whose entire front cover is devoted to a government statement titled: A Single Constitution for the Entire Country: How Will Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh Benefit?” Previous constitutional measures that underpinned the region’s unique standing were “responsible for backwardness,” the statement says.

Without them, “investors will pump in capital and resources, industries and services will be set up, employment opportunities will multiply, big educational institutes will proliferate, health sector will grow, agriculture sector will be transformed, agro-processing will take a leap forward, ecological and environmental provisions will be enforced and natural beauty will be preserved.”

It’s a vision of an extraordinary and prosperous future, but one set against a past that offers scant hope that such airy promises will be fulfilled – and a present saturated with hostility.


This meat vendor is selling chicken instead of beef after local authorities banned its sale in Srinagar. Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, the majority religion in the rest of India. Some Kashmiris are Hindu, but most are Muslim.

Though some of Kashmir's major mosques and shrines have closed or reduced their hours, most are still open, such as Khanqah-e-Moula, one of the oldest mosques in Srinagar.

But days before celebrations of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, only a few people were gathered in Hazratbal, a Muslim shrine famous for a relic containing what is believed to be hair from the Prophet’s beard.


On a rainy day outside Srinagar’s Hazratbal Shrine, preparations were in place for the most important day of the year, the celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.

Beneath its white marble dome, the Sufi structure protects what is believed to be a relic from the prophet, hair from his beard. On his birthday, just days away, devotees usually crowd into the prayer hall and gaze upward at a golden balcony, where a shrine-keeper would take the relic, normally stored in a locked vault, and show it to those gathered.

But the enthusiasm for that celebration is nowhere to be seen this year, as the strike and a halt to public transit keep people away. A large tent erected at the shrine entrance to accommodate additional worshippers is all but empty. Outside, a man selling steamed spiced lentils shakes his head in disbelief. He’s been here 10 years and never seen it like this.

Not far away, past vendors hawking sweet semolina paste and masala pickles, men work around a circular oven, its mouth glowing red from the heat within. They shape dough into small circular tsot breads. Few buyers walk past.

One practically spits as he calls Mr. Modi a slur.

“Kashmir,” he says with a soft-spoken spite that mirrors the entire valley around him, “is finished.”

Days later, authorities bar celebration of the event, cordoning off the mosque and imposing a law that prevents gatherings of more than four people.

The tent at the entrance to Hazratbal stands mostly empty.

India has promised the constitutional abrogation will bring an economic flourishing.

For now, however, it’s brought little but penury, fomenting an uncertainty that has interrupted business, including in a local tourist trade that had managed to survive despite decades of unrest.

Hazratbal stands on the shores of Dal Lake, where quiet has descended upon the rows of houseboats, a charming leftover of British colonial influence. One man with two boats, each with beds for a dozen, has had a half-dozen guests since August.

At Hari Parbat, the fortress overlooking Srinagar, I am the third visitor of the day, and a security guard locks the gates behind me as I leave.

Restore Kashmir’s constitutional uniqueness and “the tourists will come back because they will feel safe,” says a shopkeeper in Pahalgam, a popular destination whose brightly coloured peaked roofs in a cradle of mountains give it an Alps-like feel.

In the nearby Lidder Valley, where forests of towering pines look out on the glaciers of the Himalayas, a woman and her granddaughter stuff a burlap sack full of pine cones, which can be used as kindling.

“We were doing very well before this,” the woman says. “Now I don’t know how we will confront the winter.”

A young girl harvest pinecones for her family to use as kindling.

In Kashmir, the first snowfall of the year is usually cause for celebration, marked by nou sheen festivities that bring people together to eat fish and dried vegetables, as women perform folk songs. Snow is prosperity, the source of water for the next year’s crops and the draw for tourists from hotter parts of India who flock north for a taste of winter.

Here, like elsewhere, snow can be a great unifier. It brings passengers out of cars to push each other up slippery hills. Friends huddle together for warmth. Boys laugh and toss snowballs at each other. Roads become communal passageways for trucks, shepherds and their flocks alike. Across the valley, too, the cold months have typically brought respite from unrest as protests retreat to wait for warmth to return.

But as wet clusters of flakes tumbled on Srinagar shortly before I left, the unusually early snowfall only served to underscore hardship and division.

An early snowfall carpets the streets of Srinagar.

As men in long woollen pheren outer-garments pushed cars up hills, the men in uniform looked on impassively from beneath awnings and doorways, guns slung across their shoulders. They remained at their posts as the snow load grew, bringing down branches and felling entire centuries-old chinar trees in crashing clouds. “I thought we were dead,” said one man, after a chinar smashed through his roof. Electrical lines sagged and then snapped, leaving a region city without electricity. Even Srinagar’s Taj Hotel was forced to shut down when its generators ran out of diesel.

The keepers of Dal Lake’s houseboats, meanwhile, hurried to shovel thick mats of heavy snow from their roofs, but it was too late for some boats, which listed and took on water.

To some here, the consequences were severe enough to count as a natural disaster, and Kashmiris sardonically joked that, with their home now under Delhi’s direct control, perhaps they should expect a hasty response.

But from the soldiers at least, no help was visible. They stood unmoving as workers with chainsaws began to clean up the mess.

Through the falling veil, the Mata Kheer Bhawani Jee Temple, one of the region’s most important Hindu sites, remained open. Pilgrims come here in part to look on the waters seen as a mystic spring whose waters change in colour as an omen of the future. Milky green is auspicious, black and dark red is foreboding.

On this day, the falling snow made ripples in waters the colour of night.

A boat sails on the snowy waters of Dal Lake.