In the 1980s, while I was studying in a college in Delhi, we would go to Kashmir for trekking every summer. We would walk from Khilanmarg to Gulmarg to acclimatise ourselves. Then we would trek up to the upper Dachigam National Park, camp at Sangergullu, and proceed to the Marsar Lake. The melting snow in the meadows around the lake awakened a billion primulas and irises, painting the meadows pink and blue. While the Kashmir landscape had a dreamlike enchanting quality, it was not difficult to perceive the sullen resentment among people on the streets of Srinagar and Aru. “You are from India”—they would remark.
Then, militancy hit the Valley. Tral, the base from where we used to walk up to Sangargullu, was in the grip of militants. The meadows of the upper Dachigam, where the Kashmir stag would come in summers, became the base camp for terrorist activities. It became difficult to hike or camp in remote parts of Kashmir. In that period, I fulfilled the desire to walk around the mountains by exploring Ladakh and Garhwal.
This August, I returned to my old haunts. My son, Kaustubh, and I walked up from Aru to Lidderwat. We camped in the meadow of Sekiwas, on the bank of the Lidder River. The next morning, we walked up to the pristine Tarsar Lake at 13,500 feet. Exactly 40 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”—the reflection of your soul. Nearly 40 years later, sitting on the banks of the Tarsar Lake, while watching the sublime reflection of the Pir Panajal mountains in the blue waters of Tarsar, I began to experience a magical tale of a new beginning.
Something was different. Forty years ago, during the multiple treks in Kashmir, we only came across English, German, Bengali or Maharashtrian hikers. Now, all along, from Aru to the Tarsar Lake, most hikers were Kashmiris. I began talking to each group. One was a group of saffron farmers. One farmer sold saffron to me and even accepted the payment on the UPI interface. When I said that I had come from Delhi, he said: “Last year, I visited Delhi, and loved it. I visited the Jama Masjid.”
Another was a group of Kashmiri engineering students. When I mentioned that my main interest was wildlife, but due to the high density of graziers, wildlife had withdrawn beyond the Lidder Valley, he said: “Yes, you can see wildlife in the Srinagar zoo, but our Delhi zoo is even better. We visited the zoo in Delhi last year and liked it very much.”
Are these isolated incidents? Not really.
We had the traditional Kashmiri wazwan in Adhoos with one of the youngest elected MLAs of Kashmir. He said: “I can’t believe that now I am able to travel around the Valley without gunmen, or that I am able to sit and have lunch with you without fearing the journey back home and being stoned.” He had studied in Pune and spoke in fluent Marathi with me. His only grouse was that when some untoward incident happens in Kashmir, Kashmiri students studying across India should not face any harassment.
During the hike, I met many Kashmiris, and they all seemed very happy. There was magic in the air. I was curious to probe how this transformation had occurred in Kashmir.
Another dear Kashmiri friend told me that post-Article 370 abrogation, only Army or central forces retained their arms to tackle cross-border terrorism. The local police were freed to deal with local crime and situations involving law and order. He said that the central forces tracked and dealt with cross-border terrorists meticulously. Earlier, the local police had gained an unsavoury reputation of getting involved in interpersonal disputes and passing these off as terrorism, or provoking bounty killings. Post-Article 370, interpersonal disputes are not allowed to snowball into terrorist incidents. Magically, peace has returned to the Valley.
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 has declined from a peak figure of 119 in 2007 to 30 in 2022. The number of tourists visiting Kashmir has gone up exponentially. In 2023, 12.7 million tourists visited Kashmir. The number is predicted to reach 23 million by the end of the year. In 2016, Kashmir received only 120,000 tourists.
The tourism boom is also having a positive impact on the economy. The hotels are full, the trekking companies are fully booked, and taxi drivers and cars-for-hire are hard to come by. Saffron and Kashmiri handicrafts are selling plenty. The GDP of Jammu and Kashmir has gone up by 15 per cent in 2022-23.
Paul Collier, the father of conflict economics, studied underlying reasons why conflicts like those in Sierra Leone, Sudan, Congo, and Afghanistan perpetuate or why conflicts keep reoccurring in the same countries cyclically. He postulated that the basic duty of a state is to secure a monopoly over violence. As long as the state exercises a 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 through the power of the gun, the state loses monopoly over violence and non-state actors can fund the conflict through their control over diamonds or Tantalum and Tungsten.
In Kashmir, the absence of fungible resources like oil or the opium trade, as in Afghanistan and Colombia, poses a question—how has the conflict has perpetuated over decades? The answer lies in the cross-border funding of non-state actors by oil-rich charities sympathetic to religious extremists.
After the abrogation of Article 370, multiple steps were taken to stop terror funding. These included strengthening relations with oil-exporting states and proactively plugging the flow of funds to extremist organisations based across the border. Even more effective was the total sealing of the border. Focused military action to plug infiltration from across the border has drastically reduced cross-border funding and the export of foreign-funded militants.
However, the real magic in Kashmir is the economic revival of livelihoods that involve tourism, agriculture, and handicrafts. This is a great peace dividend for the locals. Instead of staying cooped up in repeated bandhs and closures, ordinary Kashmiris are sending their children to study in Pune, Delhi, and elsewhere. They are using their well-earned money and leisure to explore their own state by travelling and trekking. And the ubiquitous UPI digital stack is fueling 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. The loss of arms disempowered non-state militia and the lack of economic growth forced ex-combatants to regroup in new militias and re-start the conflict. They are known as spoilers of the peace process.
In Kashmir, the revival of the tourism and hospitality economy has given a peace dividend which is an incentive to all ex-combatants not to return to militant activities. This is reflected in the negligible recruitment of people from the Valley into militant activities. The 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. It is the first time in 33 years of militancy that four times more foreign terrorists were eliminated as compared to the local Kashmiris. Between 2019 and 2021, of the 750 terrorists killed, 83 per cent were local Kashmiri militants. However, by 2022 43 per cent of the militants killed were Pakistani nationals.
Visiting Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) can be very depressing. In 2005, after the POK earthquake, I led a team on behalf of the United Nations (UN) to support the post-earthquake reconstruction. Visiting Muzzafarabad and villages around POK was an eye-opener—no one spoke Kashmiri; most conversed in Urdu and some spoke Punjabi. There was no local or civilian administration. The entire earthquake relief and reconstruction efforts were being run by the Pakistani Army, led by officers from Pakistani Punjab. Earthquake-affected people were left to themselves, and I photographed a large number of local people building their destroyed homes on their own, without any government support.
On behalf of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, we trained local masons and engineers to build earthquake-safe houses and supported the rebuilding of over 1,000 quake-safe houses. However, the economically- bleak landscape of POK is a fertile ground for recruiting militants for cross-border attacks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced from the ramparts of Red Fort on August 15, 2021, that “we have started Mission Karmayogi and set up the Capacity Building Commission to enhance people-centric approach …”.
The Capacity Building Commission worked closely with the Jammu and Kashmir Police over the past two years to train all police station heads to work with empathy towards citizens. The training programme was based on research on what sort of actions enhance the self-worth of ordinary policemen. It stimulated inner reflection and motivated individual policemen to work with seva bhaav. Carefully-selected policemen were provided training to become master trainers. They, in turn, trained over 1,500 field policemen to reflect on their own inner motivation to be a good police official.
Standard situations where police personnel have a flashpoint with citizens were modelled and they were trained to respond to such situations thoughtfully and with a problem-solving approach. We conducted a post-training impact evaluation by the Quality Council of India. Nearly 200 citizens, who visited police stations before and after the training were asked to anonymously rate their experiences, and also give feedback about their interactions with the police station staff.
The evaluation showed a significant increase in citizens who expressed satisfaction with their interactions with police station staff. However, ASI Majeed’s experience narrated at the Ram Munshi Bagh Police Station in Srinagar is etched in my memory. It is a story told by a sub-inspector in Srinagar police station. He said that his attitude to policing became more professional, and he was able to solve a double-murder case by being more thorough in the investigation. I was touched when he said emotionally: “The family members of the murdered person came and told me, aap police nahin aap farishte ho.”
Much of the story I have written may seem unbelievable. However, this year, nearly 16 million Indians visited Kashmir and experienced the magic. I can only invite those who hesitate to walk on the beautiful trails along the Pir Panjal and experience the smiling joy that peace has brought to the faces of Kashmiris.
(Praveen Pardeshi is Member of Capacity Building Commission [Mission Karmayogi] and CEO of Maharashtra Institution for Transformation. Views expressed are personal.)