As violence ebbs, Kashmiris shyly take to alcohol

16 May 2008
The Daily Times

Srinagar: Residents of Indian-held Kashmir, the country’s only state with a Muslim majority, are drinking more alcohol, excise officials said, after years of intimidation by Islamic militants. Liquor shops, beauty parlours and cinemas were closed in the Indian-held Kashmir (IHK) after a Muslim separatist revolt against Indian rule broke out in 1989, and conservative Islamic ideas were propagated by armed militant groups. But as violence has decreased since India and Pakistan began a peace process in 2004 over the disputed territory, liquor traders are back in business. Half a dozen liquor shops have reopened across IHK. “More than 1.2 million bottles of Indian-made foreign liquor and beer were sold in the Kashmir Valley in the past one year, which is of course the highest quantity since the militancy began,” said an Excise Department official. Only 414,000 bottles were sold the year before that, he said. The department is processing dozens of applications for licences to open more liquor shops, he added. Most Hindus fled the region after the insurgency broke out, so the new shops are mostly being run by Muslims, even though Islam forbids the sale or drinking of alcohol. “I am God-fearing, and I feel guilty, but I don’t have any work and I’ve got a family to feed,” said Ghulam Mir, a liquor salesman. Many drinkers were reluctant to be identified or photographed. Feroz, 35, at first tried to hide his face when approached by a reporter as he went to buy whisky. “I’m not scared [of militants] but this is Kashmir, things can turn upside-down any time,” he said. Militants shot dead the owner of liquor shop in Srinagar in 2004. Otherwise, attacks on liquor shops have been rare since the peace process began. “It takes lot of courage to run this shop,” said liquor salesman Mir. Conspiracy: Separatists are angered at the growing consumption of alcohol. Some smell a conspiracy. “India has launched a cultural aggression in Kashmir, and opening liquor shops is a part of that. It is all state-sponsored,” said Asiya Andrabi, the head of the women’s separatist group Dukhtaran-e-Milat (Daughters of the Muslim Faith). “We will fight India and this menace too that is killing our society,” she said. Indian officials privately admit that reopening of liquor shops is a sign that peace and normalcy is returning to Kashmir. But some psychiatrists warn that easy access to alcohol could lead to social disorder in the region, where people have been traumatised by nearly two decades of violence. “Patients who are taking to sedatives to get rid of trauma can straight away turn to alcohol,” said Syed Abinah Nawaz, a doctor at Kashmir’s only psychiatric hospital. “The trend shows more and more people are turning towards it. This will promote alcoholism.”