Attack on Tourists: Terrorists Attack Soft Targets in Kashmir

Md. Sadiq

31 May 2006

Frustrated by the waning of local support and growth of the tourism industry, militant outfits in Kashmir are now coordinating their attacks on soft targets such tourists who are visiting Jammu and Kashmir. The return of normalcy, support for the ongoing dialogue process between New Delhi and Kashmiri groups as well as India and Pakistan, has significantly dampened the outlook of militant outfits who are increasingly finding themselves marginalised in the state. The beauty of Chinar-lined lakes and snow-capped Pir Panjal mountain ranges are some of the various sites that attract thousands of tourists to Kashmir. By targeting tourists, militant outfits are also seeking to hurt the state's economy, its culture and the very notion of Kashmiriyat.

Soft Targets
Though the militant outfits claim to be acting on behalf of Kashmiris, it is clear that the attacks on tourists is mainly hurting the a huge section of Kashmiri people who are dependent on the state's tourism industry for their livelihood. After suffering due to militant violence for more than a decade and a half, the economy of Kashmir is now undergoing a process of revival mainly due to the huge spurt in tourist arrivals. In the past few years, the J&K tourism industry had witnessed a healthy boom with total arrivals increasing from 1.91 lakh in 2003 to 6.05 lakh in 2005. Apart from domestic tourists, the figures for foreigners also increased from 8,959 arrivals in 2003 to a whopping 19,680 in 2005. So far over two lakh tourists have visited Kashmir since January this year, which is more than double than the number who visited in the first five months of 2005.

Support for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue has increased significantly in the post October 2005 earthquake period which caused huge destruction in both parts of undivided Kashmir. The Indian government took note of the popular sentiment and facilitated the opening of road links between Indian Kashmir and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) to help affected families meet. Various steps undertaken by the Indian government including a development package for Kashmir have boosted the economy in recent months. Moreover, the decline in local support for militancy over past years has opened up the tourism industry as tourists are finding a more secure and stable situation in Kashmir. However, this situation is clearly unacceptable to militant outfits who have started attacking tourists in order to destablise the economy and security in the state. Attacks against tourists in Kashmir show a clear pattern in that such attacks have increased with the decline in public support for separatist and militant activities. Ironically, the militants who claim to be protecting Kashmir's religiosity and culture, have repeatedly turned their guns on children and hurled grenades at innocent civilians.

On 25 May 2006, minutes after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left Srinagar after holding the second roundtable conference, militants hurled a grenade at a tourist bus on the outskirts of the city, killing four persons and injuring seven others. A group of about 70 Gujarati tourists had moved out of hotels after security restrictions were eased following Prime Minister Singh's departure to New Delhi. The tourists were headed for the Mughal gardens and as their bus halted at a speed breaker near Zakura, a grenade was thrown at it. Two women and a child died on the spot. Another person died in hospital. Though no outfit claimed responsibility, the incident clearly indicated that the failure to disrupt the roundtable had led to the desperate militant attack on innocent tourists. However, the attack did not lead to panic among those visiting Kashmir. Three days later, over 2,000 tourists, including foreigners, arrived in Srinagar. Significantly, no cancellation was reported and the movement of tourists around the Dal Lake in Srinagar, one of the most popular tourist resorts, was reported to be usual. Authorities said on 28 May 2006 that over 13,000 tourists, including foreigners, were believed to be in the Valley. The Travel Agents Society of Kashmir, the Travel Agents Association of India (J&K Chapter), the Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association, the Houseboat Owners Association and the Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Federation condemned the attack on innocent tourists. On 31 May 2006, militants hurled grenades at two tourists buses from West Bengal, injuring 22 people. The buses were attacked at Dalgate.

Shikarawalas, houseboat owners and all those deriving their livelihood from the tourism industry have expressed outrage at the targeting of tourists. The attacks on tourists not only affects the main sector of the state's economy, but it also impacts other sectors such as hospitality industry, handicraft, horticulture etc. which also derive business from tourists. Observers say that an increase in attacks on soft targets such as tourists could cripple the economy and force Kashmiris to leave the Valley in search of jobs elsewhere. Some observers also say that the state could well become 'Kashmir without Kashmiris'. According to 45-year-old Asif Qayoom, a houseboat owner, “The attack on tourists would deter visitors and Kashmir’s source of livelihood” “These are the only two months, when we earn for rest of the year, the attacks on tourist will be attack on our earnings, rebukes Asif. Asif has two houseboats in Nageen lake and it is only source of his livelihood. He has three children to fend for. Asif earns on average Rs 2000/- per day during the month of May and June and saves his earnings for rest of the year. Houseboats are available in Dal and Nageen lake for a rent of Rs 1000/ to Rs 2000/- per day. "Tourism was never a target. But this incidence is very sorrowful. We wish this does not happen again. We, in Kashmir valley depend on tourism for our livelihood", said 52-year-old Javed Sheikh, a Shikarawala who earns at least Rs 1000/- during the peak season. “This is a shameful incidence, which should be condemned by one and all”, he adds. “With more attacks and less tourists, source of income will dissipate and we may have to leave the valley in search of jobs elsewhere. Kashmir may as well become ‘Kashmir without any Kashmiris”, said 45-yearold Shafi Wani, Pahalgam Hotel employee. “Lakh of tourists come here. We request the terrorists not to cause any harm to them. Tourists are our means of livelihood, and this will stop if tourists stop coming here,” source, said Gul Mohammad, a Shikara boatman.

Boosting Confidence
The central and state governments have undertaken several steps to improve the security situation and instil confidence in tourists who have been the target of terrorist attacks. Among the several proposed steps include an insurance cover for both domestic and international travellers to the region. The J&K govt is reportedly considering a proposal in this regard. Security has also been boosted particularly at popular tourist resorts in order to allow the visiting tourists to enjoy the beauty of the state without any fear. It is largely accepted that rise in militant violence clearly benefits the separatist outfits who claim to have influence over the militant groups active in the state. Separatist outfits such as the Hurriyat Conference of Umar Farooq are facing increasing isolation as on the one hand, they refused to participate in the roundtable conference on Kashmir. On the other hand, Prime Minister Singh refused to meet them on the sidelines of the roundtable. By broadening the dialogue process, New Delhi is seeking to evolve a people-centric Kashmir peace process. However, this is clearly unacceptable to separatists and militant outfits.

Whatever the militants' strategy be, it is clear that they cannot sustain themselves once their umbilical chord with Pakistan gets snapped. Pakistan had admitted during the recently-held Home-Secretary level dialogue with India, that terrorism must be eliminated in the interest of peace in the region. Therefore, Islamabad needs to move fast and eliminate the infrastructure of terrorism that has grown for the past several decades in its territory. It should dismantle all the terrorist training camps and communication network in Pakistan to justify its claim that it is taking the necessary steps to tackle terrorism. Merely stressing the need “to pursue effective and sustained action against terrorists” will not do. Pakistan must realise that these outfits could ultimately become a threat its own existence. It will take more than mere words for Islamabad to show that it is willing to face the threat posed by the militant outfits. Perhaps Pakistan could learn something from the resolve of tourists who have defied threats issued by militants and are continuing to visit Kashmir in large numbers.