Kashmir, Covid and the Power of Forgetting

 Crowded Tulip Garden | KO Photo By Abid Bhat

By David Lepeska

“IN newspaper work,” American novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote in a letter to a friend, “you have to learn to forget every day what happened the day before.”

For journalists in Kashmir this is a blessing: if they were unable to forget what happened yesterday, last week, or last year, they would never be able to write today’s story because they would begin to feel rather silly covering the same news over and over again.

Yet it is also a curse because it means the horrors of life in the Kashmir Valley fail to accumulate. In order to write about the latest deaths of neighbors, suffering of loved ones, or governmental errors, the Kashmiri reporter must push out of his head the thousands of previous times something similar occurred or risk going insane.

The Vale’s latest exercise in forgetting is New Delhi’s big spring tourism push, for which the government has earmarked more than $100 million. The Tourism Ministry this week held a three-day event in Srinagar titled, “Tapping the Potential of Kashmir: Another Day in Paradise”. Discussions focused on taking Kashmir to the next level and promoting traditions like shikaras, wazwan and saffron.

Also this week the Centre highlighted the Valley’s newest link to the rest of India. “The arch of Chenab bridge, connecting Kashmir to Kanyakumari has been completed,” Railways Minister Piyush Goyal said in a tweet on Monday. Never mind that the bridge itself is at least a year from completion, and even once it is finished the Banihal-Katra stretch will still have gaps that need to be filled before anybody can ride a train from Anantnag to Udhampur, much less to the southern tip of the subcontinent.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced to his 66 million Twitter followers the opening of Kashmir’s famed tulip garden, in a tweet featuring several appealing photos. A few days later Kashmir received its most significant dose of favorable international attention in years: a New York Times travel story described skiing in Gulmarg as “a beautiful dream” and said the resort attracted 160,000 visitors this season -- 10 times last year’s total and the most since the start of insurgency.

Yet all of this tourism hype -- part of a broader effort to get the Valley back on track economically after the double-whammy of the August 2019 revocation of Article 370 followed by covid-19 -- ignores a few crucial points. The first is that, thanks to the pandemic, Indians are unable to travel to preferred holiday destinations like Thailand, Nepal, Malaysia, or Dubai, and are thus forced to turn to domestic alternatives. Kashmir may be the top option right now, but it won’t be once the pandemic recedes.

Second, the violence has ticked up of late, as seen in the killing of at least 10 Kashmiri militants this past week in Shopian district. The Centre says five militants were killed in the gunfights, which were again minimally covered in mainstream national media which by and large toes government line on Kashmir. Thus, your average Indian may be unaware that violence in Kashmir increased significantly last year, with the number of militants killed up 45 percent from 2019. Then this January-February saw a spike in gunfights and militant attacks. Meanwhile, knife attack's may be on the rise in Srinagar, possibly in connection to gang disputes over drugs and debts.

The third point is the most troubling. As I write this, India has marked a record for new daily cases of covid-19 each of the past five days, topping off at nearly 170,000 on Sunday.  Considering the 12,000-or-so daily cases India was seeing two months ago, when vaccinations began, one might rightly label this calamitous covid management.

The Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has seen a similar increase: 1935 new cases and 21 deaths in February; 4519 new cases and 37 deaths in March; and April on pace for 20,000 cases and nearly 120 deaths.

On average, tourists from outside Kashmir have made up about one in five new cases in the Valley. At least two have died of covid-19 this month, with several others in serious condition. Yet Lieut. Governor Manoj Sinha opened Kashmir’s recent Tulip Festival with a prediction that tourism in the Valley “would be taken to new heights”.

Crowded ticket counter at Tulip Garden | KO Photo By Abid Bhat

Unsurprisingly, it is covid-19 that has risen to new heights, marking a record number of cases that day. The next day the government shuttered schools, then all Kashmiri health workers were called back from leave as hospitalizations spiked.

“Citizens should understand they are on their own,” Delhi-based journalist Rohini Singh said in a Monday tweet. “Mask up, stay home. The government has no proper plan to tackle Covid.”

It sounds a lot like Delhi’s plan to quell the insurgency in Kashmir, to end encounter killings, to give Kashmir more autonomy, to encourage stability and spur economic growth.

In that letter to his friend, Hemingway warned that a journalist should get out of newspaper work before it destroyed his memory. “He will always have the scars from it, just as any experience of war is invaluable to a writer,” he wrote. “But it is destructive if he has too much.”

Kashmiris know it all too well.

Views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • The author is an international journalist based in New York. He previously worked with Kashmir Observer

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