Tulips & Other Indian Visual Manias In Kashmir

The arrival of spring in Kashmir every year begins with the inauguration of Asia’s largest tulip garden located in Srinagar, splashing the news print, social media platforms and television screens with photographs of manicured rows of bright tulips. The landscape is resplendent, curated to be arrayed for the dominant gaze, that is, the Indian citizenry which consumes its images through myriad modes of circulation. These photographs appear in calendars, postcards, wallpapers, advertisements, travel literature, movies and memorabilia and embody an affective rendering of the relationship between power and space and more specifically, colonial power and indigenous space. 

Inaugurating the tulips

Colonialism is the process of constant transformation of a society in order to dominate all spheres of life (and death) through myriad registers of control over bodies, space, temporality, narrative and culture. These registers include the bureaucratic – legal – military – economic apparatus and what Timothy Mitchell calls the ‘machinery of representation’ (Mitchell, 1991). It is as an Oriental repertoire of signification which makes the world ‘outside’ legible or graspable for political and economic calculations and interventions. 

The phenomenon of tourism and its associated paraphernalia (cinema, media reportage, advertisements and photography) have been an important tool in this machinery of representation. In Kashmir, tourism is enabled through the nexus of military-industrial-religion complex and the framing of Kashmir as a ‘territory of desire’ (Kabir, 2009).

Every summer and more so after every political upheaval, the number of tourists and pilgrims to the Kashmir valley are used to relocate or further embed Kashmir within the discourse of “normalcy” and “peace”. The project of normalcy constitutes performative claim-making which is sedimented through related events like the Tulip Garden Festival. 

Consequently, mass unrest or uprisings are considered mere aberrations in the project of national integration. In 2012, anthropologist Mohammad Junaid in an essay for Al-Jazeera wrote that “coming to Kashmir is like a nationalist pilgrimage. The more Indians make the trip, the harder the nation integrates.” Sovereign anxiety is undercut as the Kashmiri landscape becomes a scene to be ‘completed’ or stitched to the national fabric by the action of visitors or in our case tourists and pilgrims. Tourism is seen as an extension of traditional military roles of safeguarding sovereignty as revealingly put by Mehbooba Mufti while addressing the Travel Agents Association of India in 2018, “The way a soldier fights at the border; fights against militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, that is one way of fighting. The other way to fight is that you [tourists/tourism promoters] come here”. Tourism thus is a practice of territoriality and a deeply political phenomenon.

The phenomena of tourism and associated imagery like landscape photography (including photographs of breath-taking blossoming tulips) is enmeshed in the politics of ways of seeing or the point of view which structures a material and a moral order by imputing reified meanings to colonial realities and relationships. 

In what follows I will map three visual regimes which sustain India’s dominance in Kashmir. 

‘Paradise on Earth’

While travelling to Kashmir valley, one comes across a plethora of slogans, signs and graffiti marking the journey with signposts of nationalism. “We are there for your safety”; “Kashmir is the crown of India”; “Sleep peacefully at your homes, Indian Army is Guarding the Frontiers”; “Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India is one”; “Awam aur jawan, aman hai muqam” (people and soldiers, peace is the destination) and of course, “Welcome to Paradise on Earth”; dot the landscape in congruity of its spectacular beauty. These signboards are appended to the names of various military, paramilitary (Indian Army, Border Security Force and so on) and other national bodies like the Border Roads Organization. This infrastructure is laden with pedagogical and performative languages which aim to produce political subjectivity. Thus, the Indian tourist/pilgrim is constantly reassured of safety and security during their holiday or pilgrimage, finding markers of militarisation as an assurance rather than an anomaly. The symbolic realm of militarization constitutes a ‘structure of feeling’ or sensorial and political affects. To the Indian tourist, it gives an appearance and reassurance of order while normalising an intense military presence as a prerequisite to “secure” Kashmir to preserve the “unity and integrity” of India. Tourists and pilgrims are seen taking selfies with military personnel and raise nationalist slogans like ‘Jai Hind’ while passing by them: the presence of military personnel as a prerequisite for their own is normalised. 

A day before the tulip garden was thrown open for tourists, the Indian PM Narendra Modi posted a series of tweets along with stunning visuals to his 68 million followers. He wrote, “Tomorrow, 25th March is special for Jammu and Kashmir. A majestic tulip garden on the foothills of the Zabarwan Mountains will open for visitors. The Garden will see over 15 lakh flowers of more than 64 varieties in bloom.” In another tweet he said, “Whenever you get the opportunity, do visit Jammu and Kashmir and witness the scenic Tulip festival. In addition to the tulips, you will experience the warm hospitality of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”

Consequently, many people from across India thronged the valley. Newspapers carried stories of peace and normalcy, digital platforms published photographic galleries and video stories which reproduced resplendent images of the garden with Zabarwan hills in the background. 

Modi not only accrues specific values to the Kashmiri landscape (majestic, scenic, abundant) but also to its people (warm and hospitable). This is an old script, one which was most compellingly captured by the advertisement ‘Kashmir: The Warmest Place on Earth’, in recent years. 

Produced by advertising agency J. Walter Thompson at the behest of the state government of Jammu and Kashmir, the advertisement was marketed as “not just about the beauty of the land but about the people”. At the heart of the advertisement which is interlaced with breath-taking beauty of Kashmiri landscapes is the cultivation of the servile Kashmiri subject or the ‘good Kashmiri’. The advertisement while maintaining and reproducing orientalist and colonial imagination of Kashmir also makes legible Kashmiri bodies amenable to the Indian neo-colonial project. The spectacular rendition and simulation of abstracted qualities of a people (their warm hospitality in particular) and culture for consumption, hierarchised values of bodies to produce a norm, a cohesive, a subtext to the politics of “integration”. 

As part of the machinery of representation these myriad visuals formulate specific ways of representing “reality” wherein people, places and things become abstracted from native contexts and are ordered to suit and simulate, in our case, Indian sensibilities — of Kashmir being an apolitical space of leisure. Over the years landscape photography has played a vital role in the sanitised presence-ing of Kashmir.

Garrison State

The everyday visual realm of Kashmiris consists of sprawling military infrastructure— the most visible form of Occupation, which exudes a starkly different affect. A thick web of security signatures like proliferating bunkers, “smart” barricades,  gargantuan cantonments, camps, artillery firing ranges, swathes of concertina wire, checkpoints along with 7,00,000 armed forces who have occupied schools, colleges, hospitals, orchards, streets, hilltops, making Kashmir the most militarised place in the world. According to official estimates over 4.30 lakh kanals of land was under the occupation of the army and other security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Highways, streets, street corners, markets and bazaars are laden with military and paramilitary vehicles like olive and blue trucks and buses, casper, wantons, bunker gypsy, bunker rakshak, rakshak+ and mobile bulletproof bunkers. Moreover, regular Area Domination Exercises, Cordon and Search Operations (CASO) where entire neighbourhoods are put under siege by large number of military personnel are permanent features of everyday life in the valley. 

In the wake of dismantling of Article 370 and 35A, this militarisation is set to become even more aggressive. For example, permanent Battalion Camping Sites for the CRPF are proposed to be set up in key locations across Jammu and Kashmir which will serve as military infrastructure and holiday homes for families of troopers. Moreover, 25 acres of land has been identified in Budgam district for Kashmir’s first Sainik colony. 

This architecture of occupation entails appropriation of indigenous land. It alters people’s perception and memories about their own neighbourhoods, disciplines and regulates their mobility. It is a state performance of asserting power through material forms which enables stringent forms of surveillance and disciplining of everyday life. 

It is this “expansive geometry of Indian military occupation”, bolstered by a litany of laws (existing and new) which will secure new avenues of colonisation in the name of development or areas of ‘strategic’ importance.  

In July last year, the Government of India amended the Control of Building Operations Act 1988 and J&K Development Act 1970, paving way for the armed forces to regulate construction in ‘strategic areas’. Administrative manoeuvres like withdrawl of a 1971-circular which required the armed forces to obtain a ‘No Objection Certificate’ before acquiring any land in J&K.

Projecting growth of tourism and events around its promotion in Kashmir therefore becomes an essential performance to reiterate not only ‘normalcy’ but also lack (of allied infrastructure) and potential (abundance of natural resources which should be tapped into). 

Neo-Liberal Imaginaries / ‘Economic Paradise’

In a recent essay on news website Newslaundry, urban researcher, Evita Das has shown that a vision for carving Kashmir as an investor friendly cartography was already envisaged in the Master Plan 2035 which was approved months before dismantling of Article 370 in August 2019. The Master Plan 2035 will significantly alter the urban fabric of Srinagar, making it amenable to demographic change as it proposes to inscribe the city as a patchwork of industrial units, IT parks, tourist hubs, informal, formal housing townships and a Special Investment Corridor. The administrators therefore sketched a reconfiguration of a city under siege in service of capital and settlers from India. It has identified over 57,000 acres of land for setting up industrial estates for prospective entrepreneurs.

When Kashmir was reeling under a ‘lockdown within a lockdown’, the Ministry of Home Affairs introduced the Domicile Law in May 2020. Under the law, a domicile can be a person who has “resided in J&K for 15 years or attained 7 years of education, and children of central government employees or government of India aided organisations who have served in J&K for 10 years”. In September 2020, the central government informed the Lok Sabha that nearly 17 lakh people were given domicile certificates In J&K. These include retired Gurkha soldiers who had served in the Indian army, non-native bureaucrats working in the region. 

The unilateral abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A was hailed as a landmark decision by India Inc. Billionaire businessmen hailed it as an opportunity to attract big investments to Kashmir or a step towards ushering J&K into an “industrial hub”, an “economic paradise”. Harsh Goenka, chairman of RPG Enterprises, said, “Revoking Article 370 will be remembered forever in the annals of history as a historic moment. We were one of the early investors in Kashmir when my father set up two factories in the late 80s and he was personally involved in creating a beautiful tulip garden getting seeds from Holland. I have absolutely no doubt that this landmark decision will spur investment but only when the unrest settles down. Not only will employment be created, tourism will see the good days once again.”

There has been a heightened interest in promotion of tourist imaginaries and laying its groundwork under the BJP. In 2017 — after yet another uprising against Indian rule — a financial package worth 2000 crore INR was earmarked under the Prime Minister’s Developmental Package (PMDP) for development of tourism infrastructure in J&K. This included 12 Tourism Development Authorities, 3 Tourism circuits, setting up 50 tourist villages to be executed by central government subsidiaries – the National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC) and the National Projects Construction Corporation (NPCC). 

This year, after the Tulip Garden Festival ended, the ministry of Tourism along with Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industries (FICCI) and the Indian Golf Tourism Association (IGTA)  organised a three day event, “Tapping the Potential of Kashmir: Another Day in Paradise” from 11th -13th April. FICCI’s website describes Jammu and Kashmir as an “attractive investments destination” stressing on its “picturesque locations” and “salubrious environment”. 

The event laid out a multifaceted plan to transform Kashmir into a destination for weddings, film tourism and MICE tourism. The Ministry of Tourism called upon the private sector to invest in necessary infrastructure creation for an ‘active tourism map’ of Jammu and Kashmir. This map identifies a long list of destinations which the state wants to bring to the “forefront”. India’s neo-colonial forays in the name of tourism is a potential threat to the fragile ecosystem of Kashmir. Environmental damage in the wake of Hindu nationalist pilgrimage – the Amarnath Yatra which has been aggressively pushed by the BJP is well documented. Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and EQUATIONS report, Militarised Pilgrimage details the adverse environmental impact of religious tourism in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Ministry which is in correspondence with the Hindi film industry, also plans to bring back the “golden film era” to Jammu & Kashmir. The films of this era portrayed Kashmir as a space for heterosexual romance, leisure and an escape from metropolitan life with the picturesque and the sublime as the backdrop. In all these films, there is an erasure of the native Kashmiri, their everyday tribulations and subjectivities (Dar, 2007). The J&K investor summit website urges the film industry to invest in its “mesmerising scenic locations” which are a “perfect destination for film tourism, production houses, studios and film city”.

Earlier in August 2019, Bollywood producers rushed to enlist film titles such as “Article 370,” “Article 35A” and “Kashmir Hamara Hai” (Kashmir is Ours) with the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association. Under the Modi regime, the film industry has shown heightened enthusiasm to ally itself with the political ideology and glorification of militaristic values. “The BJP government has actively enabled the making and screening of movies that conflate nationalism with pride in a macho, militaristic Hindu state” (Sharma, 2019).

Cinematic representations will operate from within these twin catalogues of the picturesque and bellicose nationalism wherein the former will help in aestheticizing the violence of the later. Both, however will work to deepen India’s grip in the politics of representation of Kashmir leading to material domination of Kashmiris and their way of life. 

Aided by law, capital and guns, these imaginaries assemble the restive place as being conducive to neoliberal techniques which are embedded in socio-spatial politics. The tulip garden, therefore, is an invitation — for investors and hospitality sector giants. It helps fixate the scenic and the picturesque while eliding political aspirations, indigenous meanings, memories and metaphors. It is a destination not an existing habitat or an intimate social milieu. 

In Our Name

As the brutal second wave of covid-19 pandemic was taking root in India, tourist inflow to Kashmir remained a priority for the Indian administration which organised public events like concerts and exhibitions and golf tournaments. Tourists were seen without masks, getting themselves clicked in the Tulip Gardens. 

As more and more ticket counters were opened for visitors, the Indian governor of Kashmir ordered schools to be shut in wake of the pandemic. While photographs of the tulip gardens dominated news from Kashmir, the Indian military used disproportionate force and blasted civilian homes during armed battles with militants. Religious gatherings were banned and a night curfew as the holy month of Ramzan approached. J&K recorded 461 covid positive cases on April 1 which spiked exponentially to 3,832 cases per day on May 1.

Further, as mainstream media was focusing on revival of tourism industry, extractive state practices like unabated illegal mining simultaneously destroyed fragile ecosystem and riverbeds of the valley while disempowering locals who have derived sustenance from the same for decades. Recently, Al-Jazeera reported about dried up water channels in Shopian which have been a lifeline for fruit orchards due to illegal mining. Moreover, locals have lost their means of livelihood in the wake of an online mining auction held in February 2020 while Kashmir was still digital siege and internet blackout; hence, assuring 100 per cent of the mining rights to outsiders.

While ‘Naya Kashmir’ promised development and employment opportunities, the unilateral policies and bureaucratic manoeuvres have led to disempowerment and dispossession of Kashmiris. And this is just the beginning.  

The Kashmiri Counter-Archive

Nonetheless, the Kashmiri counter-archive makes a mark through a number of visual texts in political cartoons, comics and photographs redirecting the gaze towards what the state wants to invisiblize. I focus on one such powerful text: 

On 1st April 2019, (the April Fool’s day) Kashmiri cartoonist, Suhail H. Naqshbandi published a cartoon titled, ‘April Phool’. Phool means a flower in Hindi, while rhyming with the English word “fool” hinting at what summer brings to Kashmir: Tourism and Obfuscation. The cartoon shows a man wearing a hat with a backpack and a camera. He is undoubtedly a tourist awestruck looking at a large canvass, a metaphorical landscape adorned by rows of tulips he is made to see as unseen hands (of the state?) hold the canvass obstructing what lies behind: a number of graves.

Away from the manicured, sanitized touristic avenues lies another garden in Srinagar’s old city, the Eidgah, where the mounting number of dead, since the early 1990s found a place. It is also known as the “Martyr’s Graveyard”. Two important points can be inferred from Naqshbandi’s nuance: the manufacturing of a landscape which structures ‘reality’ and its relationship to power. Amenable to myriad ways of intervention, the landscape becomes an “instrument of cultural power” with its underlining coloniality: which pervades the paraphernalia of “peace” and produces bodies which labour to deepen its grip.


References

Kabir, A. J. (2009). Territory of desire: Representing the valley of Kashmir. U of Minnesota Press.

Mitchell, T. (1991). Colonising EgyptWith a new preface. U of California Press.

Dar, H. (2007). Cinematic strategies for a porno-tropic Kashmir and some counter archives. Journal of Contemporary Thought, 26, 77-110.

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Preetika Nanda Written by:

Preetika Nanda is an aspiring anthropologist working on the intersection of spatio-bodily violence, memory and politics of citizenship in Punjab. Her work has been published by The Polis Project, Outlook magazine, The Wire, Hardnews Media and Roundtable India.

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