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Let's sell liquor and open cinemas in Kashmir

Union Minister Farooq Abdullah's statement that reopening of cinemas and resuming sale of liquor in Kashmir will attract more tourists to the Valley has elicited sharp reactions. Kashmiri separatists have decried his suggestion, while the opposition, the People's Democratic Party has dismissed it as a diversionary tactic of the ruling National Conference. 

Those supporting Mr Abdullah have suggested that the state government should run cinemas in Kashmir. Thankfully, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has dismissed the idea. It is not the state government's job to run cinema halls.

Sale of liquor, in comparison to reopening of cinemas, evokes stronger emotions in people. Prohibition putatively has religious sanction and is morally sanctified in India by Mahatma Gandhi's historical stance against alcohol. After all, there are states where prohibition is legally enforced, such as Gujarat, Manipur and Mizoram. 


Face-off: Union Minister Farooq Abdullah and Chief Minister Omar 
Abdullah have diametrically opposite opinions on whether cinema 
halls should be run by the state government in the Valley

Although there is no official ban on sale of liquor in Kashmir, the threat of violence from Pakistan-controlled jehadis meant that liquor shops haven't officially existed there since 1990. There were enough people queuing to buy liquor before violence gripped Kashmir. 

Even in the last two decades, it has never been difficult for anyone to get alcohol in the Valley. It means that contrary to what the separatists claim, there are many Kashmiris who want to consume alcohol, whether licit or illicit. Consuming Illicit alcohol, as seen recently in West Bengal, often turns out to be a bigger tragedy for the poor. 

Moreover, it robs government of revenue, breeds crime and creates a corrupt nexus between the police, the administration and the criminals peddling illicit liquor. No society, particularly one moving towards normalcy after two decades of violent turmoil, can afford such socially damaging behaviour.

More importantly, in any modern, liberal society, it is unacceptable for self-anointed leaders to force their choices on the complete population. These leaders of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, Hurriyat Conference and Jamaat-e-Islami are not running a social campaign against alcohol. The threat of violence is implicit in their statements. The gory reality of their violent coercion was on display recently when a shopkeeper was brutally murdered by separatists in Srinagar for disobeying their diktat to close his shop. 

Of course, the core of the separatists' argument is not liberal. It is hardcore communal: "Kashmir, being a Muslim-majority state, should be run as per Islamic law. Alcohol and films are unislamic activities. They hurt Muslim sentiments and thus can't be allowed. 

This is Hindu-India's cultural aggression against a Muslim-majority state." The assertion is reprehensible. Let us turn the argument on its head. As Hindus happen to be a majority in India, should the Muslims or Christians or Parsis in India accept the Manusmriti as the lodestar of the Indian state because some Hindu fundamentalists insist on it tomorrow? Of course not. India is a secular state and all parts of India, including Jammu and Kashmir, are duty bound to uphold the ideals enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Another argument is that free availability of liquor will help create an image of Kashmir as a normal place. It will damage the quest of a political solution for the Kashmir problem. This is, rather paradoxically, an implicit acknowledgement by the separatists that their movement is weakened to a point where it will be damaged by open sale of liquor. 

The reality is that separatists are invested in the conflict economy and their personal interests are served by keeping all signs of normalcy away. With violence at a 20-year low, record tourist visits and 80% polling in local polls in 2011, they can't bear to see another sign of normalcy in Kashmir.

It is not about liquor or cinemas. It is about the slippery slope of Islamic radicalism on which Kashmir, like next-door Pakistan, can dangerously slide. Kashmir's tallest separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani has openly called for Sharia law to 'impose an Islamic nizaam' in Kashmir. What will hurt Kashmir are not the words of the rabidly communal but the silence of the moderates. It is time the moderate voices spoke up in Kashmir.

Sushant K. Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian   National Interest Review.

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