Habib Wangnoo scanned the silvery lake from the deck of his vacant houseboat hotel, remembering when he helped Mick Jagger out of a narrow, flat-bottomed canoe during the rock star’s 1981 visit to Kashmir. Jagger spent most of the next two weeks on the boat’s upper deck, Wangnoo recalled with a smile. The lead singer of the Rolling Stones strummed his black guitar and jammed with Kashmiri folk musicians as they watched the moonlight dance across the Himalayas.
Today, Nagin Lake is desolate and quiet as a tomb, devoid even of the rowing touts who normally trawl the water. There are no tourists, no money and little hope. “In Kashmir, tourist industry money goes into every pocket from arrival to departure, everybody lives on it,” Wangnoo said. “And now, there is nothing.”
Kashmir, the craggily beautiful region in the shadow of the Himalayas long caught between India and Pakistan, has fallen into a state of suspended animation. Schools are closed. Lockdowns have been imposed, lifted and then reimposed. Once a hub for both Western and Indian tourists, Kashmir has been reeling for more than a year. First, India brought in security forces to clamp down on the region. Then the coronavirus struck.
The streets are full of soldiers. Military bunkers, removed years ago, are back, and at many places cleave the road. On highways, soldiers stop passenger vehicles and drag commuters out to check their identity cards. The scene — on display during a visit by The New York Times organized and tightly controlled by the Indian government — was reminiscent of the 1990s, when an armed insurgency erupted and the Indian government deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to crush it.
Conflict in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, has festered for decades. And an armed uprising has long sought self-rule. Tens of thousands of rebels, civilians and security forces have died since 1990. India and Pakistan have gone to war twice over the territory, which is split between them but claimed by both in its entirety.
Now, as India flexes its power over the region, to even call Kashmir a disputed region is a crime — sedition, according to Indian officials. Wangnoo’s family had kept afloat during the darkest days of conflict. Through it all, visiting dignitaries, young adventure-seekers and Bollywood stars came to sunbathe on the top deck, amid the gardens of floating lotus and majestic chinar trees on the lake’s edge.
This time, the seventh-generation business — wholly dependent on tourism, like so many others in Kashmir — is at risk of going under. Other houseboat owners have it even worse. The houseboats date to the British colonial era, a clever workaround to restrictions on foreign land ownership. But the elaborately carved cedar vessels are in ill repair and many are sinking. Hard-pressed owners are unable to pay for fresh caulk.
Except for a handful of Indian tourists, Wangnoo hasn’t had any guests for more than a year. Within six months, he estimates, he could lose the business and with it the dream of passing it down to the eighth generation, his sons Ibrahim and Akram, in their 20s. “There’s no brightness,” he said. “It’s looking like dark days ahead.”
Emily Schmall is a journalist with NYT©2020
The New York Times