THESE are unexpectedly happy days in conflict-torn Kashmir. Tourists flock from India’s sweaty plains to gasp the mountain air. Srinagar’s hotels, houseboats and cafés are crammed. Jetskis roar over the once-tranquil Dal lake. Hordes of Hindu pilgrims trek, unmolested, to a sacred penis-shaped lump of ice at Amarnath, a cave temple. And on roadsides Indian migrant labourers, mostly Biharis, line up to work in fields and on building-sites.
Amid the bustle there is glee. A father tells of his young children playing in streets that last year flew with stones and bullets. A man in Bandipur, a town north of Srinagar, previously protested against Indian occupiers but now worries more about cash: “tourism was gone last year, so now we need to make some money.”
Such pragmatism is welcome. Kashmir’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, sitting on a terrace in his Srinagar home, says that almost 80% of voters turned out for recentpanchayat (village) elections, though he concedes that the vote does not signify acceptance of Indian rule. Protests over the past three years led in 2010 to five months of curfews, boycotts of shops, offices and schools—known as hartals—and stone-throwing by youngsters. Brutal and ill-trained security men responded by shooting dead more than 110 Kashmiris.
People would doubtless do it again, if called out. But many are fed up with staying home or getting shot at for no gain. Parents fret that their children are flunking exams; traders worry about lost earnings. Some fear that traumatised youngsters may become extremists, swapping stones for bombs or guns.
The authorities have also grown cannier. More than 1,000 young men are said to have been locked away as a precaution. Many separatists are behind bars or, like the most notable leader, the octogenarian Syed Ali Shah Geelani, under house arrest. The police have been taught, at long last, to use non-lethal force against unarmed crowds. And officials, not stick-wielding security thugs, are now supposed to respond when humdrum grievances—a broken water pipe, say—bring people on to the street. Mr Abdullah, whose hair is fast turning grey, says “our entire exercise is in not giving these people a trigger to start the protests again.”
The wider background may help. Kashmir’s separatists were quick to condemn a triple bombing in Mumbai on July 13th that killed 20. In Kashmir itself there are still occasional clashes: on July 15th a handful of fighters, allegedly from Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group based in Pakistan, died in a shoot-out. But the army says militancy is down to a “subcritical” level. And though sullen-looking armed men in uniform are everywhere, dozens of military roadblocks that choked Srinagar last year have been cleared. Some soldiers might return to barracks, easing the locals’ sense of being under the Indian army boot.
Militants and pro-Pakistanis alike are also subdued because they fear that Pakistan is succumbing to dire economic and security problems. The talk is of “betrayal” by the government in Islamabad. When the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan hold rare bilateral talks in Delhi on July 27th, they will not discuss Kashmir’s status. Nor are Pakistan’s beleaguered army and spies likely to restore the backing for fighters in Kashmir which they reduced after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
As a result, India has space to do something on its own. Previous lulls were cues for it to neglect Kashmiri grievances, speeding up the return to protest. Possibly things might be different this time. Modest efforts to build trust are under way, such as allowing barter trade of farm goods with the Pakistani-run bit of Kashmir. That could be followed by letting more people cross the border to visit relatives. Braver steps would earn a response from moderate Kashmiris, whose most bitter complaints concern restrictions on daily life, rather than being part of India.
One step would be to hold India’s security services to account for last year’s killings. If Kashmiris thought the army and India’s politicians were concerned about their plight, they might be less resentful. Mr Abdullah says he expects prosecutions to follow current inquiries. The lifting of harsh emergency laws—both at the state level and under a centrally imposed armed forces act—is long overdue.
Timing matters. The Indian authorities move slowly, more worried about seeming soft on separatism to Indian voters than about winning the trust of Kashmiris. Yet delays raise the chances of renewed protest and play into the hands of hardliners. In April the moderate leader of a fundamentalist Wahhabi organisation, al-Hadith, was blown up as he arrived at a mosque in Srinagar. Suspicion points at extremists within the group, whose following is growing. Thankfully, neither bloody protests nor revenge attacks followed. Next time could be different.
From the Asian Print Eddition of The Economist