Queuing for liquor in Srinagar

by AFP/Izhar Wani, May 19, 2008 | Destinations: China / India / Kashmir Region

SRINAGAR, India, May 16, 2008 - It's a sight that would not have been seen in revolt-hit Indian Kashmir a couple of years ago, when sipping a whisky could have meant a bullet in the head from hardline Islamic militants.

But as violence ebbs in the Muslim-majority state wracked by insurgency since 1989, Kashmiris are queuing in front of the two liquor shops open in the summer capital Srinagar.

"We're doing really brisk business. People aren't afraid any longer. They stop their cars near the shop and buy a bottle -- or sometimes two," said a salesman at one of the outlets.

The customers are from all strata of society even though it is traditionally forbidden for Muslims to consume alcohol, and the Koran labels intoxicants "the abominations of Satan's handiwork".

"I'm here to buy a bottle of whisky," said businessman Abrar Ahmed.

"A year ago I wouldn't have been at this shop buying a bottle but now things are almost normal," he said before speeding off in a four-wheel drive car on the avenue that skirts shimmering Dal Lake.

That's not to say the threat of action by militants against people buying liquor has vanished all together.

But as calm slowly returns to Indian Kashmir against the backdrop of a four-year-old peace process between India and Pakistan aimed at settling the future of the disputed region, people are returning more openly to old lifestyles.

"Normalcy has lured me back to my old pastimes," said a middle-aged, cultured Kashmiri man who did not wish his named to be used.

"My friends and I like to get together to enjoy a drink once in a while and we can nowadays."

The state government's liquor statistics are a sign of the more relaxed attitude in Kashmir where at the peak of the militancy, thirsty drinkers would bring in alcohol from outside the state.

Liquor sales climbed to 414,000 bottles in 2007 from 385,000 in 2006.

Beer sales grew even faster, jumping to 409,000 bottles in 2007 from 165,000 bottles a year earlier.

All this marks a big change from nearly two decades ago when the insurgency erupted against New Delhi's rule of the Himalayan region.

You have to be brave to run a liquor shop in Kashmir

Liquor stores and cinemas became early targets of Islamist militants who forced their closure in Srinagar, Indian Kashmir's urban hub of the revolt that has claimed at least 43,000 lives.

Srinagar hotelier Joginder Singh gave up in 1999 and converted his bar into a vegetarian restaurant. He now says tourists "come here to enjoy (the) region's beauty and not liquor".

Alcohol however has always been available at Srinagar's five-star establishments and at a few guest houses where owners would produce a bottle from under a counter.

But now there are five privately-owned liquor shops in the scenic Kashmir Valley as the number of insurgency-related deaths has dropped to two a day from 10 at the height of the violence.

Traditionally, such shops were mostly run by non-Muslims, but after many of them fled the fighting, the new shops are operated mainly by Muslims.

"You have to be brave enough to run a liquor shop in Kashmir," one Hindu worker at the shop said, vividly remembering militants targeting a liquor outlet three years ago in Srinagar and killing its owner.

Some hard drinkers even open bottles in front of the store and swig the tawny liquid in public.

"I know Islam forbids liquor but I don't want anyone to force me to toe their line," said Farooq Ahmed, 35.

Many locals regard the shops as a curse.

"We've asked the authorities to close them," said Imtiaz Ahmed, a middle-aged engineer. "It's not good for the neighbourhood -- it's bad for our youth."

But the sellers are unmoved.

"We're not forcing anyone to come to us. People come on their own," said one salesman, asking not to be named.

Kashmir's main opposition National Conference and separatist alliance Hurriyat Conference have called for a liquor sale ban, but government has decided to provide licences for more outlets.

Authorities say they believe liquor shops will boost tourism in the snowcapped "Switzerland of the East," as the region is known.

"It's a shame that some Muslims in Kashmir use liquor," said cleric Ali Mohammed Wani. "There aren't that many but Allah will certainly punish them -- or bring them back onto right path."

* * * * *