Sunset on Dal Lake

Steps for Leaving Srinagar

So you’re visiting Kashmir. Congratulations! Seriously, it’s hard not to enjoy your time there, even if you’re just in and around Srinagar, the summer capital, where the world is reflected back at you in the clear surface of Dal Lake, the nearby mountains hold the clouds tightly around their peaks, and ancient Chinar trees tower over beautifully restored Mughal Gardens. I hope you have a blast. But eventually you’ll have to leave, and the process at Srinagar Airport is perhaps a little different than at most airports you’ve been too. Here’s a taste of what to expect, and some things to think about while you’re going through it.

1) Make sure you stop in downtown Srinagar for a vehicle permit so you’re allowed to approach the airport. While you wait, think about the beautiful Mosques that proliferate through Old Srinagar, including the magisterial Jamia Masjid, with its four minarets and high ceilinged halls held aloft by towering wooden columns, and about the Friday protests often held there to protest the Indian army’s presence in Kashmir.

2) On the road to the airport, past streets cordoned-off behind barbed wire, exit to have your luggage x-rayed and to receive a pat down. Your vehicle will also be x-rayed while you wait. During the pat down, reflect on the soldiers you’ve seen today and throughout your trip, and those that you didn’t — there are about 600,000 active duty Indian soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir at any one time.

3) Enter the airport, x-ray your luggage again, receive another pat down. You may learn that certain clothes are not allowed in carry on bags, for “security reasons.” While re-packing your bags and fulminating over the arbitrariness of it all, you might gain some perspective by thinking about the arbitrary disappearances of 8,000 Kashmiris without a trace since 1989, or the 2,700 unmarked graves throughout Kashmir.

4) Go to the Foreign Registration Counter and sign out, imagining the giant stack of paper in some forgotten office where this sheet will join the one you filled out on the way in. Reflect on all the beautiful sights you’ve seen, and how popular Srinagar was at this time of summer, when tourists from across India packed Boulevard Road around Dal Lake between rows of houseboats on one side and hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops on the other. Remember the phrase you learned, “Pepsi-chips tourists,” to describe the vast majority of tourists who come to Kashmir with their own food, stay for a few days, visit a religious site or two or the high mountains valleys of Pahalgam and Gulmarg, and leave without having had more interaction with the local people than buying some snacks.

5) Check in the same way you would at any airport. Wonder about the hundreds of “fake encounters” in which the Indian military kills Kashmiri civilians and reports their deaths as violent encounters with militants. Think about what the rule of law means when the Indian Armed Forces Special Powers Act “grants virtual immunity to members of the security forces from prosecution for alleged human rights violations.

6) Go through a regular security check. This is the third time you will be patted down and your luggage scanned, if you’re counting. While you wait, reflect on the view of Srinagar from the Shankaracharya Temple, 1,000 years old and 1,000 feet above the city. Wonder about the Pandit Hindu community that had been here for at least that long, but which fled Kashmir en masse in the face of Islamist militant violence in the 1990s.

7) After your carry-on is x-rayed, submit it for a thorough search, turn on and off all your electronics, etc., etc. Think about how the Pakistani invasion in 1999, the Kargil War, led to closer Indian relations with the U.S. and Israel, but also into a closer orbit in the “War on Terror.” Wonder what that does for the odds of a peaceful resolution and an end to the occupation in a predominantly Muslim region branded as a potential terrorist hotspot.

8) Go outside and identify your bag at the luggage carousel. Perhaps 60,000 people have died in Kashmir since 1989, if you’re interested.

9) That’s it! You’re ready to go. Except for one last security pat-down, just before you get on the plane. Think about just how beautiful this place is, even wrapped in concertina wire, and about the stupid, seemingly endless futility of violence in the name of identity, nation, and religion. Enjoy your flight.

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