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Cinemas And Liquor Won’t Bring Peace
December 13, 2011
Cinemas And Liquor Won’t Bring Peace

Farooq Abdullah ruffles feathers with his ideas to boost tourism. Clearly, the minister thinks tipple will boost the current tourist trickle


13 December 2011

Jammu & Kashmir:
JUST DAYS ago, the media widely reported that Farooq Abdullah, Union Minister for New and Renewable Energy, President of the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference and father of the incumbent chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, had remarked that, ‘Cinemas and liquor shops should reopen in Kashmir to give more options to tourists visiting the state’ and that ‘Steps like reopening of cinemas and liquor sale would boost the tourism industry in the state’. This has inevitably triggered an intense debate.

Among the hardliners in Kashmir politics, chair of Hurriyat Conference Syed Ali Shah Geelani has taken the stand that, ‘Islam declares liquor as the mother of all evils and orders punishment against those who consume it.’ The local Jamaat-e-Islami declared that, ‘Whether it is a liquor shop or the cinema hall; both are sources of propagation of obscenity, immorality and imprudence.’ Really? If this was not sufficiently convoluted, at the opposite end of the spectrum are arguments that would make one think that the apparent ‘denial’ of cinema and liquor to tourists in Kashmir (or even to Kashmiris) is something akin to violation of fundamental human rights. In order to ascertain what the reality is and what ought to be done, one first needs to cut through this thick fog of rhetoric.

Let us begin by asking, should liquor shops be reopened in Kashmir? And should the reason for reopening liquor shops (if they were closed at all) be that it would boost tourism? There is no official ban on liquor in Kashmir. If shops or liquor vendors have shut, it was entirely because of militant pressure since the 1990s. It is however reasonable to assume that liquor had always been available and obtainable to whosoever wanted his evening tipple, regardless of a ban, official or militant-imposed.

For instance, another equally troubled state, Manipur, has had prohibition for more than a decade and the sundry militant groups allegedly enforce a ban. This however has failed to inconvenience natives or visitors, who couldn’t do without their evening peg. Whether open sale of liquor through licenced shops would shore up excise revenue, and hence a government would want to issue more such licences, is a matter of debate. It also should take in account local cultural sensitivities to prevailing sociopolitical factors.

THE ARGUMENT of Farooq Abdullah, that reopening liquor shops would boost Kashmir’s tourism is an absurdly flawed one. It is incredible to believe that the tourists who flock to Kashmir, braving threats of militant violence and being caught in sudden political disturbances, come to quench their thirst with liquor they somehow couldn’t find elsewhere. And even if there were such tourists who would be lured to Kashmir solely by the promise of liquor, it is debatable how desirable it would be to promote their brand of tourism. Kashmir has many rich experiences to offer to tourists and it is rather sad that Abdullah appears to be oblivious to those. Kashmir could do without as dubious means as more availability of alcohol to promote tourism.

The next question that has generated much controversy is should Kashmir reopen its closed cinemas? Would reopening cinemas boost tourism? Kashmir had quite a few cinemas and the pre-militancy generation thought it to be a mundane part of their everyday life. What followed was a vigorous imposition of a ban on screening that was carried out through bomb attacks. As cinemas closed down, some were occupied by the army and security forces.

A few cinemas that defied the ban initially downed their shutters eventually as financial losses triggered by dwindling revenues made operations hard. The impact of the ban was felt across single screen cinemas even in places where there was no militant violence. Meanwhile, multiplexes mushroomed across India but the ban facilitated no new investments in Kashmir.

So the question that looms now is: how are cinemas to be reopened? There is ample reason to believe that Farooq Abdullah still doesn’t have an answer to that. For new cinemas to open, investments have to inevitably flow in. And for investors to be interested, they have to be reasonably assured of the viability of the enterprise. Industry sources reveal that China, which produces far lesser number of films than India, has about 65,000 screens while India notches only 11,000 screens, with the screen density being a low 12 screens per million.

This has not gone unnoticed by the major exhibitors in India who operate multiplexes and who have now drawn up plans to add about 10,000 new screens in the next five years, spreading into the Tier-II and Tier-III cities as well. The innovative business modules include multiple screens, malls, bowling alleys, gaming zones all integrated into the premises to ensure that the real-estate investment generates substantial return on investment from revenues other than screening of films too. Couldn’t some be set up in Kashmir too? There are many underlying conditions that have to be fulfilled before multiplexes start operations. Foremost is public safety and safety of the building premise.

The government or the state would do well to keep their hands off what is being screened (for instance, Ashwin Kumar’s Insallah Football found it hard to go past the CBFC rules). Could political players leave it to people of Kashmir to decide what they would want to watch for their money’s worth? If they are mature enough to decide on complex political questions, they could be assumed to be mature enough to decide what they want to watch.

In all probability, what Farooq Abdullah uttered were perhaps wishful longings rather than a well-thought idea. The problem with this is that when there are several challenges and pressing matters at hand for the government to address, it makes little sense to rake up such issues. It is unlikely that cinemas would boost tourism in a significant way and even if it did, there is little possibility of finding significant investment to have them reopened anytime soon. If Abdullah is serious about reopening cinemas, he should have a sensible plan-of-action before making grand statements.

Why should a government overlook opportunities for creating an environment for not only reopening cinemas but also improving quality of life? Whether the government would succeed, or would the ones who are opposed to the Abdullahs want the government to succeed, is an entirely different question. While attempts to peacefully resolve contentious issues of freedom, justice or reconciliation continue in Kashmir, the desire for even small improvements in quality of life must be encouraged, not thwarted. Why shouldn’t the common Kashmiri have better schools to send their children to? Better colleges? Have better hospitals? Or for that matter have the reassuring normalcy of a life to be able to hop across to the neighbourhood mall or the multiplex to catch the newest movie? All of these may not come together or even in the sequence many would desire.