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Last Updated: Friday, 28 March 2008, 13:12 GMT

Kashmiris take to alcohol

By Altaf Hussain
BBC News, Srinagar

An alcohol shop in Srinagar
People are unwilling to be seen buying alcohol

There has been a sharp fall in violence in Indian-administered Kashmir and at the same time the consumption of alcohol has started picking up fast.

Liquor shops and cinemas were the first to close down on orders from separatist militant groups after the outbreak violence in the late 1980s aimed at driving India out of the region.

But now the liquor traders are back in business.

Two and a half years ago, the Kashmir Valley's first liquor shop opened on the boulevard along Dal Lake in the summer capital, Srinagar.

Last month, the Valley got its fifth shop in the southern district of Anantnag.

When the first outlet opened, activists of a militant women's group, Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of Faith) ransacked it and local residents pledged support to their campaign.

But a look at the sales suggest that support does not amount to much.

'Courage'

Between April 2007 and February 2008, more than 1.2 million bottles of IMFL (Indian-made foreign liquor) and beer were sold in the Valley.

The deputy commissioner of the excise department, Pir Nizamuddin, says he is now processing many more applications for licenses to open liquor shops.

At a liquor shop in Srinagar, I watched several people lining up to buy their daily tipple.

But the shopkeeper and a dozen others, including some customers, wouldn't allow us to take their photos.

Tourists in Srinagar
Authorities say liquor shops will boost tourism

Traditionally the liquor trade was mostly in the hands of non-Muslims. But as most of them fled the Valley in the wake of the armed conflict, the shops that have now re-opened are being run mostly by Muslims.

"It takes immense courage to run a liquor shop," one Muslim worker at the shop tells me.

"Almost all the people who buy liquor from these shops are Kashmiris," local resident Gulzar Ahmed says.

But the buyers are discreet and it's obvious they don't want to attract any attention.

Kashmiri society, being predominantly Muslim, has always frowned upon consumption of alcohol and the easy availability of alcohol has not gone down well with many.

"Even schoolchildren have started coming to these shops," says Shabir Ahmed, who rows a shikara (pleasure boat) on Dal Lake. "It's causing havoc."

Call for restrictions

Psychiatrist Dr Arshid says the easy availability of liquor could create a problem with alcoholism in a society where many people have been traumatised by violence and which is also undergoing the strains of urbanisation and growing materialism.

He says a survey conducted two years ago revealed that "about 17% of people, aged 18 to 35, had taken opiates at some point".

He says such people could easily turn to alcohol.

Dal Lake in Srinagar
Many say tourists come to Kashmir to enjoy its beauty, not to drink

"They can straightaway step into a shop and buy a drink without any fear of the police. This will promote alcoholism." Dr Arshid wants the availability of liquor to be restricted.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir state has been keen to re-open the liquor shops for two reasons - one, they are considered a sign that normalcy is returning to the Valley. Second, the authorities say this will boost tourism.

But a spokesman for the Houseboat Owners' Association, Tariq Ahmed, says tourism can do without liquor.

"We used to tell the tourists that alcohol was banned in Kashmir. They did not make a fuss about it. They come to see the beauty of Kashmir, not to booze."





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