Palladium cinema in Srinagar
Palladium cinema in Srinagar. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla

Customers hide the bottles underneath their shirts as they briskly walk out of the alley leading to a cluster of three liquor stores across the Dal Lake. Business seems to be doing well since the stores recently started selling again after staying shut for months during the coronavirus lockdown.

Srinagar has four licensed liquor shops and two stand-alone bars. While the shops have been allowed to run with social distancing guidelines, the bars are not yet permitted to host patrons. But “you can buy at the shop, and drink on the shikara,” the boats lining the Dal Lake’s shoreline just across the street, said a middle-aged man nearby. 

Alcohol has never been openly consumed in Kashmir. Though dignified access to bars in upscale hotels and society clubs has always been available to affluent residents, drinking is severely stigmatised in Kashmir’s predominantly Muslim community. The industry contributes handsomely to the tax revenue in Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) — 2,184 crore rupees, or an estimated 6% of the total state tax revenue, in the financial year ending March 2019 — but almost every public figure in the Valley has denounced alcohol, many of them calling for its complete prohibition.

The outrage was predictably swift when a letter supposedly from the government’s excise department sent to the finance department on 16 June was leaked online. The letter identifies 183 “unserved” locations in J-K, sixty seven of which are in Kashmir, for “e-auctioning” new liquor store licenses.

Mutahida Majlis-e-Ulema, an umbrella collective of religious groups, has blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party-controlled government for “assaulting our Muslim identity and values” during the pandemic, and warned that any new liquor shops “will not be allowed” in Kashmir.  

The National Conference (NC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and the newly-formed Jammu Kashmir Apni Party also railed against the move. When they held office, both the NC and the PDP had refused to enforce complete prohibition in the state, much to the chagrin of religious groups.

After drawing flak for the purported move, the J-K administration dissociated itself from the proposal, stating that the finance department had not considered or taken any decision on the excise department’s proposal.

While the plan to sell new liquor licenses has hit a roadblock, earlier this month, the army-controlled Badami Bagh Cantonment board gave a no-objection certificate for Kashmir’s first multiplex film theatre, being built by Taksal Hospitality—owned by the prominent Dhar family of Srinagar. Expected to begin screening films by March next year, it will be the only operational theatre for the general public in the Valley.

Kashmir has had a vibrant cinema culture before the eruption of the militancy, after which most cinemas have been shut for three decades. Vijay Dhar, director of Taksal Hospitality and a prominent member of the Kashmiri Pandit community who earlier ran the Broadway cinema hall, told The Kashmir Walla that he undertook the new project after being asked by the last governor of J-K, Satya Pal Malik, to bring back theatres to Srinagar. 

Since the eruption of armed movement, central and state governments have strived to showcase “normalcy” in Kashmir. It is both a loaded political term to signify public acceptance of the government and a characterisation that pro-freedom groups have strongly opposed. 

The return of the big screen and the establishment of more liquor stores would be the first major steps towards New Delhi’s “normalcy” after the parliament abrogated J-K’s special autonomy last year and imposed new domicile rules, triggering accusations of an attempt to alter the demographics of the Muslim-majority region.

Without a strong public demand for either theatres or liquor stores, “these are imposed values that are obviously meant to demoralise the colonised to push through larger agendas” such as the domicile rules, said Mohamad Junaid, an assistant professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. 

History and security

At least eleven single-screen theatres had been showing films in Kashmir till 1989, when the Allah Tigers militant group, led by “Air Marshal” Noor Khan, issued a diktat in local newspapers ordering cinema halls and liquor stores to shut shop. Theatres were attacked on multiple occasions, and by 1990, all of them had closed their gates. Many of them were later occupied by government forces. 

Both alcohol and cinema are viewed as sins in Islam. Though theatres had a greater social acceptance in Kashmir than liquor stores, opposition against them had also been taking shape for years. 

“During the 1970s, when cinema and television had made deep inroads into the culture of Kashmir, voices of concern were raised on weakening social norms. The cinema attracting women audiences in a large number was considered the main culprit,” author and former bureaucrat Khalid Bashir Ahmad writes in an essay in Greater Kashmir newspaper. “It was during this period that Maulvi Mohammad Sultan, nicknamed as Slacks Maulvi, with a cane in his hand, would appear on the Maulana Azad Road to admonish and chase college girls away for wearing slacks, a skin tight leg-wear. This happened for several days before he was taken into custody by the police.”

As romance and physical intimacy grew increasingly common on screen, pushback also mounted. “What groups like Allah Tigers did was back up what was already going on in society with the threat of violence,” said Dr. Junaid. 

Calling them unIslamic, Allah Tigers had also shut down beauty parlours and video stores, but these industries have since bounced back. Cinema and alcohol may have especially suffered due to the dominance of Bollywood films in theatres and the ownership patterns of liquor stores. Even today, only one of the four liquor store licenses in Kashmir is held by a Muslim, other three by non-Muslims. 

Regal cinema - Kashmir
The building of Regal cinema in Srinagar. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla

The J-K government in 1998 had offered theatre owners financial incentives to resume operations. Three of them — Regal, Neelam, and Broadway — decided to screen films again. But when grenades were hurled inside Regal cinema hall on the day of its first show, killing one customer, more theatres were dissuaded from reopening. The presence of troops to guard the establishments from attacks made people further reluctant to go to the movies. Of the three, the Neelam, near the civil secretariat in Srinagar, eventually shut down after a militant attack in 2005.

Though Mr. Dhar, who is overseeing the new multiplex theatre currently under construction in Badami Bagh, said he is not especially worried about security, these concerns are not absent from consideration. 

The theatre will play the Indian national anthem before every screening, Mr. Dhar said, a new norm that was introduced across the country in 2016 by a court order and has stayed around even though the order was later revoked. However, the theatre would also screen Pakistani films “if we are allowed to import”, said Mr. Dhar, adding that “when we were running Broadway cinema, we used to get Pakistani films many times.”

Its location inside an army cantonment area would add to the theatre’s security, but could also keep local residents away. “People were already averse to going towards Badami Bagh cantonment. [The screenings] may be mainly for soldiers,” said Dr. Junaid.

Like the theatres, liquor stores have also faced sporadic attacks. In 2012, the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group claimed an attack on the liquor stores across the Dal Lake, in which one sales staffer was killed. Today, the staff at these stores say they are worried about their safety but need their jobs. Police personnel who guard the complex admonish customers these days for not wearing face masks.

Two young men are one of the very few customers who do not hide their purchase when they walk out of the shop. They are Kashmiri Pandits who have grown up outside the Valley, after their families fled during the rise of the militancy. The public works department offered them jobs, and they have been living in Srinagar for over a year. They say more theatres and liquor stores should be accessible to the public. But that would not be enough to keep them here.

“This may have been our parents’ home, but it is not ours,” one of them says. “We are hoping to get transferred to Jammu.”

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