JK Tourism caught between public relations campaign and alleged corruption

A picture showing a teenage boy playing cricket with policemen in a curfewed street near Jamia Masjid Nowhatta, Srinagar went viral. Many politicians and top officials termed it, a change in the ground zero situation. A claim that falls flat considering the reality on ground.

In January alone, government forces in Kashmir killed 18 people in Kashmir. About 147 people were injured due to the use of indiscriminate force on protesters and mourners.

Away from all this mayhem and gore in streets, Jammu Kashmir Tourism department organised a tourism festival in Pahalgam, a hill resort in South Kashmir. According to the department, many cultural activities were part of the event, including a photography exhibition, Sufi singing by local singers and bands, storytelling sessions, comedy shows, skits etc.

Waheed Parra of the ruling People’s Democratic Party tweeted about the photography exhibition happening in Pahalgam tourism festival many participants were in disbelief.

The politicisation of this event raised questions about the sanctity of the event being apolitical.

“I was assured by the organisers that the event is apolitical but that is not the case,” said Hilal Ahmad one of the participants who pulled out of the event.

“I can compromise on money but I am stubborn when it comes to my political beliefs,” he added. Hilal has been doing photography for last six years and makes living by doing commercial projects and selling prints.

Masrat Zehra, another participant who pulled out of this event is of the opinion that the organisers are trying to exploit the photographers. “I pulled out of the event because one, they are not paying, second due to the political nature of the event.”

Masrat is a freelance photojournalist, currently interning with local English daily Rising Kashmir.

“It (photography) is my bread and butter, I cannot allow my photos to be exhibited for free.”

The photography exhibition at Pahalgam Winter Festival was curated by Avani Rai, daughter of Indian photographer Raghu Rai. According to certain sources, the curation cost Jammu Kashmir Tourism department allegedly cost a whopping 25 Lakhs (INR 2.5 million)

WK has sent a questionnaire to the Jammu Kashmir Tourism department regarding Ms Rai’s recruitment and budgetary allotments. The article will be updated as and when there’s a response.

The photography exhibition was curated by a Mumbai-based photographer Avani Rai, denied this claim. ‘I got in to contact with organisers of the festival and decided to volunteer for this event.” She also pointed out that she had not taken money from the said event,” The Tourism department had already talked to few photographers and I talked to others involved, I did not take a single penny for this event.”

On asked if the event was promoting a statist narrative of normalcy, Rai rejected the claims of the event being politicised saying, “There is no denying that Kashmir had very bad couple of years, but we need to move on and see good things.”

Allegations were rife on the social media about the involvement of PDP workers and aides given various privileges during the festival.

While many activists and artists disagreed that the event was apolitical or not promoting the statist narrative.

“Behind the scenes, as always, JK Tourism is projecting the image of Kashmir as a heaven, filled with warmth and snow, on international platforms so that if someone asks them ‘how about the pellet guns and violence unleashed on local population?’ they will say ‘ all lies, sir. We have snow and we sing,” says Omair Bhat, a young poet and student.

Another event that will be held during Pahalgam Winter festival was Sufi singing and JK tourism on his social media handles shared the names of artists, this included Ali Saffiuddin.

Ali Saffiudin rose to fame after he sang and composed pro-freedom songs. His participation in Pahalgam Winter Festival had led to a debate on the social media. Many questioned about him taking the stage for the state that his songs are opposed to.

WK reached out to Ali Saffiudin on his comments, he refused to go on record with his comments. But sources close to him pointed out that he has refused in the past to join any event with Indian armed forces’ sponsorship.

Last year alone, JK Tourism went into an overdrive post-2016 uprising with many events and festivals. Including roping in Indian film stars to promote a campaign called #WarmestPlaceonEarth.

While the PDP-BJP coalition government is under hot heels, after a chain of corruption scandals were unearthed. Is the JK Tourism department being used for a public relations campaign for the ruling government?

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