Barely a week after protestors trying to enforce a shutdown in South Kashmir pelted stones on a school bus, injuring an 11-year-old, another such incident has left the Valley shocked. R Thirumany, a 22-year-old tourist from Chennai, was killed after being injured in stone pelting on Monday.

Thirumany and his family were on their way to the tourist resort of Gulmarg in North Kashmir when their vehicle came under a shower of stones near Narbal, about 15 km from the capital Srinagar. Thirumani succumbed to his injuries in hospital in the evening.

The separatist Hurriyat had called for a shutdown across the Valley to protest against the killing of civilians in Srinagar and Shopian in South Kashmir. One civilian was killed in Srinagar and six in Shopian over the weekend after security forces fired at crowds trying to disrupt gunfights with militants. Thirumany’s vehicle was apparently attacked for not heeding the call for shutdown.

His death has been condemned by leaders from across the political spectrum. “I have no words strong enough to condemn this tragic incident or even condole with the family,” Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said in a press statement. She described the incident “as a blot on the cultural value system of Kashmir and an attempt to bulldoze the economy of the place”.

Omar Abdullah, former chief minister and legislator from Beerwah constituency, where the incident took place, asked fellow Kashmiris to “wrap our heads around the fact that we stoned a tourist, a guest, to death”.

Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani also condemned the “indiscipline and hooliganism by some unruly youth” that led to the death and said Kashmiris felt “not only sorry but ashamed as well”.

Condemnation also came from the tourism industry, which forms a large part of the Valley’s economy. The industry, hit badly after the mass protests of 2016 and the violence last year, has been struggling to find its feet.

‘Cold-blooded murder’

At a press conference on May 8, several tourism industry associations came together to condemn the incident. They termed it “cold-blooded murder” and demanded strict action against the perpetrators as well as a political dialogue to end the “uncertainty”.

Ashfaq Sidiq, president of the Travel Agents Association of Kashmir, called for a thorough investigation into any “innocent civilian killings”. “People guilty of committing those crimes should be taken to task,” he said. “Whosoever has committed this incident is not a well wisher of Kashmir. He is a bloody cold-blooded murderer.”

Speculating about the circumstances that led to Thirumany’s death, he said, “Because there was a call for strike, some people might have been trying to enforce that. It could be a case of a vehicle at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Ghulam Rasool Siah, former chairman of the Houseboat Owners Association who was at the press conference, said they will take “precautions” now on. “We can’t give assurances but appeal to our youngsters and friends, our brothers that we bring tourists to Kashmir after hard work,” Siah added. “It should be considered.”

Tourism, not politics

According to Jammu and Kashmir’s 2017 economic survey, tourism accounts for 6.98% of the state’s gross domestic product. Successive state governments have often credited the tourism industry as a crucial factor in restoring peace to the Valley while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked Kashmiri youth to choose “tourism over terrorism”.

Sidiq, however, cautioned against linking tourism with politics. “Tourism has to be taken as a normal economic activity and not be linked with peace or conflict,” he said. “Tourism has been taken as a barometer of peace. That should not happen.”

In December 2017, the director of tourism had claimed there was not a single complaint against locals for troubling tourists. Yet, only months earlier, a mob had chased tourists in Srinagar, suspecting them to be behind the mysterious incidents of “braid chopping”.

In 2012, when four women travelling in a tourist taxi were killed in an explosion, the police called it a “cylinder blast”. Six months later, they said it had been a grenade attack by militants. In 2008, a grenade attack on a tourist vehicle in Gulmarg claimed the lives of two visitors, one of them a minor.

On April 2, a day after gunfights between militants and security forces claimed at least 20 lives in South Kashmir, The Times of India reported that a tourist bus had been attacked by stone pelters in Srinagar. Though the newspaper stood by the story, it was widely denounced as fake news and rebutted by the state government, the police as well as the tourism industry associations, which even filed a police complaint against the reporter.

Sidiq, whose association was one of the complainants, said the tourism industry did not believe in hiding the facts but it was against “unrelated incidents” being linked with tourism. “There have been deliberate incidents in the past but we as Kashmiris have always condemned it,” he said. “We are totally against the elements involved.”

Kashmir’s tourism industry has been on the decline for the last two decades, the stakeholders say. Unceasing violence as well as the distorted picture that the national media presents of Kashmir, they say, has been bad for business.