Trouble in paradise

January 17, 2021

Amidst a delayed tourist season, Swat police’s overreaction on a viral video brings back haunting memories of Taliban days

Atop Malam Jabba, situated 8,700 feet above sea level at a distance of around 40 kilometres from Swat valley’s headquarters Saidu Sharif, tourists try to ski downhill under the watchful eyes of professional coaches. A chairlift takes them uphill where they queue up at the top of the hill to experience the adventure of riding 1,000 feet high and 2,000 feet long zipline that ends at the top of a luxury hotel, run by Pearl-Continental Hotels and Resorts — Pakistan’s leading chain of hotels, constructed to replace the one torched by the Taliban.

The calm afternoon of an early January with light snowfall coupled with the joyful laughter of tourists is the best that Malam Jabba has to offer in the winters. “One can’t ask for more,” says Shinza Ali, a mother of four who has come all the way from Karachi with her family to enjoy the valley’s winter.

Malam Jabba was once dominated by Taliban who declared skiing an ‘un-Islamic’ activity. The improved security and better roads and quality services, including world-class hotels, chairlift, zipline, cafes, parks and tracks have made Malam Jabba among the most favourite winter destination of tourists in Pakistan.

However, Shinza Ali and many other tourists are still sceptical whether they would ever visit Malam Jabba again. “I have heard that Malam Jabba police registered a case, yesterday, against 40 tourists for spreading vulgarity as a video of them dancing at a hotel went viral,” says Ali looking at her children who are having fun in the snow in the backyard of a newly-built luxury hotel in Malam Jabba.

“This is insane and gives me jitters that I or some of my family members can also be arrested for having fun in a normal way at a hotel in Swat. Isn’t it scary?” she asks.

The case was registered on January 6, after a video showing a group of young tourists dancing at a hotel in Malam Jabba went viral on the social media. Police registered a case against the hotel management and tourists for ‘vulgarity’ and violating coronavirus standard operating procedures (SOPs). The event, according to police, occurred on December 4, at a private hotel. “The video went viral on social media in early January and caused widespread reaction in Swat valley. Senior officials of local administration and police took notice and asked me to register a case to calm down the critics,” says Javed Khan, the Malam Jabba station house officer (SHO). “It is a small-time case. No need to worry about it,” he says, adding that he is unable to understand how such a thing can shake the confidence of tourists and investors in the area.

However, Mohsin Afridi, owner of the private hotel nominated in the case, cannot get over the way police treated him. “The police bullied me as if I was a terrorist. I am so scared that I am considering selling my hotel.” Afridi’s family built the hotel, one of the largest in the area, in 2007. “It took us five years to build this hotel. However, when it was finally complete in 2007, the area came under occupation of Taliban.”

In 2015, the government handed the hotel back to his family. “The first three years were really hard for us as tourists continued to avoid this area. This is the best winter tourism season in the history of Malam Jabba.” “However, police have now registered a case against me for spreading vulgarity. Can the police or local administration point out any vulgarity in the viral video? Incidents like these can scare tourists and investors. Do you think this is a conducive environment for businesses to come and invest in the tourism sector in Swat?” he asks.

“It seems that police, the Forest Department, the Wildlife Department and the district administration are trying to scare the people away. They create an environment of fear among investors for their petty interests. I fear that this will ruin all the efforts made by the army and the Tourism Department to promote peace and tourism in Swat valley.”

Most of the hoteliers and investors share Mohsin Afridi’s concerns. “A couple of months back, some locals cut our main water supply pipeline. The police took no action against them,” says a senior staff member of newly-built luxury hotel.

“The police want us to take every issue to a jirga comprising local elders. Local officials of departments like Forest and Wildlife behave as if they own this property. They always want us to treat them as priority guests and that too as a courtesy (without a charge). Otherwise, they threaten us with consequences,” he says.

Last month, an official of the Forest Department deployed at Malam Jabba threatened to raze the building of newly-opened popular café when staff of the café asked him to pay his bill. “It was quite a scene,” says a senior official of Samsons, the company that runs the skiing resort, café and family park at Malam Jabba. “Our adventure park has been closed since October 2020 when a group of locals attacked and smashed furniture. They want us to pay them more for the land we have already bought at the market rate. First, the police took a long time to register the case against those who had attacked our property. Then, they made no arrests. Now, we are being asked to seek a resolution of the issue in a local jirga. We have invested billions of rupees in Malam Jabba, but hardly get any support from government departments,” he says.

The case was registered on January 6, after a video showing a group of young tourists dancing in a hotel in Malam Jabba went viral on the social media. Police registered a case against the hotel management and tourists for ‘vulgarity’ and violating coronavirus standard operating procedures (SOPs). The event, according to police, occurred on December 4, at a private hotel.

The Green Valley Adventure Park was opened in October 2019. It offers sports and adventure activities including croquet, mini golf, jumping castle, trampoline, ring pot game, smash the mug, archery, summer tubbing, boating, ball throwing on target, ice hockey, curling and grass skiing. Referring to the specific case, SHO Javed Khan says: “The dispute can either be solved in a court or a jirga.”

Sharistan Khan, a local elder and former nazim of Malam Jabba union council, says the park owners have paid what they owed the locals. “Now some locals are trying to take advantage of the situation. They have been demanding more money. I wonder why police have been hesitating to take action against those who attacked a private property and forced the closure of the adventure park. This is not going to bring a good name to Malam Jabba and Swat,” he says.

A senior official of the Tourism Department admits that the junior staff of government departments sometimes create problems for tourists and investors. “We have been trying to devise a mechanism to resolve such issues,” he says.

The mishandling of two isolated incidents in Malam Jabba involving tourists and investors by police and local administration exposes the complexity and fragility of the situation in Swat valley.

The citizens say it was similar incidents that brought serious trouble to the valley, including Sufi Muhammad’s movement for imposition of Sharia in 1990s and his son-in-law Mullah Fazllulah’s violent Taliban movement later on. “Inaction by the administration aggravates such incidents and their repercussions. We need to learn from history. This government and administration should not allow a specific mindset to call the shots in the valley,” says a journalist based in Mingora.

Senior police officials admit that the case registered against tourists is an unfair one. They say the step was taken under pressure from certain elements in Swat valley. “Personally, I believe there is nothing wrong in the viral video. However, the locals felt offended and we had to take action,” says a senior police official working in Swat. “We are here to ensure law and order. Swat is a sensitive area and we need to deal with things carefully. Police alone cannot change the mindset of the people.”

The local people don’t agree with the police and the administration. “The government’s attitude is rigid,” says Prince Shaharyar Amirzada, who belongs to the family of former wali of Swat. “Till late 1960s, most of the movies in Pakistan used to be filmed in the valleys of Swat. It is all about the capacity to handle a situation which the current government lacks,” he says.

Erfaan Hussein Babak, executive director of The Awakening, a Swat-based civil society organisation working for social and cultural development, says there is a need for more work on changing minds in Swat. “There is a clear divide among the people in Swat. There are some who think our culture and traditions are under attack from the outside. They blame the tourists. Government departments should strongly discourage vigilante justice. If there is a property dispute, the government should resolve it instead of allowing locals to take decisions. This can promote violence,” he says.

Abid Majeed, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Tourism, Culture and Youth Affairs secretary, regrets the registration of the FIR. “I did not find any vulgarity in the video. The people in Swat have always been forward looking. It is very safe for tourists and investors. We have already launched a hotline (1422) for the investors in tourism sector. They can contact Tourism Ministry any time if they have grievances against any government department. This government is committed to promoting tourism in the province,” he says.

The writer is an   Islamabad-based   journalist, researcher and media trainer. A former Daniel Pearl/AFPP fellow, he shared in The LA Times’ 2016 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.    He tweets @AounSahi

Trouble in paradise: Swat police’s reaction on viral video brings back haunting memories of Taliban days