Tourists often, and understandably, have reservations about visiting Kashmir. After all, this picturesque region is prone to civil unrest and violence. It's been declared off-limits to tourists on a number of occasions. There have also been a few isolated incidents, with Srinagar and other parts of the Kashmir Valley being temporarily shut down. However, tourists always begin returning after peace is restored.
So, is it safe to travel to Kashmir?
Understanding the Problem in Kashmir
Prior to the partitioning of India in 1947 (when British India was divided into India and Pakistan along religious lines, as part of the independence process) Kashmir was a "princely state" with its own ruler. Although the king was Hindu, most of his subjects were Muslim and he wanted to remain neutral. However, he was eventually persuaded to accede to India, but with Kashmir being given "special status" within the Indian Constitution. This stipulated that Kashmir would remain autonomous except for matters of communications, foreign affairs and defense. In that regard, India provided Kashmir with military assistance to deal with invading Pakistanis.
Many people in Kashmir aren't happy about being aligned with India though. The region has a predominantly Muslim population, and they'd rather be completely independent or be part of Pakistan. Due to its location, mountainous Kashmir is of strategic importance to India, and a number of wars have been fought over its border.
By the late 1980s, dissatisfaction had increased greatly due to issues in the democratic process and erosion of Kashmir's autonomy. Many of the democratic reforms introduced by the Indian government had been reversed. Militancy and insurgency grew in the uprising for freedom, with violence and unrest peaking in the early 1990s. It's said that Kashmir is the most densely militarized place on earth, with more than 500,000 Indian troops estimated to be deployed to counter any incidents. To complicate the situation, there are accusations of human rights violations being committed by the armed Indian forces.
In 2016, the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani (leader of a Kashmiri separatist group) by Indian security forces provoked a series of violent protests and clashes in the Kashmir Valley. A curfew was implemented to maintain law and order.
The situation started to improve in 2017. However, there have been ongoing spates of violence between terrorists and security forces, mob rioting and stone-pelting. Unfortunately, stone-pelting has become increasingly common. It's usually carried out towards Indian Army personnel by young men, to express their aggression and frustration over loss of freedom.
Stone-Pelting and Tourism in 2018
It has always been believed that tourists in Kashmir aren't deliberately targeted or harmed. Instead, angry protestors have actually given tourist vehicles safe passage. However, some stone-pelting incidents in 2018 showed that this may no longer be the case.
In April 2018, two women from Uttar Pradesh were hit on the head when mobs pelted stones at the vehicle they were traveling in. The women had to seek medical treatment. Local travel agencies, police and the government claimed the reports were written with malicious intent to disrupt the tourist season. The law and order situation in the Kashmir Valley remained tenuous throughout April, with numerous militants, security personnel and civilians killed.
In early May 2018, passing tourist vehicles were again hit with stones. A man from Tamil Nadu shockingly died because of the head injuries he sustained. The attack was widely condemned in Kashmir, including by politicians and separatist groups. One top separatist leader called it hooliganism and said it was "totally against our ethos of treating tourists as respected guests".
Nevertheless, the attack indicates that stone-pelting is no longer just an accepted form of protest but has evolved into random acts of violence by delinquent youths. This expression of youth anger has become a part of the ongoing security situation in Kashmir, and is a huge setback for the tourism industry.
The Situation in 2019
The situation took a further turn for the worse in February 2019, when a Kashmiri militant suicide bomber attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying Central Reserve Police Force security personnel in the Pulwama district, about an hour south of Srinagar. More than 40 people were killed. A series battles between security and militants followed in various areas of the state.
Security has been increased and the police force is focused on ensuring the safety of tourists. However, the intermittent violence has had a noticeably negative impact on tourism in Srinagar and Kashmir. It created a widespread perception that the region isn't safe, and tourist numbers have failed to pick up despite a series of promotional campaigns.
Removal of Kashmir's Special Status in August 2019
On August 5, 2019, the Indian government made the landmark decision to remove Kashmir's special autonomous status, thereby effectively integrating Kashmir into India as a Union Territory. The scale of this move is huge and represents a tipping point for the dispute. There are concerns about the impact the move will have in Kashmir, as it's being viewed as unconstitutional by some and may add to the instability there. Kashmiri Muslims are the dominant group in the region and many don't want to be part of India. Now, they will be formally living under Indian rule.
To reduce the possibility of backlash from separatists, the region was placed under security lockdown before the announcement. As of October 8, 2019, tourists are allowed to visit Kashmir again. Internet and phone access is disabled there though.
The Situation in 2020
In January 2020, the government reinstated limited mobile Internet, primarily 2G connections in the Kashmir Valley, with access to a limited number of websites not including social media. As at the end of February 2020, communications are still being restricted within Kashmir. There hasn't been a revival in tourism, despite Jammu & Kashmir Tourism promoting the destination as safe and offering enticing discounts, as tourists remain unsure about visiting the area.
Should You Visit Kashmir?
Undoubtedly, the recent events are daunting. Many countries including the US and UK still have travel advisories in place for Kashmir. The substantial military presence in Kashmir can also be unnerving for tourists. Plus, repetitive shutdowns and curfews are disruptive.
On the other hand, it can be argued that the attacks are isolated, and aren't an accurate representative of Kashmir and Kashmiris. The ground reality isn't necessarily as bad as what is often portrayed, and the incidents mainly take place in certain problematic areas. Safety is also subjective. It depends a lot on what tourists do and where they go.
It's important to keep in mind that Kashmiris have problems with the Indian administration, not with the people of India or anyone else. Tourism is an important industry and source of income for them. Even the mainstream separatist groups have nothing against tourists and say they must be left alone.
Therefore, whether or not you should visit Kashmir really needs to be based upon your personal comfort level. Most people are, understandably, choosing to stay away.
Some tourists who have recently visited Srinagar found the environment to be quite hostile, with dishonest and aggressive locals. One foreigner recounts his awful experience of being ripped-off numerous times in Srinagar here, and unfortunately he's not the only one to have had such an experience. This contrasts with the positive experience I had a few years ago (see below). However, perhaps that's because the owner of the houseboat we stayed in personally accompanied us on a tour of the city, took care of our travel arrangements, and generally looked after us. It insulated us from touts and other negativity.
Clearly, the ongoing situation in Kashmir is affecting people there. Not all locals are rude and opportunistic though. The key to having an enjoyable trip is to be accompanied or guided by a trusted local. Choose reputable homestay accommodations, or other accommodations where the owner or host is personally involved with guests.
Behavior of Tourists in Kashmir
Anyone who visits Kashmir should keep in mind that the people there have suffered a lot, and should be treated respectfully. In keeping with local culture, women must also take care to dress conservatively, so as not to risk causing offense. This means covering up, and not wearing mini-skirts or shorts!
My Personal Experience in Kashmir
I visited Kashmir (both Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley) in late 2013. There was a disturbance less than a month beforehand, with militants opening fire on a convoy of security forces in Srinagar. Admittedly, it did make me uneasy about going there (and worried my parents). However, everyone I spoke to, including people who had recently visited Srinagar, advised me not to worry. They told me to still go, and I'm very glad I did!
The only indications that I saw of the issues plaguing Kashmir were the pervasive police and army presence in Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley, and the added security procedures at Srinagar airport. I didn't experience anything to give me any cause for concern.
Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim area, and I found the local people to be particularly warm, friendly, respectful and polite. Even when I was walking through Srinagar's Old City, I was surprised by how little I was harassed -- a huge contrast to many other places in India. It was very easy to fall in love with Kashmir and to want to return again soon.
It seems that many other people feel the same way, as there were plenty of tourists in Kashmir, particularly domestic Indian tourists. I'm told that it's almost impossible to get a room on a houseboat on Nigeen Lake in Srinagar during peak season. It wouldn't surprise me at all, as it's absolutely blissful there.