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 shutdown. 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, giving control to the Indian government in return for military assistance to deal with invading Pakistanis.
Many people in Kashmir aren't happy about being governed by India though. The region has a predominantly Muslim population, and they'd rather be 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.
How this Affects Tourists Visiting Kashmir
It's important to keep in mind that Kashmiris have problems with the Indian administration, not with the people of India or anyone else. In general, Kashmiris are hospitable people, and tourism is an important industry and source of income for them. Hence, they will go out of their way to make sure visitors are safe. Even the mainstream separatist groups have nothing against tourists and say they must be left alone.
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, unfortunately, recent incidents seem to indicate that this is no longer the case.
In April 2018, numerous reports of mobs pelting stones on tourist vehicles surfaced. In one incident, two women from Uttar Pradesh were hit on the head and 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 being killed.
The situation took an undeniable turn for the worse in early May 2018, due to the continued pelting of stones at passing vehicles. Some of the vehicles were carrying tourists, and a man from Tamil Nadu shockingly died because of the head injuries he sustained.
The Situation as at May 2018
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 is an indication that stone-pelting is no longer 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. It's expected to ruin the current tourist season, which had gotten off to a promising start. According to reports, hotel occupancy rates have been reduced to 10-15% in Kashmir, compared to around 40% at this time last year. In addition, there are very few bookings in the coming months.
Should You Visit Kashmir?
Security is said to have been increased and police are working overtime to ensure the safety of tourists. The Indian government has also announced plans to devise a strategy to tackle the stone-pelting issue. Kashmiris are inviting tourists to come as well, stating that they shouldn't be scared. Yet, revival of the tourism industry is really out of the question until the conflict is resolved.
Undoubtedly, the recent events paint a scary picture. There is a risk of getting caught in the melee in high tension areas. 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, an aren't an accurate representative of Kashmir and Kashmiris. The ground reality isn't necessarily as bad as what is often portrayed, and the stone pelting mainly takes place in certain problematic areas. Safety is also subjective. It depends a lot on what tourists do and where they go.
Hence, whether or not you should visit Kashmir really needs to be based upon your personal comfort level. Naturally, most people will feel more comfortable staying away.
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 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.
See Photos of Kashmir
- Photos of Boating in Srinagar on Facebook
- Photos of Srinagar Gardens & Old City on Facebook
- Photos of Sonamarg and Yousmarg on Facebook