This gallery is hardly one you would associate with danger.
Yet, the instinctive reaction of family and friends when I expressed our decision to travel to Kashmir was one of astonishment at our ‘daring’.
For my non Indian readers, Kashmir is the strife torn region of the Indian republic sandwiched between India and Pakistan, that has had a continually rocky relationship with the centre. Whose strategic geolocation, while the reason for it’s splendid landscapes, is also cause for the devastating tug of war between the sibling nations, and on occasion with China to the North. And whose complex history of insurgency is hard even for R – just a year short of being a ‘Midnight’s Child’ – to wrap his head around, let alone the current generation fed on virulent nationalism and far removed from the trauma of partition. Or the protagonists on the ground born to conflict. Violent student protests against army presence escalated last summer and have consumed national news bytes since.
It is our conviction in the fakeness of WhatsApp forwards and the patent bias in every projection in the media that prompted us to make this journey. And an email brochure of a gorgeous houseboat that clinched the decision. I take pleasure in reporting that we have never felt as safe in another state, or country, as we did in Kashmir this past week. We moved around freely in Srinagar, explored the old town on foot and hired taxis at will. The current social media ban is restricted to local sim cards and although I had issues uploading to Instagram my data card worked just fine on all other platforms after a brief blackout on day one. .
That is not to downplay security threats from militants across the border (this is a frontier state after all.). Nor the underlying tensions and alienation felt by the local population, that to me seems exacerbated by the hostile narrative emanating from the rest of the country. But the situation doesn’t appear worse than it has ever been. The main difference today (for visitors) as compared to the glory years of Kashmir tourism is possibly the existence of a strident media.
You know that Mark Twain quote about travel being fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness? About “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things not being acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime”? I cannot underscore enough its particular significance in the context of Kashmir. I asked every tourist I met, and there were many including foreigners, what made them decide to come despite the scaremongering. It was heartening to note most dismissed media reports. And every single one I spoke to was heartbroken by the tragedy that is Kashmir and the seemingly intractable political mess it is entangled in.
So is it safe to travel to Kashmir now? A most certain yes. One would do well to follow developments closely, preferably through travel forums rather than mainstream media and talk to local contacts like hotel staff before departure. But on the whole, tourist movement remains unrestricted. We never encountered a single police check point. Screening is limited to the Shankaracharya temple, and there is, understandably, very tight security and several levels of baggage screening at the airport (allow a minimum of 2 hours for check-in).
If, like me, you have always dreamed of going, go now. The land is beautiful beyond imagination. The people most kind and gracious. The risks, grossly exaggerated.
Happy travels…..no matter where life takes you.
PS: While I maintain that it is safe for everyone to travel to Kashmir, it might be prudent for foreign nationals to follow their respective government travel advisories.
Update 28/05/2017: Downtown Srinagar is under temporary curfew due to the escalation of protests after the recent killing of Hizbul commanders, but movement around Dal lake and vehicular traffic outside town remain unaffected. The regional Directorate of Tourism reiterates that “the situation in Kashmir, especially in Srinagar, is under control”. It has established helplines for travellers requiring clarifications and assistance.