Srinagar, Kashmir – July sees the snow melting from the Pir Panjal mountains. And Dal Lake is shimmering in the summer sun. The view is picture-postcard-perfect, as Francoise Zenati enjoys her third cup of “Kava”, a traditional Kashmiri tea blended with mixed nuts and saffron. “It’s been my dream to visit this place since my parents came here for their honeymoon in the 1970s. And I’m glad I’ve made it,” says the French national.
Francoise couldn’t have imagined coming to Kashmir even a few years ago. Conflict between the Indian armed forces and pro-autonomy groups backed by Pakistan resulted in tens of thousands being killed. Thousands more remain missing. For years, Kashmir was off-limits for tourists.
But the biggest casualty in this entire conflict has been its people. For decades, entire generations have experienced a life full of curfews, restrictions and security checks. And those whose very survival depended on tourism saw their businesses and lives decline. The Sufi poet Amir Khusrau’s words describing Kashmir as “paradise” seemed for many years a mirage.
That is, until now. In the past two years, there’s been a change in Srinagar’s landscape. Instead of military personnel, tourists walk along the Dal Lake promenade made famous in 1970s’ Bollywood films such as Kashmir Ki Kali. The famed “shikaras” or houseboats dotting the lake have a more cheerful stride than usual. That’s partly because a record 1.1 million tourists visited Kashmir in 2011, and this year’s number is expected to rise to almost two million before the onset of winter.
Time to cover up?
So, a recent advisory asking tourists to comply with a dress code issued by an Islamist organisation, the Jamaat-I-Islami, has come as a shock to many.
“In the 1990s a fringe group started telling women that they had to wear burqa. Some women had acid thrown on their faces for not doing it. But we are a free people, who can decide what can’t and can be worn,” Basheer Mantra, a senior journalist who has covered Kashmir for many years, told Al Jazeera.
For somebody as liberal as Mantra, the statement is an affront to his secular and liberal values. But he also says it will hurt the valley’s fledgling tourism status. “This year we’ve had a record number of tourists … So, I’m quite surprised why the Jamaat would pick this season of all to issue such a diktat.”
There are others, such as journalist Iftikhar Gilani, who believes the dress code will not have any impact. “The Jamaat is only advising tourists and is not forcing anyone to abide by it,” he says. “There are signs in other states of India like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where tourists are advised to dress decently. This is no different.”
Francoise Zenati agrees. A French national who is Muslim, she comes from a country where her child can’t wear a headscarf at school. For her, covering up is a small price to pay to visit Kashmir.
“They’re not asking us to don full burqas. Every community has a right to dictate what is acceptable – or not – according to their core values. If I have to wear a salwar kameez to visit Kashmir, it’s not harming or hurting me.”
Those who may be hurt are the ones who are doing business there. For once, Kashmir has seen many foreign tourists joining domestic travellers. And for business owners, any hint of a radical turnaround may be disastrous.
“The season has started picking up from last year. I’m afraid this new dress code might keep my clients away from Kashmir,” said Hussain Bhat, owner of a fleet of houseboats in Srinagar.
Hussain said he has spent $10,000 over the past two years renovating his houseboat named Firdaus, fitting it with all the custom-made luxuries needed to weather the seasons – a heater, an air conditioner and a fully-stocked kitchen. “It’s been my dream to carry on with my family business. I’ve seen over the past few years what curfews and restrictions can do to your business. All you need is a single spark in Kashmir to light up an entire fire,” he adds broodingly.
Tolerance versus freedom
For centuries, Kashmir was the epitome of religious syncretism. Sufi saints mingled with Hindu scholars producing one of the most tolerant societies in the subcontinent.
“If people come to the Vatican and are expected to dress conservatively, then so be it for Kashmir. It’s worth it. This way we’ll get to see paradise at least once in our life“
– Francoise Zenati, French tourist
Ashvin Kumar, an independent filmmaker whose movies include Inshallah, Kashmir: Living Terror and Inshallah, Football – all set in Kashmir – says he’s surprised by the recent statement.
“This imposition of so-called Islamic values is a thinly veiled attempt on reiterating values Kashmir never really stood for,” he says. “Kashmir has always been the epitome of tolerance and a temperate interpretation of Islam. I find this step highly repugnant in both spirit and practice.”
The Jamaat-I-Islami says it’s not imposing its will on anyone. “We are not suggesting any particular dress-code for the tourists. We are only saying that they should take care of the local ethos and the traditions of the place. We are not asking them to adopt Islamic dress code,” Zahid Ali, a counsel for the group, says.
But while the state government hasn’t endorsed or rejected the advisory, it still poses the age-old dilemmas of cultural sensitivity versus individual freedom.
Basheer thinks it’s the Jamaat’s way of “becoming more relevant”.
“I think the Jamaat is losing its political significance and that’s why they’re coming out with such radical words. Religion is always the best stick to beat people with. Today they’re clamping down on dresses. Tomorrow they’ll shut down liquor shops.”
For Francoise Zenati, it’s simple: “If people come to the Vatican and are expected to dress conservatively, then so be it for Kashmir. It’s worth it. This way we’ll get to see paradise at least once in our life.”
Follow Prerna Suri on Twitter: @PrernaSuriAJE