Just when the strife-ravaged
Kashmir Valley - immortalized by 13th century Urdu
poet Amir Khusrau in his works as a "paradise on
Earth" - was regaining its lost mojo as a tourist
destination, a draconian edict seems to be turning
the clock back.
In a move that has roiled
the local travel trade community, the right-wing
hardliner religious organization Jamaat-e-Islami
has issued a diktat that a dress code which
"honors" local sensitivities be imposed upon all
"Some tourists," read
the statement issued last week by the Jamaat,
"mostly foreigners, are seen wandering in short
mini-skirts and other objectionable dresses here
openly, which is quite against the local ethos and
culture and not acceptable to the civil society at
The body, a former constituent of
the Hurriyat Conference led by
Syed Ali Shah Geelani,
has also instructed that the state tourism
department discourage "this cultural aggression
against Kashmiri Muslims and remain vigilant
against elements, who, in the garb of promoting
tourism, are promoting vulgarity, alcoholism, drug
trafficking and other immoral activities".
The directive is already being implemented
by local houseboat owners and hoteliers. They have
put up prominent notices asking tourists to dress
"appropriately" while in Kashmir. The President of
the Houseboat Owners Association Abdul Azim Tuman
told the media that it is mandatory for its
members to display the advisories in every
houseboat and hotel.
The Jamaat's edict,
say Kashmiris, is a throwback to the early 1990s
when radical groups banned cinema halls, wine
shops and beauty parlors as they were
"anti-Islamic". The sartorial scandal, they fear,
will have immediate ramifications on the state's
resurgent tourism industry.
seen a record number of tourist arrivals this
year, both domestic and foreign. According to
state tourism department figures, over 523,000
domestic tourists and 17,000 foreign tourists have
visited Kashmir since January. In addition, over
130,000 pilgrims pass through the state for the
annual Amarnath Yatra, a holy pilgrimage to the
shrine of the Hindu goddess Vaishno Devi.
Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Minister Nawang
Rigzin Jora has said that 2011 was a "historic"
year for the state in terms of the number of
tourists and pilgrims. "Peace during the last year
has given fresh impetus to tourism activities in
the state, be it leisure or adventure tourism in
the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh," stated Jora. The
state has targeted two million visitors this year.
Domestic tourists have rediscovered their
love for the Valley after what seems an
inordinately long and brutal winter of near-empty
hotels since the insurgency against Indian rule
began in 1988. However, over the last three years,
a marketing drive by the federal and state
governments and peace in the Valley have helped
put Kashmir back on the tourist map.
Despite the furor over the ban, Kashmir
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has kept silent on
the matter. The lack of comment from Abdullah, a
third-generation chief minister and a prolific
tweeter, is seen in political circles as a clever
"The chief is hedging his
bets," says a Congress party worker. "He neither
wants to antagonize the extremist outfits nor
offend the tourism industry. However, he should
realize that keeping quiet on this sensitive
matter won't make the problem vanish."
Meanwhile, Jamaat's directive is confusing
tourists who expect tolerance in the world's
"We don't require a
stupid controversy to upend years of our efforts
to rejuvenate the travel trade," Ghulam Mohammad,
a houseboat owner, told Asia Times Online in a
phone interview. "Such vigilantism and cultural
policing," added Bashir Ahmed, a member of the
Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, "should be
dealt with strictly by the government."
Tourism, say locals, can be the bedrock on
which to rebuild the economy of Jammu and Kashmir.
The state has suffered incalculable damage from
the insurgency will many traders and talented
craftsmen migrating to other Indian states in
search of a livelihood.
Jamaat's call also
has potential to damage government efforts to get
Western countries to remove travel advisories
against Kashmir. Since 1989, all European Union
countries have advised their citizens against
visiting Kashmir. But last year Germany made the
first move by doing away with that restriction.
"Kashmir is an international destination
and foreign tourists are quite aware of local
culture. They even adhere to a strict dress code
when visiting religious sites like mosques by
wearing scarves etc. What is the need for this
policing?" asked John Vaughan, a visiting American
Kashmir isn't new to such
controversies. In December 2010, leading Islamic
seminary Darul Uloom Deoband banned jeans and
other form-fitting garments in the state, in the
view that Muslim religious beliefs dictate that
clothes be "loose and simple". In another
controversial observation, the organization has
spoken out against the use of condoms.
Another conservative Islamic women's
group, The Dukhtaran-e-millat (Daughters of
Faith), had also spearheaded a campaign to
reinforce the burqa culture in the state. Its
modus operandi included hurling paint at women who
weren't wearing burqas.
Lal is a widely published writer/commentator
who contributes to many reputed national and
international print and Internet publications.
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