Tourists headed to Kashmir have often found themselves caught in the stormy politics of the state. It is now the turn of tourists from Israel. While the state government has set out to woo them, local hardliners, especially those from the Hurriyat, have begun crying foul, accusing the tourists of being part of a larger political and strategic agenda. Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, for instance, thinks New Delhi is pushing “Mossad agents” as tourists to involve them in counter-insurgency activities in Kashmir.
This hasn’t deterred the state government, though, from participating in an official delegation to Israel in June this year along with Union tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahay. “Kashmir is calm at the moment,” says Talat Pervez, director, J&K tourism department, who was part of the Indian delegation. “The situation here has changed for the better. We are witnessing a tourism boom and we want more and more Israeli tourists to come here. The state government will do its best to woo Israeli tourists.”
But this announcement, as many expected, came under close scrutiny and sharp criticism, both in the Kashmiri media and from the separatist leadership. Geelani went as far as to allege that New Delhi is planning to create “Israel-type settlements” for migrant Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley in the garb of implementing a return-and-rehabilitation policy. And to execute this plan, he claims, it’s inviting Mossad agents. (David Goldfarb, the Israeli embassy spokesman in New Delhi, refused to comment on the issue when Outlook contacted him.)
Geelani is seconded by Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, who leads the moderate faction of Hurriyat, who has asked the government to explain why it is encouraging Israelis to visit Kashmir. “Muslims have a problem with Israel due to its aggressive policy towards Palestine. That is why, except Israelis, tourists from all over the world are welcome here,” Mirwaiz told Outlook. “We see a design in encouraging Israelis to visit Kashmir.”
Israelis have been visiting the Valley in good numbers since the ’70s. Which explains why many houseboats on the Dal lake and the nearby Nigeen lake, where they prefer to stay, have Hebrew names like David, Haifa, Jacob, Levite, Moses, Noah and the Holy Land. The influx of Israelis did not stop even with the arrival of militancy in the Valley in the late ’80s. Barring one incident in June 1991, when militants of the pro-Iranian outfit Pasdaran-e-Inquilab-e-Islam kidnapped seven Israelis (one tourist and a militant were killed, while the other tourists were let off, apparently after pressure from other militant groups), Israeli backpackers have seldom encountered trouble. Though authorities in New Delhi and Srinagar volunteer little information, sources in the J&K tourism department say about 5,000-6,000 Israelis make it to Kashmir every year.
“The Israelis never disappointed us when even Indians chose to stay away,” says Abdul Rashid, who owns Kashmir Hilton, a houseboat on the Dal. “Young Israelis who’ve just finished (compulsory military) training come here.” Apart from the Valley’s captivating beauty, they’re also curious to know the Muslim culture. “We’re not allowed by most Muslim countries,” a young woman told a TV channel after the Mirwaiz asked the government to ban Israelis from visiting. “Here’s a place we can go inside.”
Meanwhile, Kashmir is awash with tourists these days. Hotels, houseboats and guesthouses are booked till October. “It’s a carnival out here. Everyone’s happy. We haven’t had such an atmosphere in the past 22 years. It seems our good old days are back,” says Rashid. His earnest advice? Stop politics over tourism. “Even if Israelis are coming, there should be no politics over it. A small incident can bring tourism to a halt.”