Last week, Kashmir’s Jamaat-e-Islami issued a statement that was widely perceived as an imposition of a ‘dress code’ for tourists in the Valley. Tourists must respect the traditions of Kashmir, the Jamaat warned, mini-skirts and the like were a mark of disrespect.
Three things jumped out of the statement. First, that the dress code was applicable to only one half of all tourists coming to the Valley — women; few men go on holidays or honeymoons in mini-skirts. (And good for those who do.) Second, that it came at a time when a genuine revival is taking place in the tourism sector in Kashmir. The third is the part that’s left unsaid: that any significant contrary noises will have consequences.
This is why houseboat-owners scampered, obediently, to paste notices on their properties. This is also why, even as Kashmiri youth furiously typed out their outrage on social networks, there hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, been a single voice from the Kashmiri intelligentsia that has opposed a suggestion, which lies somewhere between medieval and absurd.
Why haven’t the leaders of the community spoken up? There are apparently two reasons for this. One, that the Jamaat, although it hasn’t fought elections in recent times, is a very significant political body. Its importance is due to its tradition of supplying well-disciplined cadres to various political formations that actually fight elections. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) renders the same service to parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party — but the Jamaat ‘graduates’ are dispersed over a wider political spectrum in Kashmir. People in politics are wary of alienating them because it may cause a break in the supply line of cadres.
Then there are those who argue that there is a genuine feeling of irritation among ordinary Kashmiris about the conduct of tourists. They do not like the environmental damage the callous visitor causes. Neither do they approve of the allegedly increasing incidence of drinking or indecent behaviour in public. Yes, there are laws in place to prevent this. But since the government views tourism as a ‘political project’, the tourist has unbridled freedom and unquestioned immunity. The ‘dress code’ may not specifically reflect the opinion of the decent Kashmiri, this group argues, but its message — to keep Kashmir free of pollutants of every type — is a good one. It should, therefore, be supported even if it is by silence.
(As an aside, let me say that drinking in public or ‘indecent behaviour’ isn’t looked upon kindly anywhere in the world though definitions differ. Last month, not far from where I live in Gurgaon — the Delhi suburb so often associated with ‘shining India’ — two women and a man were sent to judicial custody for ‘kissing’ outside a mall.)
I find the silence of the intelligentsia and the political class short-sighted, rooted in the hard-to-break habit of being afraid.
The traffic on social media on the issue is a fair indicator that there is a large constituency — votes for the future—that wants, at the very least, a debate on issues such as this. It is baffling that no one in Kashmir seems to want to tap into this constituency.
A diktat such as the Jamaat’s, aims, perversely, at creating a constituency. If tourists come, as they have over the past few years, there will be more jobs. The Jamaat doesn’t want to lose its cadres to productive employment.
The idea of a dress code came from the top down in Kashmir, but in the UAE, citizens, using social media, gave the code legitimacy. Websites like Tripadvisor now tell tourists to wear “respectful clothing” at places like malls and caution them that the code is very strict during Ramzan. There is one other difference, the locals are very much a minority in the UAE — most of its population is made up of migrant workers and expats. You could argue the case of cultural swamping a little better there. Not in Kashmir.
There is an irony here. The Jamaat was the first to react to all the fuss in Facebook and Twitter. Its chief told reporters that he didn’t know who made the statement. And Jamaat ‘sources’ said it was “needless”. They have, effectively, admitted it was a bad idea. So where does that leave the Kashmiri intelligentsia?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2012.
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