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October 27, 2014

1

Dangers in Kashmir – My Point of View

by Chris Werren

From the inquiries on our website we can see that the interest in ski vacations in Gulmarg is still existing and a considerable number of people are considering a trip to Kashmir next winter. However, during the trip preparation the question on safety in Kashmir is often raised and interested visitors will find that their government advises against traveling to this part of the world, warnings that have been issued for nearly 70 years! Before sharing my point of view on the potential dangers I would like to insert a short video with impressions of a perfect skiing day on Mt. Apharwat, pictures which show that a ski trip to Gulmarg is a life time experience which should not be missed.

I have been writing about “skiers’ safety in Kashmir” on various occasions and have tried to address the issue to the best of my knowledge. With more than 30 months in Kashmir during the past ten years and all in all more than 60 months in India and Nepal I am in a position to assess the risks of a ski trip to Gulmarg from personal experience and I can also confirm with clear conscience that in all these years no tourists were harmed or treated badly while visiting this border state. The few incidents that involved tourists resulted either from being at the wrong place at the wrong time or because people didn’t even take the precautions they would usually take when vising critical areas in cities of their home countries!

The Risks Today  

Presently there are of course some areas of concern that travelers will have to think of when planning a ski trip to Gulmarg, two are of global nature and two are Kashmir specific.

The global concerns are one hand the rise of ISIS and their threats to their own communities and the western world and on the other hand the increased fear of being exposed to the Ebola virus while mixing with people from other countries at airports. Avoiding these risks means staying at home and refrain completely from traveling or visiting areas with high people movement. While some risks exist they do not justify the launching of a “travel paranoia”.

The issues concerning the safety in Kashmir are also twofold, one is the potential for water borne diseases after the massive floods in September 2015, and the other the heightened tensions between Pakistan and India and thereof resulting side effects by separatist organizations. To the first I can say there have been no outbreaks of water borne diseases up to now and with the winter approaching the likelihood for viruses to grow and spread is diminishing day by day. To the increased tensions I can only say they have been coming and going year by year and even if the worst came to the worst tourists in places like Gulmarg would not be caught unprepared and would be able to move out before being trapped in the conflict zone.

Let me conclude this safety update by describing the four most often stated risks in Kashmir and their impact on travelers.

Regular Strikes with Stone Pelting Activities

In Kashmir like in many other places in India and the rest of the world the population has reason to be unhappy about the availability of services or unfilled promises by the authorities. A well-established method to demonstrate this unhappiness or disagreements with the government are strikes. These strikes can sometimes be accompanied by stone pelting activities which are mainly executed by young and immature protestors and some older “agents provocateurs” with a short fuse. Most strikes are announced in advance and take place at specific spots well known to us and our drivers. Our guests often don’t even become aware of them as we avoid the action.

Mostly these strikes are a peaceful show of public displeasure and if they turn violent then it is often against police and army personnel – just like everywhere else in the world! In the past 10 years only the summer 2010 turned violent when young students were manipulated into a massive public uprising by separatist leaders. However, when the summer was over the uprising was dead too. Since then it has been quiet but a new uprising can never be excluded, up to now it never happened in the winter. In addition even during the summer 2010 there were no reports of harmed or injured tourists, neither Indian nor International!

Tensions between India and Pakistan

Since 1948 Kashmir has been the playground for different interest groups to enjoy in a power game which all know will never yield in any acceptable result, not for the trouble makers nor for the Kashmiris! Due to this there are regular cease fire violations followed by long and heated debates between the involved parties and accompanied by some terror incidents by the separatists, again mostly during the summer and autumn month. Since the first fight over Kashmir in 1948 the countries engaged in two short wars, first in 1965 a short 4 month war from April to September as a culmination of previous border skirmishes and second in 1999 the two month “Kargil War” in May and June, a war that was provoked by infiltrators of the Pakistani army and some separatists. These two short wars were followed by a military stand-off from December 2001 till October 2002 which resulted from a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament and served as a protective measurement against potential infiltrators from the other side.

Looking at the substantial number of cease fire violations and armed skirmishes along the line of control during the summer months in the past 10 years outsiders would think the war is still going on. I have stayed in Kashmir for several weeks over the past 10 years, both in winter and summer and have never witnessed any war signs during that time nor have I felt threatened or in any other way inconvenienced during my stays. An experience that I share with hundreds of foreigners and thousands of Indian tourists who visited Kashmir during the past years. The skirmishes are there that cannot be denied, however, up to now tourists’ safety has never been compromised!

Activities of the Kashmiri Separatist Movements

As an independence loving Swiss I can understand the desire of many Kashmiris to have their own autonomous state and I also know that a large democratic country like India will tolerate reasonable initiatives by the separatist movements to express themselves and to promote their case. However, any acts of rebellion that call for violence or terror will be put down in their early stages and those involved in it will be adequately punished, like in any other country or state.

Looking back at my 10 winters in Kashmir I can say that except after the execution of Azfal Guru in February 2013 I have not witnessed any substantial or violent operations by these separatist movements. There are, however, every year a number of isolated incidents created in various parts of Kashmir by so called separatist infiltrators or terrorist cells that also include a few killings, mostly of Army and Police personnel. The culprits are usually caught and brought to justice or killed in action before bigger harm can be done. Again most of these acts of violence happen during the summer months when disguised movement of people and material is easier than on snow covered ground and also when hidden shelters are easier available than during the cold winter months.

Are there acts of violence committed by separatists in Kashmir – yes, have any of these acts ever been directed at foreigners – from my knowledge no! These acts are primarily directed against those who represent the authorities of India and not against people who support the local economy.

The Black Flag Waving ISIS Sympathizers

After the Taliban and Al Kaida we have with ISIS a new organization within the Muslim community that has established itself as new force with a vision certain people feel attracted to, not only in Kashmir but in most countries of the world. When we look at Europe we know that several thousand young man and women have joined their cause and there a considerable number of these sympathizers living among us, in certain areas in Europe even openly engaging in fights with their Muslim brethren who don’t support their ideas. Despite all this nobody would issue travel warnings for European countries or cancel their powder ski programs in the Alps.

Looking at the situation in Kashmir there are of course also a few ISIS sympathizers who come out to wave their flags when strikes or other public gatherings are happening. From the few pictures I have seen we talk about half a dozen of these flags which is in line with what we see in similar public events in many other spots in the western world too! Whereas the chief minister of Kashmir denies any presence of ISIS supporters in the state the Kashmiri and Indian security forces are closely monitoring the situation, again as in most other countries.

Should we be concerned about this new development? Yes ISIS is a force the world needs to watch but the few black flag bearers in Kashmir today are the same who were waving the Pakistani flag yesterday and sympathizing with Al Kaida or the Taliban the day before yesterday. They were there in 1965, in 1999, in 2001 and in the summer of 2010 during the massive demonstrations and they will be there tomorrow – just like in our countries too!

In conclusion I would like to point out that the permanently hyped dangers in Kashmir have been there for nearly 70 years in one form or another and whereas parts of the local population suffer from the consequences of this situation tourists have so far remained unharmed except for a few cases where people acted either foolishly or were just unlucky.

In addition after the massive floods in September Kashmir needs all the support it can get, bringing tourists there and providing opportunities for the local population to earn their living is the best and most efficient form of support the outside world can deliver – this is why FSH and most other international program operators will return to Gulmarg next winter again. Join us and get a first hand experience in the terrain.

For more on Gulmarg go to our website: FSH – The Gulmarg Snow Experts

Gulmarg Ski Terrain

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