Tourists, religious pilgrims, and migrant workers are among thousands fleeing India’s Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, after New Delhi ordered all visitors to the region to leave, citing a high threat of terrorist violence.
The Indian army said in a statement over the weekend that the past week had seen intense activity, and numerous ceasefire violations, along the line of control that divides Muslim-majority Kashmir between India and its neighbour and rival, Pakistan.
The army said there had been a “spurt in activities of infiltration” by Pakistan’s border action team, as it sought to provide cover for fighters to slip into Indian-held territory “to disrupt peace along the LC and in hinterland in J&K.
Indian Air Force troop transport planes have assisted in the unprecedented evacuation of the 20,000 Indian and foreign visitors in Kashmir, many of whom rushed to the airport to try to get seats out on commercial flights, sending ticket prices soaring. Private colleges and their hostels have also closed indefinitely, with colleges advising students from outside the region to return home, with buses laid on to help them leave.
The exodus of all outsiders from the picturesque but politically volatile territory has generated anxiety and panic buying among Kashmir’s local population, who formed long queues for petrol and other supplies.
Kashmiris were already on edge following the movement of tens of thousands of Indian security personnel to the heavily militarised region in recent weeks.
Rumours have spread that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is planning to abrogate the special legal provisions that protect Kashmir’s special character as India’s only Muslim-majority state, including rules that bar outsiders from buying property and holding state government jobs.
“It is easy to accuse us of spreading fear but no one is bothering to tell the people what is happening so how do you expect that fear won’t be a natural result of this situation that has been allowed to fester,” Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, tweeted after the exodus began.
The exodus began after Indian authorities announced late on Friday that they were cancelling the Amarnath Yatra, an annual pilgrimage to a sacred cave, after finding evidence of a planned terror attack on the Hindu pilgrims. Security officials told Indian media that they had discovered a Pakistani-made landmine, and an improvised explosive device, near the pilgrimage route.
Authorities then urged all other visitors to the picturesque region to leave, sending officials to hotels in mountain resorts to clear out visitors, bringing an abrupt end to the region’s summer tourist season. Migrant labourers, who are thought to number nearly 200,000 in the state, have also begun to flee.
Tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad — who have fought four wars over Kashmir since 1947 — have also risen along the de facto border that divides the region between them.
Earlier this year, India carried out a missile-strike on a suspected terror training camp in Pakistan, after a suicide bomber killed 44 paramilitary personnel in the Kashmir region.
On Saturday, the Pakistani military accused India of using cluster bombs “in violation of international conventions”. The Indian army said it had dealt with infiltration attempts along the line of control with “utmost professionalism and responded in a calibrated manner to target terrorists and the Pakistani army’s complicity”.
In a weekend statement, Pakistan’s foreign ministry warned that it was “strongly opposed to any move that would seek to alter the demographic structure” of the Kashmir Valley”, a move that it said would be “in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions and seriously endanger peace and security in the region”.
The UK and Germany were among six countries that issued travel advisories this weekend urging their nationals to avoid all travel to Kashmir in view of the prevailing situation.