New Delhi, Dec. 1: In a land west of here, women are forbidden from talking to strangers and men from holding their wives’ hands in public. Visitors are expected to fall in line.
Clue: the region is famous for its desert and its people are allergic to Israelis.
Got you there. It’s Rajasthan, in the year 2005.
The Ajmer Authority has come out with a 20-page booklet, authored by Dr Prithvi Raj Sankhla, IAS, subdivisional magistrate, “to educate foreign tourists about local culture and sensibilities”.
One of the guidelines or “suggestions” says a man must never touch a woman in public, even to help her out of a car, unless she is very elderly or infirm.
Another one says ' at a time when the country is trying to project itself as a technically advanced, rising economic power ' that in Indian culture, men socialise only with men, and women only with women.
Asian married couples, cautions a third, don’t hug, hold hands or kiss in public.
Travel operators are aghast, especially keeping in mind the famous annual fair in Ajmer’s holy town of Pushkar, a top draw for tourists.
“This is unacceptable. Tourists will never adhere to such a code,” says Major Muralidhar, senior vice-president, Indian Association of Tour Operators.
“For a foreign tourist, helping a woman out of a bus or a car is a matter of courtesy. If necessary, we will take up the matter with the Authority.”
The “suggestions”, listed under the title “few cultural cues and clues”, come together with a set of rules, termed “dos and don’ts”. Flouting these can attract six months’ imprisonment or fines or both under the Indian Penal Code or the Criminal Procedure Code, local officials said.
The “don’ts” include “smooching at the (Pushkar) ghats, consumption of alcohol, drugs and non-vegetarian food”. It calls on tourists to “dress up decently in public places and do no (sic) embrace”.
The definition of “decent dress”, however, has been left to the tourists’ imagination.
“We feel' any dress code should not be made mandatory,” protests Praveen Chugh, vice-president, Travel Agents Federation of India. “Also, we need detailed explanation of the term ‘decent’.”
The booklet follows public outrage at the behaviour of some western and Israeli tourists in Pushkar.
Last month, a Finnish woman had walked back naked to her hotel after a bath in the town’s sacred lake. A few months ago, an Israeli couple was fined Rs 1,000 by a court for kissing after being married according to Hindu rites. Also, a group of Israelis had allegedly held an orgy by dancing naked around a campfire.
Residents had petitioned the state’s BJP chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, to ban all Israelis from the town, which she refused to do. The booklet, published before this year’s Pushkar fair, held between November 7 and 15, will also have German, French and Hebrew versions.
The additional director-general in the Union tourism ministry has questioned the entire exercise.
“On what basis has the Authority drafted such guidelines'” Rajeev Talwar said. “How many people do they expect will bother to read it in the first place' And also, do we really expect the police to intervene and stop such behaviour'”
The guidelines advise against hugging or kissing at airports and railway stations, and says drinking alcohol or smoking in public will be seen as a sign of moral laxity.
“With such guidelines, how do you expect to draw tourists to the city'” said Harkirpal Singh, chief representative, Travel Agents Association of India.
“Either they will totally stop visiting or continue to do whatever they want, no matter what. Also, this will affect our business.”
Sankhla, the author, told The Telegraph: “These are just suggestions to help foreign tourists understand the indigenous culture of Pushkar and to save them from embarrassment.”
“There is a huge difference between the cultures of Delhi and Rajasthan,” another local official argued.
The Authority has asked hotels and guesthouses to “blow up relevant points of the dos and don’ts and paste them prominently in their reception area”. Also, the backs of hotel receipts will carry a quick guide to public behaviour.
Talwar, however, is sceptical.
“Such local issues arise dime a dozen and die dime a dozen,” the bureaucrat said. “I think the Authority should just tell people they have taken note of certain mishaps which have happened in the past.”