No Indians allowed: Why the Free Kasol cafe case is more complicated than it seems

That afternoon, the manager of Free Kasol cafe says he was in a bad mood, and that was why he refused to give the menu to the Indian woman. Or atleast that is the claim. It’s not a club, just a roadside café, with a little front yard and random nothings on the wall, and a faded picture of a Himachali woman who is supposedly its owner.

After the Indian woman was turned away, a few seconds later, her friend, a British man, walked in. He was not denied the menu. The menu offers mostly Israeli food, some random savouries and Turkish coffee. That’s not unusual here. This area is commonly known as “Mini Israel” and there’s even a Chabad house down the road with a Rabbi. When the British man asked the manager why the menu was not offered to his Indian friend, the manager again mumbled about membership. The Britisher asked whether as a non-member he would not have been able to place an order after seeing the menu. The manager replied “That’s right.”

The duo, Steve Kaye and Ritika Singh, had been staying in a village across the Parvati River exploring opportunities for gigs in Kasol. When they shared the story with us and we posted about it on social media, it went viral. Many articles were written and one mentioned an inquiry that had been ordered in this case. It quickly became sensational and emotions got the better of reporting.

Later that evening, Israel’s Channel 10 TV, emailed me saying they were "shocked and ashamed" about the incident and asked me to speak with the owners because they wanted the shame to be directed towards the owner and not the customers who feel this “awful discrimination". I said I would try and find out and went to Free Kasol to see if they would let me enter.

A local vegetable vendor next to Free Kasol said he had heard something about the membership at the cafe, but he had never tried to go there. Most Indians did not.

We could walk right in. Nobody referred to any membership, and the few Israelis who were sitting in the cafe looked up, and returned to the business of eating, smoking and chilling, presumably why they were there in the first place. We met Shankar, who said he was a partner, and insisted the cafe was owned by a Himachali woman named Sasi Devi and not leased out by an Israeli as some locals claimed it was. Shankar has been in this area for the last 13 years, and said he was sorry about his behaviour to Ritika Singh.

"I apologise. If she is your friend, please convey my sorry. But to the man, I will not extend apologies. I was in a bad mood. Operating a cafe is not easy. All kinds of people come. Israelis are tough people," he said. "But there is no membership. The man with her threw the menu and uttered an abusive word, and things took an ugly turn." I said that it wasn't very convincing that his bad mood changed within seconds between Ritika leaving and Stefan walking in since one got the menu and the other did not.

He offered us Turkish coffee, and started talking about the town of Kasol and how it became mini Israel. Shankar goes to Israel every year for vacation and says it is through sponsorship. He just came back a few months ago.

 No Indians allowed: Why the Free Kasol cafe case is more complicated than it seems

Free Kasol in Kasol. Image from Facebook.

For years Israelis have been coming to these parts to explore the hippie way of life and to smoke hashish, which makes the Kasol area famous. In fact, Malana Cream is one of the best, they say, and the village, an uphill trek from here, is considered a special and blessed place in local mythology.

In 2009, when I was in Israel, I was told that after a mandatory army stint, it’s quite a ritual to head to the Himachal to “chill out”. Locals remember how the elder brother had come years ago and now the younger sister was following in his footsteps, backpacking through these hills.

When Israelis had started to move up here from Old Manali and Vashisth, the town was very small and they opened cafes and guest houses by leasing the places from locals, or working out alternate arrangements. There's enough proof that a Chabad House, one of about 23 around India, was set up here a few years ago only so the young Jews could find a place to stay and congregate for prayers on important holidays.

For years, Israelis and the local community minded their own business, staying out of each other’s way, except when they had to interact. Now most signs are in Hebrew, you hear shaloms in the bakery and the music that fades in and fades out is trance and EDM, like you might have heard on Tel Aviv streets and beaches. This is a version of Israel just with verdant mountains and deodars, instead of beaches and a desert.

"For years that I have ran this cafe, I have interacted with these Israels, and they are tough. I have learned to be tough too, and have even turned away a few of them. With Indians, it is a different story," said Shankar.

He insisted he didn’t discriminate but said “most Indian tourists in these parts are men who haven't seen a girl smoking and dressed how they are here. They lech, and molest, and they create a nuisance."

The Israelis do not like that he said and tend to keep to themselves. “And we respect that. I hope you understand what I am talking about.”

As we walked down the little street to the Chabad House, we saw a group of Indian men on bikes leering at a couple of foreign women. At the Chabad House, an Israeli tourist was lounging on a swing. At first, he was hesitant, but later said there was an incident a day before where they had to shoo away two Indian men who were stalking an Israeli woman asking her if she would like to party with them and “make photos” with them.

"Such things happen here. We make sure that we are safe," he said. "We have been coming here for years, and we come to chill and be in peace. When they come after us, we need to make sure we are protected."

In this little town, the locals have adapted and adopted to their Israeli guests. Hummus and pita bread are staples. Falafel is almost religion. Tailors stitch lace and cut patterns into fabrics for raves. There are bonfires at night, and hypnotic music perfect for ravers. Even the small guest houses where rooms can be had for Rs.300 a night have music systems placed outside.

It is an ultimate haven for rave parties. Full-moon parties are common among lush misty mountains. It is an old hippie town with its sex and drugs, hedonism and "chill" time. They light bongs and chillums openly, recreating some kind of rebellious haven after the military straitjacket. Here, cannabis grows freely, hallucinogens are copious, and the wilderness is part of the experience.

The locals know and keep away. But they need their business. Life is tough here, and for most locals, the Indian tourists don't bring much business. They would rather cater to the hippies from Israel who can stay on for months. If one of the conditions is that Indians should not be in those places, so be it. That's not coming from a bad place, a taxi driver insisted.

Echoing Shankar at the café, the driver said, "You should see how some Indian men behave. They just can't let these women be.”

Shankar and Free Kasol might be the focus of outrage right now but Govind, a man who rents out a four-room place on the other side of the river near Chalal, said he too has turned away Indians. It is just not Israelis who may have leased out property who turn away Indians, but also locals.

"We have learn to filter people. We know who will bring trouble. We are hill people. We keep to ourselves, and the foreigners here don't interfere much," said Govind. He clarified he’s not saying all Indians are bad, “But we don't get those nice tourists here. You'll see rowdy students on a break, or men from Haryana and Punjab because they are nearby. They get drunk and behave badly.”

There have been a few incidents of rape and molestations in the past. The locals worry about the reputation of Kasol. They lament that while Manali gets the Indian honeymooners, they get the troublemakers who have heard there are chilled out foreign women in Kasol.

And now Kasol is in the news as the place in India that turned away Indians. However, some Indians who have been here said that this delicate balancing act was always the case. The fact remains that there is a tussle for ownership and belonging. A beautiful hill town is in the throes of an identity crisis as economy and nationality rub up against each other in uncomfortable ways. It has been Mini Israel in the Himalayas for a long time but now Indians are upset about what that means.

Locals are just hoping this won't bring them bad luck and the Malana cream would provide the healing touch.

Updated Date: Aug 20, 2015 11:18:02 IST



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