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Politics of pilgrimage

If there is a case of fixing something that ain’t broke, it’s the government meddling in Amarnath Yatra. More so with the elections drawing near, writes Sonia Jabbar.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2008 22:51 IST

Until two weeks ago, the annual Amarnath pilgrimage bore testimony to the symbiotic relationship between Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus of the plains. The recent communal tension, mob protests and retaliatory fire by the CRPF and police that have claimed four young lives so far, threaten to overturn it. The credit for the chaos, which recalls the vitiated atmosphere of the 1990s, must be given to a few key players in the state who are trying to gain dubious advantage in an election year.

The first is the former head of state, Lt Gen SK Sinha (retd). He was due to retire on June 4 but insisted that the government illegally transfer 100 acres of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) of which he was the president. This was done ostensibly to build permanent accommodation for the pilgrims en route to the cave.

Once this information was leaked, and the concerned Forest Minister, Qazi Afzal of the PDP questioned, his party backtracked and blamed the Congress. The Congress blackmailed the PDP into obliging the Governor and would have blocked construction of the Mughal Road linking the Muslim areas of Rajouri and Poonch with the Valley, as claimed by Deputy Chief Minister, Muzaffar Hussain Beig, whose party the PDP has now pulled out of the government. The Valley erupted. The Congress was accused of communalising the atmosphere.

The PDP’s accusation turned out to be a hoax, but the Hurriyat, which had been unemployed the last few years because of Pakistan’s internal problems, suddenly woke up and declared the land transfer as the first move towards a demographic change in Kashmir. Across the Pir Panjal in Jammu, the Bajrang Dal, the VHP and sundry Hindu groups organised a retaliatory strike to oppose the Kashmiris. With everyone out on the streets screaming blue murder, no one stopped to ask how the people of Jammu would be affected by the building of permanent structures and tents on the Amarnath route, or how many million Hindus would fit into 100 acres of land at an altitude of 10,000 ft.

It takes a particularly diabolical genius to manufacture a crisis out of thin air. In a secular state the government has no business meddling in religious affairs whether it is providing a questionable Haj subsidy or meddling in Hindu pilgrimages.

The Amarnath pilgrimage is a fairly recent affair, following the discovery of the cave by a Muslim shepherd in the 1850s, whose descendants, together with Hindu sadhus, were involved in the organisation and logistics of the pilgrimage until 2001. From all accounts,the pilgrimage ran smoothly for 150 years, even at the height of the militancy, until the J&K government stepped in.

If there is a case of fixing something that ain’t broke, it is this. Ever since the government took over, the SASB has been mired in controversy. In 2004, the Governor extended the pilgrimage from one to two months, and a second 30 km shorter route, via Baltal, was regularised. Various new and improved facilities, including a helicopter service, were advertised, increasing traffic from a few thousand pilgrims to 400,000. The State Pollution Control Board complained about the sheer quantity of garbage and human waste. The SASB promised to build more toilets. In 2005, on a hike in the sylvan Betab valley soon after the yatra closed, I walked straight into the lies and realised to my horror, that the 400,000 preferred a lota and the woods.

In 2006, Deepender Giri, the mahant long involved in organising the yatra, resigned from the SASB in disgust, accusing the Governor of creating an artificial lingam, which had begun to melt earlier than normal due to unseasonal heat and increased pilgrim traffic. To stem the melting of the lingam and the protests that followed, the Governor, without consulting the Board, ordered dry ice to be placed around the lingam, leading to further protests.

In all this cacophony, the wise pilgrim should pause and consider the object of pilgrimage: Shiva. A Bengali babaji from Khir Bhavani shrine once reminded me, “Kashmir is always in ferment because it belongs to Bhairav.” Shiva is the creator, preserver and destroyer. In the skandas he is constantly called upon to restore the balance of the universe, which he often does through the tandav, the dance of destruction. The wise pilgrim should ask why it is that the lingam has begun to melt.

Sonia Jabbar is an independent journalist