Sunday, August 17, 2008

Kashmir: State Cultivation of the Amarnath Yatra

by Gautam Navlakha | Monthly Review, August 8, 2008

The origins of the conflagration in June in Kashmir on forest land allocation for construction of facilities for the Amarnath yatra lie in open state promotion of the pilgrimage. The yatra has caused considerable damage to the economy and ecology of the area. The high-handed actions of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board only aggravated the situation.

The Amarnath pilgrimage erupted into a major controversy last month entirely on account of the actions of the state. The Act setting up the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) was passed by the National Conference government in 2001. On January 1, 2008, the SASB informed the legislature of Jammu and Kashmir, through a letter to the deputy chief minister, that "(t)he Governor is sovereign ex-officio holder of the power . . . who acts on his own personal satisfaction and not on the aid and advice of the council of ministers . . . the member (of the legislative council) may be explained that he does not enjoy the powers to question the decisions of the body" (Greater Kashmir, June 12, 2008).

Disconcertingly, the SASB, when presided over by S K Sinha when he was governor, has been engaged in some controversial transactions. The chief executive officer (CEO) of the SASB is the principal secretary to the governor. The CEO's wife, in her capacity as principal secretary of the forest department, granted permission to the SASB on May 29, 2005 to use forest land for the pilgrimage. Because this action was not in accordance with the provision of the J&K Forest Conservation Act of 1997, the state government withdrew the order. However, a division bench of the J&K High Court stayed the withdrawal of permission to occupy forest land. But when in mid-2008, the state cabinet gave its approval to "divert" 40 ha of forest land for the yatra the issue erupted into widescale public protests. The deputy chief minister, belonging to the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), went so far as to claim that Congress ministers "blackmailed" them into giving this approval (Indian Express, June 16, 2008).

The Indian state has often used the yatra to promote a certain kind of nationalism. During the Kargil war, in 1999, the Press Information Bureau put out a press release stating: "(the) yearning for moksha (salvation) can move the devotees to the challenging heights of Kashmir and will be a fitting gesture of solidarity with our valiant soldiers who have been fighting the enemy to defend our borders" ('Amarnath Yatra - 99 Acid Test of Devotion', 15-July 15, 1999).

A Little Known Shrine

Thus, what is otherwise a religious pilgrimage of the shaivite Hindus has been elevated to represent a patriotic enterprise. What is interesting is that the translator of Rajtarangini, Aurel Stein, found no reference in 1888 in either the Rajtarangini or the Nilmata Purana to the Amarnath cave. For Kashmiri Hindus the holiest site was the Haramukuta (Shiva's Diadem) and Haramukh-Gangabal pilgrimage (see M Ashraf, 'Aggression at Its Worst', Greater Kashmir, June 20, 2008). The cave was in fact discovered in the 18th century and a Gujjar family and its descendants who found it were given the right to a share of the offering as a consequence. Even until the 1980s, this pilgrimage was not well known and in 1989, only 12,000 pilgrims visited the cave in a fortnight of pilgrimage. It is only after 1996 that the Amarnath cave acquired its prominence when militancy in Kashmir was at its peak.

The SASB is headed by the governor (until recently S K Sinha, a former lt general in the army) and his principal secretary, from the Indian Administrative Service, is the CEO of the SASB. Thus when the SASB pushes for movement of a larger and larger number of pilgrims and rejects the right of the legislators to even raise a question regarding the functioning of the SASB, the Indian state is sending a simple message.

Imagine if a Muslim governor of Rajasthan were to ask to set up an independent Ajmer Sharief Dargah development authority, with say, control over a large part of Ajmer city. What would be the response of Rajasthan's BJP government or the right wing Hindutva rabble-rousers?

Ironically, it is the deposed custodian of the shrine Deependra Giri who has been crying hoarse over SASB's promotion of pilgrimage as tourism, flouting the principle of penance inherent in such pilgrimages as laid down in the Hindu scriptures! The point is this promotion of Amarnath can be faulted on temporal, religious and secular grounds. In other words it is downright duplicitous when the Indian state promotes religious tourism (tourism in any event) in the guise of the welfare of Hindu pilgrims. This is an extension and/or part of the process of acquisition of a huge mass of land (orchard and cultivable fields, including the precious saffron fields of Pampore) by Indian security forces and water management and control through the National Hydro Power Corporation.

Continued . . .

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