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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yamini said...

Dear Mr Khan,
Your article says nothing new and just exposes the prejudiced mindset of Kashmiri Muslims, who have been crying hoarse for decades now about being shortchanged since the post-partition days.
They just seem to become myopic when it comes to looking at the larger picture and at every given opportunity, they decry the Indian state, the same, which entertains their every whim and fancy.
First of all, your comments on Amarnath Yatra, though disguised in government statistics and literary rhetoric, are actually nothing more than religiously falsified.
A pilgrimage, whether to a small and lesser known (in your words) shrine of Amarnath or to a world famous and BIG (if your please) shrine of Meccah, holds equal significance to the community that undertakes it.
If you feel that the Indian state is promoting nationalism through Yatra, why should you feel perturbed? Last heard, nationalism was a good thing to have, unlike fundamentalism, whether it is in Kashmir or Gujarat, whether it is of a Hindu or a Muslim fanatic. Or is it because in Kashmir a "DIFFERENT KIND" of "NATIONALISM" is practiced, which might feel threatened because of nationalism for India.
Then, you have a problem with the presence of Indian Army in the Valley, who, you claim, has been going around acquiring land of poor Kashmiri farmers and, more importantly, saffron growers. Well, Mr Khan, please reply to this: Who was it that took up the guns during late 80s and early 90s, driving out a major chunk of population with insane civilian killings in the name of Jehad and, thus, forcing the Indian State to send in forces to keep law and order in check?
if you have any doubts on that, please feel free to visit any of the migrant camps in Jammu and other parts of the country, and speak to the hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits, who were forced to flee their ancestral land and start life anew amid hostile circumstances while the Kashmiri Muslims were being pampered by the media both in India as well as outside it.
Just one last point, the Deputy CM of Kashmir (since Jammu doesnt figure in their scheme of things) is from People's (not Progressive) Democratic Party and your saying that he "claimed that Congress ministers "blackmailed" them into giving this approval", even a kid familiar with the standard of Indian polity would guess it right that the statement was more of a skin-saving move so that the community members, back home (read Kashmir) don't think of him as a traitor for siding with the HINDUS.
With due respect,

Dr Nasir Khan said...

Dear yamini

Your comments are interesting and they show a perspective with which I have a lot of sympathy. You also have few questions for me to reply. I will try to give a brief reply in response.

Your comments are on ‘Kashmir: State Cultivation of the Amarnath Yatra’ written by Mr Gautam Navlakha that I posted on my blog. Mr Navlakha is Consulting Editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, an academic weekly that offers some of the best analyses by eminent scholars and researchers. Perhaps you missed the obvious: the writer of the article is Mr Navlakha and not me.

However, I find it difficult to hold Mr Navlakha responsible for espousing the cause of ‘the prejudiced mindset of Kashmiri Muslims’. On the contrary, he has given us some information about the Amarnath Yatra in a political and cultural context. He is not a Kashmiri Muslim either.

Whether his article says ‘something new’ may be a matter of opinion (but ‘something new’ is no guarantee of something useful being said). I am sure that you as an Indian know a lot about the issue but I doubt if very many other people around the world are aware of it. Let us be generous towards a prominent non-sectarian Indian writer. His article does give some good information.

Up to a point I agree with what you say about the significance of the places believers hold to be sacred. But to enter into a discussion about religions and different belief-system is something I consciously avoid. I assure you that I respect the belief-systems of all the major religions and have no problem in seeing them expressing the same human yearning for some common good and common goal. I also think what essentially was and is a unifying force very often turned out to be a divisive and exclusivist force.

The people of Kashmir, of various religious persuasions, have co-existed peacefully for centuries. As a child I had seen how Muslims and Hindus lived before the partition of 1947. In our town the two religious communities lived and had social dealings with each other as one ‘bradri’ (social community). Kashmiri Muslims or Kashmiri Pandits had a long tradition of a shared culture and communal harmony. Religions did not stand in their way and did not set them against each other.

However, it is common knowledge that powerful political forces use religions and religious identities of believers to pursue their aims. As we see it is happening not only in our part of the world but also in America and Europe. What role powerful Indian politicians have been playing to rouse the nationalistic, religious and communal feelings against the targeted communities is not any secret. Within the Indian context, any whipping up of nationalism is a handy ploy in the hands of the dominant political establishment. The power brokers and manipulating politicians have no difficulty to direct the fury of the believing mob against the targeted religious minorities. There is no shortage of fanatical and gullible believers. Please correct me if I am wrong.

You seem to hold Kashmiri Muslims culpable for raising their opposition to the Indian State and its rule for decades without their ‘looking at the larger picture’. It is easy, almost stereotypical, to see the Kashmir problem in religious terms. But this problem is more than that: it is a political problem. This has been a political problem all along, since 1947. And it will continue to be such for the decades to come if the Indian Government does not accede to the demands of self-determination of the Kashmiris. In simple words, the vast majority Kashmiri Muslims do not accept the Indian rule and oppression any longer.

The people of Kashmir have suffered enough, both the Muslims and the Kashmiri Pandits. In fact, this is the real ‘larger picture’ of the problem that Indian government has not tried to face. What is needed is political wisdom and courage to seek a viable solution. Bullets and batons can only kill, maim and terrorise but they will not produce a solution to the demands of Kashmiris who do not accept the Indian rule.

As far as I am concerned I feel deeply traumatised over the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits who became victims of the unresolved problem of Kashmir in the same way as I feel grieved over what has happened to Kashmiri Muslims at the hands of the Indian army and the defense forces. We know what is going on in Jammu and Kashmir now. Who has killed more than 80,000 Kashmiris so far? And the death toll is increasing all the time.

With my regards

yamini said...

Dear Dr Khan,
Thanks for your quick and elaborate response.
I am very much aware of Mr Gautam Navlakha's public stand on the current issue of pertinence in Jammu and Kashmir (as he vociferously spelt out on NDTV recently).
By putting Mr Navlakha's article on your blog, you, in a manner, support the opinion expressed therein. So, it becomes as much your piece as the writer's. It is in this context that my comments were referred to you, which I am sorry wasn't as obvious.
Let me first of all add to what i mentioned briefly in my yesterday's comments while talking of nationalism and fundamentalism.
I am against any type of religious fundamentalism, whether it is perpetrated by Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Sikh (there, I guess I have covered the major religions of the world) because whoever suffers, it is only the humanity that bleeds to death everytime a Kashmir exodus, Gujarat riot, Iraq suicide bombing or WTC happens.
I am not aware which part of Kashmir you exactly belong to since you mention Poonch as a part of Kashmir (In India occupied Kashmir it is a part of Jammu province). So, it appears that you belong to the Pakistan occupied Kashmir, whereby there may be a lot of things on the ground that you are not as aware of as a person living there in the state might be.
Politics, mostly religion-based, has turned out to be a nemesis for Kashmir, in particular and Jammu and Ladakh, in general ever since partition days. This is something i learned during my four-year stint with a well-known English daily, The Kashmir Times, published from Jammu and equally popular on both sides of LoC for espousing the cause of the minority since its inception.
While working there, I had the privilege of looking at the other side of the coin, which had remained invisible to me for most part of my life. It is based on that understanding and learning immensely from such veteran journalist like Mr Ved Bhasin and my learned colleagues that I learned to listen to the other side's voice as well.
That is why, when I see comments like those expressed in Mr Navlakha's article, I feel morally obliged to reply to them, on behalf of the tolerant countrymen everywhere and also for the voice of sanity.
The issue here is not Amarnath Yatra or even the piece of land lying central to the whole gamut of controversy. The issue is Jammu region and its adjoining areas have long since borne the brunt of oblique oppression in terms of economy as well as politics and administration. For years, the discontentment was simmering beneath the surface and with the Amarnath land issue, the discontentment has come out in a seriously vociferous manner, forcing the people to take the movement in their own hands rather than depending on their political rulers (who have ditched them even now).
You feel that Muslims have suffered a lot of wrongs at the hands of the Indian State and the Indian Army. That is half the picture and the picture would be complete only when you also mention the wrongs done to the minority in the State of Jammu and Kashmir (people from Ladakh, Poonch, Rajouri, Doda and, not the least, Jammu). The voice for separatism first emerged in Kashmir valley, from where it took time to travel to other parts of the state and nowhere else in J&K has the movement for rights been as bloodied or lopsided as in the Valley. Hostage killings, rapes, custodial killings, disappearances prove that very well.
This is where the whole picture comes in Dr Khan.
One which contains unrelenting media attention to the issues raised by average kashmiris, regular supply of statements/quotes by Centre on that, human rights organisations flocking to the valley to provide the much-needed succor to the victims and last, but not the least, opportunity for Kashmiri Muslims to go out of the state and seek a better life for themselves, in other parts of the country and, even, abroad. Till date, all one hears is the atrocities committed against the Kashmiri Muslims by the state police and Indian Army.
How many of these people get up and say that their children are studying at good colleges across the country? Or how many of the businessmen say how many months they spend in Delhi and Mumbai working on their prospective customers, who come from all parts of the country? Or how many among the political parties get up and say how much money comes into the state in the name of State Finances to help with development and basic amenities?
A few more questions, huh, Dr Khan? What say?

Dr Nasir Khan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Nasir Khan said...

I am having much difficulty in publishing on Blogger these days because of some technical problems. I don't know whether you will be able to log in to Nasir Khan blog. But I also use another blog run by WordPress under my name.

I am a bit hard pressed for time at the moment; therefore I won't be able to write much this time. However, I appreciate your engagement with the Jammu and Kashmir issue. You may find two articles in my today's blogs, one by Badri Raina and the other by Emily Wax of interest; the information therein and views expressed may be different from what you say. But I don't want to prejudge the matter by jumping to conclusions.

I come from Pakistani part of Poonch, but I had migrated to Europe long long ago. Perhaps it is best that I don't write about my personal background on the website.