Amarnath Yatra: Lost in translation?

A little over a decade ago, at the request of the then home minister Indrajit Gupta, I had conducted an inquiry into the Amarnath disaster of 1996. I had made 20 major recommendations, one of which was activisation of the shorter Baltal route to the holy cave in order to ease the hardship on the traditional route via Chandanwari and Sheshnag. Another was to set up a trust board for Amarnath on the lines of the trust for the Vaishno Devi shrine. All 20 recommendations were accepted and things moved smoothly. This year too the yatra is on, but the atmosphere has become extremely murky and tense on account of the parallel and opposing agitations in the Kashmir Valley and in Jammu.

The agitation in the Valley, no doubt backed by separatist elements, is against allotment of about 100 acres of forest land to the Amarnath shrine board to construct temporary shelters for use by pilgrims during the yatra, which normally lasts for a month or at most for six weeks. The agitators argue that this amounts to changing the demographic composition of Kashmir, by settling in a large number of non-Muslim "outsiders" in this area. So serious was the agitation in the Valley that it caused loss of life and property, forcing the state government to eventually cancel the allotment and transfer the land in question back to the forest department. This in turn led to a fierce agitation in Jammu against the state which, by bowing down to Muslim extremists, was accused of hurting Hindu sentiments.

Something was clearly amiss. To start with, there was a definite communication gap between the government and those who spearheaded the agitation in the Valley. It was never properly spelt out to the people that there was no proposal to transfer this land permanently to settle non-Muslims in the area. In any case, how many people can be settled on a stretch of land which is no larger than the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium?

The Amarnath yatra lasts for around a month and pilgrims come only during that period. They would use these shelters for only two-three days during the yatra, and would thereafter leave the Valley. How could this be viewed as settling non-Muslim "outsiders" in the Valley and "permanently" changing its demographic composition?

The government failed completely to project the true picture and correct the mistaken impression in people’s minds as a result of propaganda. There were also serious lapses by intelligence agencies — they were unable to anticipate the activities and the strategy adopted by pro-Pakistan elements, and to advise the government properly on what course of action to take.

When the state government, somewhat awkwardly, cancelled the allotment order, this was deeply resented by the people of Jammu, who then launched a large-scale agitation — which led to casualties, loss of and damage to property, including uprooting of the rail track connecting the Valley with the rest of India, which is now under construction. If the object of constructing temporary sheds for pilgrims was properly explained to the people in general and to the agitators, some of the unfortunate developments could have been avoided. It should clearly have been spelt out that there was no plan to put up permanent structures where people could settle — that ideally the Valley’s Muslims could donate this land for temporary use by the pilgrims — and that nothing was being done which would in any way change the Valley’s demographic character.

This was simply not conveyed to people. The fact that the Amarnath shrine board is dominated by people from outside Jammu and Kashmir further fuelled the agitation. Incidentally, when the Kashmiri pandits were driven out of the state in 1991-’92, in the wake of the insurgency which began in 1989, was that not a huge disturbance in the "demographic balance" of Jammu and Kashmir?

It is high-time to let sanity reassert itself. Even at this late stage there should be a concerted effort to let people know the facts: there will be no permanent structures and what is proposed is construction of a few temporary huts like those which already exist at Chandanwari and Sheshnag to provide shelter for pilgrims only for the four to six weeks that the yatra lasts. Also, efforts should be made to set up a shrine board which would mostly include people from Jammu and Kashmir, which should go a long way to remove the "locals versus outsider" mindset.

In my one-man committee’s report a decade ago, I had recommended putting restrictions on the number of pilgrims allowed to go to the Amarnath cave at any given time: there should not be more than 20,000 pilgrims at a time on the high ranges, namely the stretch between Chandanwari and the holy cave. This is to ensure that in case a natural disaster occurs, the effect on pilgrims would be minimal. If there are larger number of pilgrims on the high ranges and say a cyclone or natural disaster occurs, casualties might be high. As long as only 20,000 pilgrims are there, they would be able to take shelter in existing huts and be safe. This year, unfortunately, this restriction on numbers is not being observed, and a much larger number of pilgrims have been allowed on high ranges. This should be avoided.

It is heartening that in the midst of these agitations, not a single Muslim voice has been raised in the Valley over the continuance of the Amarnath yatra. Kashmiri Muslims have, in fact, given categorical assurances that they would themselves ensure that devotees would be able to undertake the pilgrimage peacefully, without disturbance.

We also have to deal with the resentment of the people of the Jammu region who feel that they have been treated as second-class citizens within their own state for the past several decades. They are unhappy that not a single politician from Jammu has been able to become chief minister of the state, and that the rest of India — when it turns its attention to Kashmir — focuses exclusively on the Valley. They compare this unfavourably to the situation under the maharajas’ rule in the pre-Independence period when people from Jammu comprised the ruling elite. This deep-seated resentment is also something that needs to be tackled on a long-term basis.

Dr Nitish Sengupta, an academic and an author, is a former Member of Parliament and a former secretary to the Government of India

Nitish Sengupta

 

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