A yatra mired in disputes – Mail Today
A yatra mired in disputes – Mail Today
Mail Today June25, 2008 P-8&9
In the 17th century, Butta Malik, a Kashmiri Muslim shepherd, was given a sack of coal by a sadhu, which turned to gold. The cave where they met is now the Amarnath shrine.
Malik’s descendants in Batkoot village were beneficiaries of a third of Amarnath offerings. This was stopped in 2000, when the state government formed the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB).
The Maliks rejected a Rs 1.12 lakh compensation in lieu of the beneficiary rights as recommended by an SASB tribunal
Mohammed Jabber Malik, secretary of the Association of Founders and Beneficiaries of Amarnath, was sidelined by the SASB. He alleges that it disregarded provisions laid down under Section 19 of the SASB Act 2000, titled ‘Rights of Purohits and other Persons’
The Maliks’ disenfranchisement was seen as first overt attempt to communalise the yatra, mostly a Kashmiri Pandit affair.
In the early 1990s, governor Girish Saxena allegedly allowed VHP and Bajrang Dal cadre to make the yatra. Till then, it was conducted by the government with local Muslims’ goodwill
In 2006, when the ice lingam melted before the yatra, the SASB proposed to have an artificial mechanism at the cave to preserve it.
The yatra is now seen as a tool of cultural aggression by hardline Kashmiri groups. About 2 lakh security personnel guard the two routes to the holy cave these days in this volatile, terror-hit state.
A SLEW OF ROWS ON ROUTE TO HOLY CAVE
By Parvaiz Bukhari in Srinagar
The destination matters more than the journey for the thousands of faithful who trek days on end through a blinding mountain trail to reach the ethereal Amarnath shrine, some 13,700 feet above sea level in Jammu and Kashmir .
For many though, the journey proves far more unique — and controversial — given the heavy military presence in this terror-hit state and the latest storm fueled by outgoing governor Lt-Gen. (retired) S.K. Sinha’s proposal to acquire forest land along the route and build “facilities” for the pilgrims. Sinha probably meant no harm when he, as chief patron of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), proposed that the state government allot forest land along the pilgrimage route for building amenities for the pilgrims.
Giving in to the idea, the government in June transferred 100 acres of Sindh forest land in Baltal area of north Kashmir to SASB.
The land is within the jurisdiction of Pahalgam and Sonmarg development authorities — the two tourist places known as gateways to the cave shrine located in the environmentally fragile Himalayan range. The Pahalgam route is longer but less arduous, while the Baltal one is short but treacherous.
What Sinha and the government, perhaps, didn’t foresee is the controversy this decision would trigger. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) factions, led by moderate cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani respectively, wasted no time in calling it a “conspiracy against Kashmiris”.
“The pilgrimage is no longer a religious affair. It has been transformed into an operation on the lines of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine ,” Geelani said. “Kashmiris have historically facilitated the pilgrimage, but Raj Bhavan is now using it to affect a demographic change here.”
The moderate APHC faction, too, accused Sinha of trying to create a state within a state. “After a two-decade killing campaign, India is now subjecting Kashmiris to a well-planned cultural aggression,” Mirwaiz said.
Not to let the opportunity go, POK-based militant alliance United Jihad Council (UJC) echoed Geelani and compared the land transfer with Israeli occupation in Palestine .
Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference (NC), which passed a legislation in 2000 while in power making the governor the chairman of the SASB, has also jumped on to this bandwagon, demanding that board’s reins be handed over to Kashmiri Pandits.
“What the Raj Bhavan is doing is not within the legal parameters that we enacted,” said A.R.. Rather, an NC leader. Apart from the pro-Kashmir stand, the Huriyat has been beating the environmental and economic tom-tom ever since the controversy cropped up. Environmentalists warned that the rush of pilgrims has spawned lavatories along the route, which in turn are serious threats to the fragile environment. But Sinha assured that “all necessary precautions are being taken to preserve the fragile ecology of the area”.
He has no answer though to the queries from the local business community, spearheaded by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) and the Kashmir Traders Federation (KTF). It feared that traders from “outside Kashmir” would open businesses along the route — such as snack joints, restaurants and other service amenities — on the acquired land along the pilgrimage route.
This would drive local merchants and service providers like tour operators, hoteliers and porters out of business, the Kashmiris feared.
Another niggling point was the duration of the pilgrimage. Until 1989, it was a 15-day affair with only about 12,000 visitors allowed per year. Since 2005, it has been increased to 60 days on Sinha’s insistence despite opposition from the ruling coalition partner People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Last year, the shrine received about five lakh pilgrims. It’s expected to go up to six lakh this year. The state pollution control board has already recommended a cap on the annual number of pilgrims, saying the “indiscriminate rush is playing havoc with the Himalayan environment”.
The SASB’s chief executive officer Arun Kumar, a close aide of Sinha, reacted: “What can I say, it is all politics and I am not a politician.” He dismissed the environmental concerns.
The PDP currently has its legs on two boats. Firstly, party leader and forest minister Qazi Afzal justified the land transfer. “We laid down a pre-condition that the SASB is not entitled to mortgage, reassign or sub-lease even an inch of land. Also, they couldn’t construct any concrete structures on the land,” he said.
But deputy chief minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig, also from the PDP, alleged that the Congress “blackmailed” his party into transferring the fragile forest land. “They threatened us saying if we continued to oppose the land allotment, work on the ambitious Mughal Road (linking Jammu with Kashmir ) will be stopped,” Baig said.
Hemmed in by protests from the Hurriyat and other pro- Kashmiri groups, the PDP has warned the Congress-led government that it must revoke the land transfer by June 30 or face withdrawal of support. It has also asked the government to take full control of the pilgrimage as it was before 2000 when the SASB was created.
The PDP went to extent of calling Sinha a BJP and RSS agent bent on inciting communal frenzy in the state.
After Monday’s mayhem that left one dead and dozens wounded when CRPF personnel fired “directly into the protesters” in downtown Srinagar , most of the senior Hurriyat leaders, were put under house arrest.
Perhaps, nature put things into perspective as it forced suspension of the “yatra” on Tuesday. It so happened that a part of glacier caved in at Sangam at the point where the twin tracks meet, three km from cave.
Business not usual for locals
By Parvaiz Bukhari in Srinagar
LIKE ALL seasonal business, locals along the Pahalgam and Baltal (Sonmarg) routes to the holy Amarnath shrine look forward to the windfalls that come with the annual pilgrimage.
For the Kashmiris, mostly Muslims, the pilgrimage has always been a money-spinner or a “tool to augment the family income”. So say the experts.
There are about 2,000 people on both routes — one that takes a bone-crunching day of trekking through rough and steep terrain and the other a longer but relatively comfortable three days — who make money by ferrying pilgrims on horsebacks and carts to the cave shrine.
Ironically, business has dwindled after the cap on the number of pilgrims allowed to make the “yatra” was increased.
The Federation of Commerce and Industry, Kashmir (FCIK) says locals are feeling the pinch as the number of pilgrims has increased over the years. “Most of the yatris and sadhus are sponsored by big business houses that put up tents and free langars (community kitchens) for them,” says the federation’s chief Shakeel Qalandar. “They also bring their transport,” he added.
Business has fallen because of non-spending pilgrims
Earlier, the pilgrimage had a mix of hardcore faithful and tourists. “Now, most come specifically for the yatra and move along a fixed route where everything from food and shelter to transport is free,” Qalandar adds.
Shopkeepers and hoteliers at Sonmarg and Pahalgam are aware of this. Many actually close their shops during the period because “we have noticed that only 10 per cent of pilgrims actually visit restaurants or eateries owned by locals,” Qalandar says.
Apart from land row that is threatening to upstage the peaceful pilgrimage, the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) that upkeeps the shrine, has been mired in another controversy. Local shopkeepers and hoteliers at Sonmarg and Pahalgam have complained that the SASB as well as the government have been preventing them from pitching tents (rest houses and eateries) for pilgrims.
There have been complaints that the base camps were slowly shifted away from the main business areas on both routes, making it difficult for the locals to benefit from the rush.
Many connected with tourist industry grumble that the non-spending pilgrims have discouraged tourists from Sonmarg and Pahalgam, the renowned hotspots. This, they say, affects business.
The “yatra” of late has generated more tension in the Sonmarg-Baltal and Pahalgam areas than making any economic vibration. “It is leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of Kashmiris,” Qalandar says.