August 04, 2008

State Patronage of Pilgrimages: The Amarnath Yatra Controversy in Kashmir

The Economic and Political Weekly
July 26, 2008


by Gautam Navlakha

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 "black- mailed" 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 re- lease 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" (pib.nic.in/ feature/feo799/f1507992 html).

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 pilgrim ages 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.


The implications are far-reaching. The SASB runs a virtually parallel admini- stration and acts as a "sovereign body" promoting Hindu interests, increasing the number of pilgrims from 12,000 in 1989 to over 4,00,000 in 2007 and ex- tending the period of the pilgrimage from 15 days to two and half months (the first fortnight is meant for families of service personnel). The SASB has virtually taken over the functioning of the Pahalgam De- velopment Authority, laying claims to forest lands and constructing shelters and structures even on the Pahalgam Golf Course!

As part of the latest instances of land grab the SASB received the approval of the state government on June 3, 2008 to transfer 800 kanals of forest land. And it wanted another 3,200 kanals. The SASB has also staked claims to set up an "independent" Amarnath Development Authority between Nunwan, Pahalgam, and Baltal (ahead of Sonmarg). It is true that the state government shot down this proposal and has publicly claimed that only temporary structures can be set up in the 800 kanals, but two things should be kept in mind. Firstly, the brazen manner in which the SASB has gone about staking its claims. Secondly, but for public anger it is doubtful if the state government would have found the courage to oppose the demands of the SASB. It has not done anything to prevent or rollback the annexation of parts of Pahalgam Golf Course in order to provide security for pilgrims. If it were not for the widespread protests in Kashmir and the PDP's withdrawal from the government, the new governor of Jammu and Kashmir would not have been compelled to revoke his predecessor's order.

Environmental Damage

Be that as it may, probably the most damning evidence against the SASB and its dangerous exclusivist policy is the dam- age being caused to the environment in and around Pahalgam. A noted environmentalist told Greater Kashmir (June 10, 2008) that "The yatris during their Amarnath yatra do not only defecate on the banks of the Lidder river but throw tonnes of non-degradable items like polythene, plastic items directly into the river. This has resulted in the deterioration of its water quality." One expert, M R D Kundangar, told Greater Kashmir that "(t)he chemical oxygen demand of the Lidder has been recorded between 17 and 92 mg/l which is beyond the permissible level. Such enriched waters with hazardous chemicals ranges can no way be recommended for potable purposes. It has crossed all permissible limits due to flow of sewage and open defecation. Lidder has been turned into a cesspool." It has been estimated that every day during the pilgrimage 55,000 kg of waste is generated. Apart from this waste, the degradation caused by buses and vehicles carrying pilgrims, trucks carrying provisions and massive deployment of security forces contributes further to air pollution. Another fallout is the threat posed to local inhabitants from crowding of the ecologically fragile area where they have to compete to retain their access and rights to re- sources, both water and land. Indeed such was the arrogance and clout of the previous governor that he sent an ordinance to the state government to establish Shardapeeth University in Baghat Kanipora in Srinagar. Prominent jurist A G Noorani was constrained to point out to Greater Kashmir (June 9, 2008) that this move of the governor was "unheard of in parliamentary democracy". General Sinha would have gotten away with this had it not been for the fact that state coalition government did not have enough time to promulgate this while he was still the governor. The same governor, who also headed the Shri Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, had also created a special facility for rich Hindu pilgrims visiting Vaishno Devi by paying an additional Rs 200-500. Had it not been for the strike by residents and ordinary pilgrims in Katra this decision would not have been withdrawn.

The special time allocated for the pilgrimage to the armed forces personnel, the acquisition of land, introduction of helicopter services (which causes its own attendant problems), crowding of the area and slowly pushing out local people from these locations because of the environmental degradation or because their livelihood is adversely affected (for example consider the protests by the Pahalgam- based tourism industry for squeezing them out), all pose a huge challenge.

Limits in Gangotri

Significantly, even the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttarakhand on May 1, 2008 limited the number of pilgrims visiting Gangotri and Goumukh to 150 persons per day so as to protect the fragile ecology of the area. Yet, in the case of Amarnath, and despite overwhelming evidence of environmental degradation posed by the huge increase in the number of pilgrims and large number of security forces deployed for protection of such pilgrims, there is no one who dares challenge the SASB's stubborn extension of the yatra. Indeed if the CEO of SASB is to be believed since "the population of India will increase we will have to consider further extension of the yatra period".

Arguably, when the yatra was halted between 1991 and 1996 due to the threat by a section of the militants it played into the hands of the extreme right wing elements in Indian society who have since then played an integral role in mobilising large numbers of pilgrims.

However, it is equally important to note that earlier, school- children and college youth used to act as volunteers and provide assistance to the yatris. Even when this was discontinued after 1996, the main indigenous militant organisation the Hizbul Mujahideen and Muslim Janbaz Force always supported the yatra and consistently demonstrated its opposition towards those who tried to dis- rupt it. And even today there is no section of people who opposes the yatra. What they resent is the horrendously jingoistic turn that it has taken under the SASB. Verily the more things change more they remain the same.