Sunday, June 29, 2008
Politics of Pilgrimage
Until two weeks ago, the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in the high Himalayas bore testimony to the symbiotic relationship between Kashmiri Muslims and the Hindus of the plains. The continuing communal tension, bandhs, demonstrations, stone-pelting mobs, and retaliatory fire by the CRPF and police that have taken the lives of four lives so far, threaten to overturn it.
For once the Government of India cannot blame Pakistan. The credit for the chaos that recalls the vitiated atmosphere of the 1990s must firmly be placed at the feet of a few key players in the state, some of who have tried to gain dubious advantage in an election year.
The first on the list of honour is the head of state, Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha (retd.). Due to retire on June 4 this year, the octogenarian governor nonetheless insisted that the state government, in a wholly illegal move, transfer 100 acres of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) of which he is the president. This was done ostensibly to build permanent accommodation for the pilgrims en route to the cave.
Correspondence between the concerned departments reveal that the Forest Department had strongly objected to the transfer, citing the fragile environment and the downright illegality of taking over forest land, but the Forest and Law Ministers had pushed it through regardless. Was it cussedness, corruption or a sheer slide into dementia that prompted these gents to do what they did? One will never know, because the former Governor has retreated into a stony silence, and the ministers in question are too busy doing gymnastics to appear as the injured party.
Once the information of the land transfer was leaked, and the concerned Forest Minister, Qazi Afzal of the PDP questioned, his party turned tail and placed the blame squarely on the Congress. The Congress blackmailed the PDP into obliging the governor and would have blocked the construction of the Mughal Road, which is to link the Muslims areas of Rajouri and Poonch with the Valley. Or such was the breathless claim of a personage no less than the Deputy Chief Minister, Muzaffar Hussain Beig. The Valley erupted. The Congress was accused of communalizing the atmosphere and the PDP threatened for the nth time to pull out of the government. In a stunning revelation, the PDP accusation turned out to be a complete hoax, but by then no one was listening.
The Hurriyat, that had been unemployed the last few years because of Pakistan’s internal problems suddenly woke up to an ‘issue’ and declared that the land transfer was the first move towards a demographic change in Kashmir. No one bothered to ask the venerable leaders how many million ‘outsiders’ would fit into 100 acres of land at an altitude of 10,000 ft. Though the leaders have been at pains to state that this was not a communal issue, the fact is that neither the 700,000 kanals of land that have long been occupied by Indian security forces nor the several thousand kanals of land given to projects like the rail link to Kashmir have generated a similar response.
Across the Pir Panjal in Jammu, in a move mirroring the Hurriyat, the BJP, Bajrang Dal, VHP and sundry Hindu groups organized a strike to oppose the Kashmiris. How the people of Jammu should be affected by the building of permanent structures or not on the Amarnath route no one stops to ask because passions have been inflamed and everyone is out on the streets screaming blue murder, and all of this helps thugs to substantiate their claim of being the sole custodians of Hindu interests.
It takes a particularly diabolical genius to manufacture a crisis out of thin air. In a secular state the government has no business getting involved in religious affairs, whether it is meddling in Hindu pilgrimages or providing an entirely questionable Haj subsidy to Muslims— one that only bankrolls a bankrupt Air India.
The Amarnath pilgrimage, compared to ancient Hindu tiraths is a fairly recent affair, and came into being only in the 1850s when the cave with its ice lingam was discovered by a Muslim shepherd. His descendants, together with Hindu sadhus, continued to be involved in the organization and logistics of the pilgrimage until 2001. From all accounts the pilgrimage ran smoothly for a hundred and fifty years, even at the height of militancy, until the J&K Government stepped in.
If there is a case of fixing something that ain’t broke it is this. Ever since the government took over, the SASB has been mired in controversy. In 2004, the Governor decided to extend the pilgrimage from one to two months. Why, when the ice lingam has a life of a month, don’t ask. A second route, bulldozed through fragile mountains via Baltal from the north, 30 km shorter than the traditional route, was regularized. All kinds of new and ‘improved’ facilities, including a helicopter service to the cave were advertised. The result was an increase in traffic from a few thousand pilgrims to 400,000.
Can high altitudes sustain large populations, even if it is for a short period? The State Pollution Control Board complained bitterly about the sheer quantity of garbage and human waste that was generated during the yatra, and which flowed straight into the pristine Lidder River. The SASB’s response to this environmental disaster of its own making was a promise to build more toilets. In 2005, on a hike in the sylvan Betab valley soon after the yatra closed, I walked straight into the lies and realized to my horror, that the 400,000 much preferred a lota and the woods to the sarkari latrines.
In 2006, the mahant who had been involved in organizing the yatra all these years, Deepender Giri, resigned from the SASB in disgust, accusing the Governor of creating an artificial lingam. The ice lingam had begun to melt earlier than normal because of unseasonal heat and the unreasonable number of pilgrims entering the cave. In a move to stem the melting lingam and the howl of protest by the pilgrims who felt they’d been cheated, the Governor, without consulting the board, had ordered bags of dry ice to be placed around the lingam. Another howl of protest…
In all this cacophony the wise pilgrim should pause and consider the object of pilgrimage. In this case it is Shiva. Once, a long time ago a Bengali babaji who lived in the Khir Bhavani temple in Ganderbal reminded me, ‘Places that are associated with Vishnu are calm and peaceful. Kashmir is always in ferment because it belongs to Bhairav and Kali.’ Shiva is the creator, preserver and destroyer. In the skandas he is constantly called upon to maintain order, to restore the balance of the universe. This he does sometimes by dancing the tandav, the dance of destruction. The wise pilgrim should ask why it is that the lingam has begun to melt.