Thursday, May 24, 2018 | 1:25 AM

Amarnath’s militarised yatra paves way for Hindu assertion over Kashmir

Friday, April 21, 2017

JKCCS and Banglore based organization release report
How the Indian state has used the Amarnath pilgrimage as a project to integrate the state of Jammu and Kashmir with the Union of India, at the cost of Kashmiris, who have been excluded and belittled before the grand show of pampering of Hindu pilgrims, is the subject of an important document that was released on Thursday in Srinagar.

On the 13th death anniversary of rights activist Asiya Jeelani, and in memory of her life, work and struggle for justice, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and EQUATIONS, a Bangalore based research, campaign and advocacy organisation working on issues of tourism and ecology released a report, ‘Amarnath Yatra: a Militarised Pilgrimage’ based on a study on the Amarnath Yatra, between 2014-2016.

The report is based on data collected from RTIs filed on multiple departments, interviews with government officials in Kashmir, all concerned authorities and organisation, and people in Kashmir, Jammu, Delhi and Ludhiana and secondary sources.

Introducing the 208-page report,  Swathi Seshadri, a contributor, said, “There are many yatras that take place in India, but Amarnath is the most militarised one. Nearly 30,000 armed forces, which include various companies of Indian Army and paramilitary troops, escort buses in which yatris come from Jammu. From the moment of entry of the pilgrim in Jammu, till the last destination which is the cave, the yatris are always escorted by armed forces. This does not happen even in the Char Dham Yatra, the country’s largest pilgrimage.”

“The number of yatris has quadrupled in the past twenty years. In the mid 1980s the number was a few thousand; in 1997 it reached one-lakh twenty-thousand; it crossed five lakh in 2015. This increase is unprecedented and has mostly been caused by the flow of Hindu nationalists who use the yatra to assert their power over Kashmir,” Swathi added.

Swathi said that during the period of the yatra, an operation theatre and 35 doctors are made ready for the yatras, while for the locals who live around the cave, a primary health centre manned by a few doctors is kept at service.

“Even as the numbers of pilgrims have increased, the pilgrimage now has no bearing on the Kashmir economy. There is no substantial revenue people generate through the yatra. From food to healthcare, all is provided free by the state. Whatever income the yatra generates, most of it goes to the economy of the states that the yatris come from. Kashmirs earn a meagre share by providing menial services such as ponies, porters, tents, and taxis,” Swathi said.

According to the report, the Indian government in Delhi directly controls the yatra through its appointed governor. “The number of yatris, and period of their stay, has been determined unilaterally by the state. For instance, in its latest committee that will decide the days of stay, it has not included the custodian of this yatra who believes that the yatra should be concluded in 15 days for the sake of the environment and the Kashmiri people on whose land the yatra arrangements are made. The government has included in the committee those who are of the view of extending the period of the yatra and not those who hold the contrary view,” Swathi said.

The report reveals that over a period of time, and especially from the 1990s, the demographics of the Yatra has changed, with lakhs of Yatris participating from many regions of India. The number of Yatris participating has increased from mere thousands until 1990, with an increase since 1996 to over 3 lakhs in 2015. What was traditionally a 15-day Yatra is now conducted for between 45-55 days. The increase in number of days was institutionalised after the formation of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) in 2001, a statutory independent Board, headed by the Governor, which functions as a ‘State within the State’, without any accountability and few regulatory checks on its wide and arbitrary exercise of powers.

“Given the eco-sensitive and precarious nature of the region, and the critical role it plays in terms of providing water and environmental stability to the Valley, there are serious implications of unregulated large visitations in the two valleys – Lidder and Sindh. Environmental concerns are linked to: carrying capacity, sanitation and solid waste and other environmental concerns like seismisity of the area, impact on glaciers and high altitude flora and fauna.”

“Based on interviews with key personnel of the armed forces, it appears that about 30,000 personnel were deployed in 2015 for the purpose of the Yatra. This is in addition to the camps of the armed forces located on the route, who are additionally activated for the duration of the Yatra. The Report also looks at the history of conflicts related to the Yatra, particularly the Amarnath land row of 2008, and the role of militarization in such conflicts.”

“NGOs set up langars or community kitchens along the Yatra route. 75% of the langar organisers come from Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. While langars are accountable to follow rules and regulations vis-a-vis menu, waste disposal practices and services that they are allowed / disallowed to provide, it was found that they violate most of them especially linked to the menu and waste disposal practices, leading to visible ecological degradation along the route. The share of Kashmiri tour and travel operators and hotel owners is minuscule since tour operators used are mostly from Jammu or outside the state and very few people stay in hotels due to the presence of the SASB camps along the route. Kashmiris who comprise unorganised service providers including tentwalas, ponywalas, dandiwalas, loadbearers and taxi drivers, have little bargaining power to negotiate fair wages and rates. The report contests claims of socio-religious organisations that people of Kashmir gain the most from the Yatra because of economic benefits.”

“Since the 1980s, there has been an increasing trend of State encouragement and facilitation of newer Yatra pilgrimages in the region. Some of these, like the Amarnath Yatra, are coloured with religious-nationalist hues like the Buddha Amarnath, Kauser Nag and Sindhu Darshan Yatras. While some others like the Machail Yatra and Kailash Kund Yatra are the attempt to escalate a localised Yatra into a pan-Jammu/pan-India Yatra with economic motivations at their helm and often patronised by the tourism industry.  The history of the Yatra is ridden with conflicts over resource allocation and land use, which are likely to be further exacerbated by this communalised State policy.”

“In its dealing in relation to the Yatra, the Indian State comes through clearly as a Hindu state, privileging the rights of Hindu pilgrims over pressing local environmental and human rights concerns. In Kashmir this divisive communalisation has further significance given that it is a disputed territory, and a Muslim majority region.”

The key demands emerging from the observation and analysis of data included the restriction of the Yatra to its traditional period of 15 days. Very importantly, the faith of the yatris cannot be instrumentalised to further India’s political interests. We also call upon devotee groups to resist this use of their faith.

“ De-militarize the Amarnath Yatra. The military has no place in a space of divinity. If the terrain renders the Yatra dangerous then disaster management institutions need to be involved and not the armed forces.”

“Conduct an Environment Impact Assessment of the pilgrimage and make necessary changes to the numbers allowed, and to its conduct. Carrying capacity should be scientifically established and regulatory mechanisms should accordingly be put in place.”

“The number of langars should be rationalised, so should the menu. Discriminatory practices like disallowing entry of Kashmiris in the langars should be actively discouraged by the State.”

“The Kashmiri service providers who primarily service the unorganised aspects of the Yatra, namely, tent owners, people who carry Yatris on dandis, porters and horse owners have to be recognised as equal participants of the Yatra as those of the organised sector.”

“The extra constitutional role played by socio-religious organistions in the SASB,and the impunity they enjoy in their functioning, must be curtailed, in keeping with principles of secularism, enshrined in the Indian laws and the constitution.”

“Attempts to create more Amarnaths like Buddha Amarnath and Kauser Nag need to nipped at the bud before they become another site of active conflict.”

The report has ten chapters, all of which point out how the Indian state has institutionalised the yatra through its military apparatus and what the implications of this on Kashmir are. The JKCCS’s Kartik Murukutla, Khurram Parvez and Pervez Imroz have also contributed chapters to the report.