The yatra's journey

The pilgrimage to Amarnath had acquired political connotations it was an assertion of Hindu identity and India's claim on Kashmir.

Nestled in the Kashmir Himalayas, Amarnath, one of the holiest shrines for Hindus, has been at the centre of many controversies. However, it has also been a showpiece of India’s secular, syncretic ethos.

The annual pilgrimage to Amarnath, one of the holiest shrines of Hindus, nestled in Kashmir Himalayas at a height of 3,888 metres above sea level and dedicated to Lord Shiva, has often been at the centre of controversies as well as a showpiece of India’s secular, syncretic ethos.

While many people recall the 2008 turbulence over the land issue, which had brought Hindu-majority Jammu in confrontation with the predominantly-Muslim Kashmir Valley, taking polarisation to a dangerous level, many talk of the arduous journey of Hindu pilgrims made comfortable by Kashmiri Muslims.

The July 10, 2017, terror attack, in which seven pilgrims from Gujarat and Maharashtra were killed and 19 others wounded, has again brought the focus back on the yatra. The gory incident was widely condemned and Kashmir Valley is aghast over the loss of innocent human lives.

In the 1990s, when insurgency was at its peak, some Kashmiri militant outfits chose to impose a ban on the pilgrimage, citing two reasons for it.

First, they wanted to protest the “repression, intimidation and harassment” which the local population would be subjected to in the name of providing foolproof security cover to the Hindu pilgrims. Second, they were exasperated over the authorities disallowing Muslims to take out processions to celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and commemorate his grandson Imam Hussein’s martyrdom.

Authorities rejected the militants’ diktat and were bolstered by the support of the common Kashmiri Muslim who continued to be associated with the pilgrimage despite the hostile conditions.

The pilgrims, at various spots en route to the Amarnath cave, came under attacks, including bombing on several occasions, resulting in many deaths of both, Hindu visitors and local residents.

Hindu zealots, represented by radical organisations such as Bajranj Dal, Shiv Sena, VHP and RSS, reacted strongly and took militants’ offensive as a challenge. They began encouraging more and more people to undertake the journey by providing financial and logistical support. The number of devotees undertaking the arduous journey through rugged hills in harsh weather conditions increased manifold. And the ensuing terror incidents — some of which remain mysterious to date — failed to deter them.

The pilgrimage to Amarnath had acquired political connotations — it was an assertion of Hindu identity and India’s claim on Kashmir.

However, the numbers have dropped in past few years. Last year 220,000 people visited Amarnath, the lowest since 2004. The decrease in numbers was attributed to the post-Burhan Wani killing unrest in the Valley and because the naturally formed ice lingam completely melted in the first 13 days of the pilgrimage, owing to the rise in temperature.

In 2015, as many as 352,000 pilgrims had visited Amarnath during the yatra period, whereas in 2011 and 2012 the figure stood at 621,000 and 630,000 respectively.

Unending Controversies
In 2003, Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), headed by the then Governor, Lt. Gen. S.K Sinha, decided to extend the yatra period from one month to 90 days, a move supported by various Hindu organisations in and outside J&K. But the state government of the time, headed by Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, pleaded it did not have the resources to cope with the added time. A compromise was reached to extend it to 45 days to take in the auspicious full moon in August, but later the SASB not only stretched it to two months unilaterally but also opened it to any number of visitors on a daily basis.

Prior to the SASB’s formation in 2000, the J&K government had the responsibility for making extensive arrangements every year for the successful completion of the pilgrimage — from registering each pilgrim, pony owners and dandi walas who carry old and infirm devout in wooden palanquins, to providing camps en route, food grains, firewood, cooking gas and other essentials. But with the outbreak of insurgency in Kashmir in 1989-90, security turned out to be the most vital aspect of the pilgrimage.

Read: The Attack: No one has a convincing answer

With Gen. Sinha taking over as the ex-officio head of the SASB, controversies surrounding the pilgrimage began snowballing. Then chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed saw in it a deliberate attempt to run him down and was at one stage under pressure to quit and seek a fresh mandate.

His aides and senior PDP leaders recall even today how Lt. Gen. Sinha tried to create a “parallel power centre” by frequently visiting district headquarters and summoning officers. He also, at several occasions, favoured the Army to head the Unified Headquarters instead of the chief minister.

The chief minister’s refusal to approve the board’s decisions sparked off protests by Hindu organisations that rallied round Lt. Gen. Sinha. The governor sent a strong missive to the chief minister asking him not to meddle in the affairs of the SASB.

Much water has flown down the Jhelum since. Political preferences have changed and the ruling PDP now has the very party (BJP) as its coalition partner which it had accused of backing Sinha.

Health issues
Majority of the pilgrims come from low altitude areas and, before embarking on the journey, should be made to acclimatise for at least 48 hours. But, often, they begin trekking immediately after arriving at the base camps in vehicles, the main reason for mountain sickness that ultimately results in pulmonary oedema, and even cardiac arrest.

The increasing number of fatalities among the pilgrims, mostly due to cardiac arrest and other high-altitude related illnesses, remains a major concern. Governor Narendra Nath Vohra as chairman of the SASB has publicly expressed his serious concern over it and asked for taking urgent measures towards addressing the health-related issues during the yatra. So far this year, 23 pilgrims have died at various locations in the yatra sector, 21 of them due to medical reasons.

Though the SASB has publicly — and repeatedly — asked pilgrims to move to the base-camps of Pahalgam and Baltal only after getting themselves registered with it, these places are thronged by unregistered pilgrims on a daily basis. Ironically, no unregistered pilgrim has ever been turned back by the SASB.

The bus which came under fire at Botengo along the Srinagar-Jammy highway on July 10 was not part of any Amarnath pilgrim convoy which are provided security cover right from Lakhanpur in Kathua district of Jammu region to the base-camps of Baltal and Pahalgam and back. Also, as per the standard operation procedure approved by the SASB, no vehicle carrying Amarnath pilgrims is to move between the base camps and Jawahar Tunnel beneath the Pirpanjal Range, which connects Jammu region with the restive Kashmir Valley, after nightfall. The attack took place at 8.15 pm.

Officials of various government agencies, including police, make no bones about unregistered pilgrims causing massive problems for them and the registered pilgrims, resulting in chaos in the hills apart from premature draining of resources made available to them.

Environmental issues
The ecology of the fragile hills, especially after the extension of the yatra and the number of visitors increasing manifold has been a matter of concern for environmentalist. They and other experts complain that many pilgrims do not give a damn about the official directive and leave rubbish, including plastic bottles and bags as well as human waste, strewn across the mountain trails. Some of the rubbish falls into melted glaciers rushing through the valleys, threatening a vital source of drinking water for thousands of people who live downstream.

The SASB says that drastic steps have been taken to reduce human ecological footprint in the hills. A couple of years ago, Vohra constituted a three-member sub-committee of the SSAB for formulating and effectively implementing a comprehensive environment action plan during the pilgrimage.

However, not satisfied with these assurances and keeping in view the situation persisting on the ground, the environmentalists and local political and civil society groups are demanding that the number of pilgrims and period of the yatra be restricted on the pattern of Gomukh and other Gangotri glaciers, Badrinath and other holy sites in Uttarakhand.

The Muslim Connection
It is said that some 300 years ago (another version says 400 years) a Muslim shepherd Bota Malik while looking for his missing goat came across a sadhu who gave him a sack of coal. When the man returned to home with it, he discovered that the black fuel had turned into sparkling gold. He rushed back to thank his benefactor but could not find him. But what he found was a cave that is now the famous Amarnath cave-shrine. Another story goes; while chasing the goat the shepherd relocated to the cave. And when he returned home, he visited a nearby temple to narrate the story about what he had seen inside the cave to a priest.

The Maliks had been fully associated with the yatra till the formation of the SASB in 2000. Bota Malik’s de-scendant who lives in Bota Kote village, a few km short of Pahalgam, complains that they have been denied access to the cave-shrine since 2000.

“The holy cave was discovered by our ancestor Bota Malik. We had been serving at the cave during the pilgrimage for the past one-and-a-half century but we have been sidelines by the SASB adversely affecting the livelihood of 300 families who would directly or indirectly depend on the share from the offerings,” said a member of Founders and Beneficiaries of Amarnath cave. He claimed that Amarnath had been known as a symbol of communal harmony “as it used to be place where Hindus and Muslims would come together and, in fact, the first puja of the year would be offered by us Muslims.”

But, he complained, Maliks were neglected by the SASB for political reasons.

“Though the board officials publicly admit that the holding of the yatra is impossible without the support of the Kashmiri Muslims, its actions only indicate that political motives are responsible for driving us out,” he alleged.

The SASB had at an earlier occasion rejected the criticism as unwarranted.

The incident doesn’t reflect Kashmiriyat. It is violence and a Kashmiri can never be with hinsa. In fact, Kashmiris have never condoned violence. Kashmiris have always been on the opposite side whenever a wrong was being committed here. They have always confronted the iniquitous and suffered enormously. I can feel the pain of the victims because in all my life of 22 years all I have seen is death and oppression.
— Fakira, Law student

I along with my wife reached Srinagar a day after the incident. We were scared but the people here at Yatri Niwas at Lal Chowk assured us Srinagar is absolutely safe. The same day we went to Pahalgam and then to Amarnath for the darshan. We returned through Baltal and are planning to go to Gulmarg. We have no complains. People here are gracious. Only this hartal is getting in the way of our itinerary.
— Sanjay Rampurkar, Yatri from Nashik, Maharashtra

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