Amarnath Yatra: A letter to Geelani


Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani believes the GoI is using the Amarnath Yatra as an excuse to strengthen India’s claim over Kashmir. But the real troubles lie elsewhere

By Madhu Purnima Kishwar
Founder, Manushi & Professor, CSDS

Slippery slope Lakhs of devotees undertake the Amarnath Yatra every year
Slippery slope Lakhs of devotees undertake the Amarnath Yatra every year
Photo: Faisal Khan

GEELANI SAHEB, I would like to begin by assuring you that there are plenty of people in India who share your concern for the environmental damage being caused to the eco-sensitive zone due to the massive increase in the number of yatris who are visiting the Amarnath shrine in Kashmir. I have personally seen how much garbage and filth the yatra generates and how the extension of the yatra to two months has caused enormous damage to the delicate ecology of the area.

The extension is particularly puzzling considering that the Shivaling in the Amarnath cave is made of natural ice and appears only for 15 days. If the purpose is to have darshan of the Shivaling, it is altogether meaningless to have the yatra go on for two months. There have been times when due to heavy rush, the Shivaling has melted sooner than its time and the Amarnath Shrine Board has had to airlift ice slabs to construct an artificial Shivaling in order to keep the illusion alive. This makes a mockery of the whole yatra.

As someone involved in the Save Ganga and Save Himalayas campaign, I fully endorse your demand that just as the 154 km area from Gomukh to Devprayag has been notified as an eco-sensitive zone by the Government of India (GOI), the area around the Amarnath shrine also needs to be declared as eco-sensitive. The enormous rush is causing glaciers to recede. All those who value the Amarnath shrine as a sacred site need to join hands with their Kashmiri brothers in preserving the pristine purity of the area. However, I hope your concern will also extend to the plight of rivers, lakes and the fast depleting forest cover in Kashmir. The land that was once celebrated as paradise on earth has now become an ecological disaster.

You are also right in alleging that the creation of the Amarnath Shrine Board by the Farooq Abdullah government was an ill-conceived political move. Earlier, the state government used to handle the yatra and did so well. In its early years, the board stayed within its limits till former governor Lt Gen (retd) SK Sinha did all he could to communalise the yatra as well as its management. The board has also become a commission agent charging a cut for every pony hired and every service provider from the Valley. The provision of the langar has also become a multi-crore business. Huge sums are collected in the country in the name of the langar and a good part of the money siphoned off. In order to make space for the scores of langar sites, huge blocks of glacial ice are being cut.

We welcome your suggestion that the management of the yatra be handed over to the Kashmiri Pandits of the Valley, who, along with their Muslim brothers, should take care of the needs of the yatris, especially considering that Kashmiri Muslims have played a stellar role in ensuring that the yatris feel welcome and safe no matter how disturbed the conditions are.

But I appeal to you to resist the temptation of “politicising” this issue to settle other scores with the GOI. This is the surest way to lose the environmental battle. For example, you have alleged that “India is using the yatra as a tool of strengthening its control over J&K. It is one of the main pillars of military control in Kashmir. Lakhs of people are invited to frighten the local people and give them the impression that India is not going to leave them.”

While there is no denying that certain vested interests are using the yatra as “a show of Hindu strength”, it is wrong to attribute the growing numbers of yatris to the political games being played by the GOI or the Sangh Parivar. Just as increasing attendance in the mosques of Kashmir can’t be dismissed as political show of strength, so also sentiments of genuine yatris should not be dismissed lightly. You would do well to recognise that the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu has likewise witnessed an astronomical increase in the number of devotees. A century ago, a few hundred families from the undivided Punjab would go for Vaishno Devi’s darshan. But today, lakhs go there every month, virtually round the year. People have to queue up for hours, sometimes over 24 hours, to gain entry into the cave. It is no more a Punjabi pilgrimage. People from Maharashtra, Gujarat, all the southern and eastern states of India go there in hordes.

Why just Vaishno Devi? The serpentine queues at not just major shrines such as Tirupati but even the Hanuman Mandir in my neighbourhood in Delhi indicate that display of religiosity is on the increase in India. Look at the numbers that gather to celebrate Ganesh Utsav. Once a minor local festival in pockets of Maharashtra, it is now becoming a pan-India phenomenon.

The excessive show of religiosity is not confined to Hindus. The number of Muslims who offer jumma namaz have grown so exponentially that they spill over on roads and pavements outside the masjids. This was not the case during my childhood years. This spillover is happening despite the fact that the number of masjids has also witnessed a dramatic increase, thanks to the influx of petro-dollars for promoting political Islam. Similarly, going to Haj is no more a statement of piety. It has become a political statement for many and a fashion statement for some. Similarly, crowds at various Sufi dargahs are becoming unmanageable. During my last visit to Ajmer Sharif, I nearly got trampled to death by the milling crowds eager for deedar.

When I see our temples, gurudwaras, masjids and even churches overflowing with people, I’m reminded of Sant Longowal’s comment during the course of an interview he gave me in 1985, in the very modest gurudwara that was also his home in his native village: “Jab tak hamare gurudware kacche thhe, hamara dharam pukka thha. Jaise jaise hamare gurudware pakke aur chamakdar bante gai, hamara dharam kaccha aur pheeka padta gaya” (As long as our gurudwaras were modest structures of mud, our dharma was strong. As our gurudwaras turned into grand and shiny structures, our dharma became weak.) I’m personally of the view that those living sinful lives and earning their money through unethical means are more prone to making an exaggerated show of religiosity and make it a point to register a noisy presence at temples and mosques. Those who are deeply connected with the Divine and live honest lives don’t need to flaunt their religious devotion.

Therefore, I urge you to see the growing caravans of yatris in its proper perspective instead of seeing it as proof of some deep-seated conspiracy. The GOI does not need the Amarnath Yatra as an excuse to strengthen India’s claim over Kashmir. It has much more sophisticated weapons in its armoury.

We need your help in saving the Ganga as much as you need our help in saving the Jhelum

YOU KNOW better than anyone else that far from feeling frightened of the growing number of Hindu yatris, Kashmiris welcome them with open arms because of the good business and enhanced incomes these yatris bring to the Valley. I remember how unhappy Kashmiris were — hoteliers, taxi drivers, shikarawalas and handicraft traders — in 2010 when the lakhs who went for the yatra could not spend even a day in Srinagar, Pahalgam or other tourist resorts due to the disturbed conditions in the Valley. They cursed the state government for having ruined their biggest earning season by forcing the yatris to stay away from tourist destinations.

Some of the devotees may be initially motivated to join the yatra at the urging of the Sangh Parivar, but most of them go back as ambassadors of goodwill because of the warm hospitality Muslims of Kashmir offer them. When they witness how local people voluntarily come to their rescue and organise langars when the yatris are stranded due to blizzards or unexpected rain, how Kashmiri Muslims ensure that the yatra is not disturbed even when mischievous elements have tried to threaten its safety, then they are less prone to falling prey to the forces that demonise Kashmiris.

As I have said earlier, this is not at all to undermine the urgent need to protect the eco-sensitive zone where the Amarnath shrine is located from uncontrolled influx of devotees — both real and phoney. We are willing to have the matter reviewed by leading environmentalists, especially those who fought to get the area from Gomukh to Devprayag declared a protected zone. This will enable us to have a joint strategy and prevent the issue from degenerating into a religio-communal conflict.

Even the notification of the 154 km area from Gomukh to Devprayag as an eco-sensitive zone came after prolonged struggles, including a series of fasts-unto-death by leading environmentalists as well as Ganga devotees and sanyasis. One of them, Swami Nigamananda, was allegedly murdered by the mining and political mafia of Uttarakhand. Others have been attacked and vilified by the politician-contractor mafia that rules the states as well as the Central government.

Today, the holiest of the holy rivers such as Ganga and Yamuna are worse than sewers. They are first killed in the land of their origin by building bumper-to-bumper dams in the Himalayas, in violation of all environmental norms. Once they reach the plains, our very “Hindu” state governments suck away, for the use of urban population, whatever pitiful amount of water is released from the endless chain of dams. To add insult to injury, city governments pour millions of litres of untreated sewage as well as poisonous industrial effluents into our sacred rivers.

Geelani saheb, we need your help in saving the Ganga as much as you need our help in saving the Jhelum and eco-sensitive zones of Kashmir and its lakes from mindless destruction. Let this issue unite the people of Kashmir with the people of rest of India so that we can together combat the destructive policies of the GOI, as well as the state governments responsible for vandalising and looting our natural resources.

As for your fear that the GOI is conspiring to change the demography of Kashmir through the yatra, you should be the last person to stoke such fears. To begin with, the Valley’s demography was decisively changed when Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes. That injustice is not being seriously addressed by anyone in the Valley. More importantly, the outflow of population from Kashmir continues to be far greater than the inflow. Kashmiri Muslim traders have fanned out to all major towns and cities of India, bought properties and set up second homes, as well as business establishments.

It is time for you to refashion Kashmiri politics in tune with the aspirations of the Kashmiri youth

Any Kashmiri with means has a property in Jammu in addition to properties in Delhi, Pune, Bengaluru, etc. This includes Hurriyat leaders. Most young Kashmiris are keen to get out of the Valley, whether to pursue higher education or explore new job and business opportunities. They are the ones changing the demographic profiles of cities and towns in India rather than any “Hindu invaders” from mainland India.

By raising the bogey of GOI’s sinister designs to change the demographic profile of Kashmir, you are strengthening the Raj Thackerays of India against whose divisive politics the country today stands united. I’m sure you have seen on television, the vigour and determination with which the people of India as well as our leading politicians, mediapersons and intellectuals take the Shiv Sena-type outfits to task for targeting “outsiders” through goonda politics. They are not allowed to get away with their sinister agenda.

YOU SHOULD actually be worrying about why Kashmiri youth do not see much future for themselves in the Valley, why Kashmir does not attract investments, why it attracts only negative attention in the international media, making Kashmiri Muslims suspects when they try to migrate to other countries.

I know you are likely to blame GOI’s “evil designs” for all the problems of Kashmir. I do not deny that GOI has grossly mishandled the Kashmir issue and repeatedly betrayed the trust of Kashmiris right from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. Kashmiris, including your Hurriyat colleagues, tell me the only exception was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who has left a huge legacy of goodwill in Kashmir. Unfortunately, no one in the BJP has the good sense or the vision to build on that legacy and help find a permanent political solution to the Kashmir problem.

But Kashmiri politicians have to take responsibility for much of the mess. Many of them seem altogether out of sync with the new economic and political forces at play, which are seeking to make borders redundant. I’m not suggesting that you give up your political plank. I’m only suggesting that you follow democratic ways of pursuing your political agenda. We have the example of Aung Sang Suu Kui in neighbouring Myanmar. She and her followers stood against one of the most brutal and tyrannical military regimes in the world. She was under detention for 18 years. But she neither gave up her struggle for freedom and democracy for the Myanmarese people, nor her unwavering commitment to non-violence and inclusive politics through democratic means. Look at the veneration and respect her movement commands globally in comparison to the negative image of the “freedom struggle” led by the Hurriyat. For a while, the US and other western governments “supported” (or shall we say manipulated) the Kashmiri Muslim movement for secession. But, as soon as Pakistan became a liability as an ally in the geopolitical game of western powers, most of them have shoved the Kashmir issue under the carpet.

Geelani saheb, no self-respecting quam allows its politics to be manipulated by vested interests, no community with self-esteem will feed on a sense of permanent victimhood, blaming others for all its problems. It is time for you to refashion Kashmiri politics in tune with the changing world politics as well as the aspirations of the youth of Kashmir. They are tired of being frogs in a well and want to explore the new world of opportunities opening up elsewhere. Those who can are voting with their feet and those who can’t are extremely unhappy and frustrated. It is your job to ensure that the aspirations of Kashmiri youth are not stymied within the narrow confines of the Valley and that they become an integral part of the forces working for peace, progress and democracy the world over.

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

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