In April, the All Parties Migrants Coordination Committee (APMCC), an organisation of Kashmiri Pandits, drew up a yatra calendar for 2014, in which it announced the dates for pilgrimages to two pristine high-altitude water bodies in the Kashmir Valley. The yatra to Gangabal, a freshwater lake at the foothills of the Harmukh — the highest mountain peak in the Valley — was supposed to be resumed after a hundred years. The other yatra was to Kausar Nag, a mountain lake in the Pir Panjal range in south Kashmir, located 12,000 feet above sea level.
While the pilgrimage to Kausar Nag had been undertaken every year since 2009 from Reasi in Jammu province, this year the Pandits planned to start the yatra from the Valley, with Kulgam town serving as the base camp.
But, on 16 July, when Reasi’s Additional District Development Commissioner Rajinder Singh Tara outlined the elaborate logistical and security arrangements for the yatra, it raised hackles in the Valley, which had already been edgy about the growing scale of the Amarnath yatra. For two months every summer, the Amarnath shrine becomes the destination of nearly 5 lakh pilgrims.
Civil society groups and separatists in the Valley were the first to react. Hurriyat (G) chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani called the Kausar Nag yatra “New Delhi’s sinister plan to turn Kashmir into India’s Gaza by strengthening the occupation of its land with a religious excuse”. And on Geelani’s call, people in the Valley observed a strike against the yatra.
The controversy set the stage for a fresh face-off along communal lines in a state already sitting on several social and political fault lines. When a group of Pandits led by APMCC chief Vinod Pandit reached Kulgam on 31 July to embark on the pilgrimage, they were greeted with a protest by the locals. Mobilised under a hastily forged NGO, the Kausar Nag Bachao Front, the protesters argued that the yatra to Kausar Nag would pollute the lake, the source of their water.
The state government soon swung into action, denied it had ever granted permission for the yatra through the Valley and asked the pilgrims to go back. The decision left the Pandits furious.
“The government has succumbed to pressure from the separatists,” says Pandit. “How can government stop us from performing our religious duty? This is shameful.”
Soon the BJP’s J&K spokesperson Nirmal Kamal condemned the Omar Abdullah government’s stand on the issue and said, “It shows that the state government is carrying forward the separatist agenda.” Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to demand action against the “unilateral decision” by the J&K government. And Kashmiri Pandits based in the US wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking his intervention.
“We note that this is the third disturbance that has been created in the Valley following reports that your administration is looking at plans to rehabilitate the Kashmiri Pandits, who had been expelled from the Valley in 1990 and have been living in exile for the past 25 years,” read the letter from the Kashmiri Overseas Association.
In Kashmir, this insistence on the yatra plays into deep existential fears. In the dominant public perception, attempts to start fresh yatras are seen as part of a larger plan to “dilute the Muslim character of the Valley” and at its most extreme, a calibrated effort to “change the demography of the state”.
“To start with, it is not a communal issue for us. Calling it communal is part of a premeditated plan to create a justification for a new yatra and, possibly later, a network of yatras in the Valley,” says Khurram Parvez, convener of the J&K Coalition of Civil Society. “The yatras have never been an issue for the Kashmiri people, but any militarised Hindutva project aimed against our identity and causing the vandalisation of our ecology will be opposed.”
Parvez’s explanation resonates widely in the Valley, where many people believe that the resurrection of some yatras in the past decade and the growing number of pilgrims visiting Amarnath are not spontaneous phenomena. J&K hosts two major annual yatras, one to Vaishno Devi and the other to Amarnath, and both are managed by autonomous shrine boards. From a few thousand pilgrims in the 1990s, the Amarnath yatra has grown into one of the biggest pilgrimages in the country.
Then there are other yatras, some of which were revived in the past decade. They include the Shiv Khori yatra, the Buddha Amarnath yatra, the Machail yatra, the Kailash Kund yatra, the Gangabal yatra and now the Kausar Nag yatra.
“What makes people in Kashmir wary is that some of these yatras do not seem to have evolved naturally out of a sense of religiosity. Their sudden and coordinated emergence also scares us. Hence the suspicions,” says Zarif Ahmad Zarif, a noted Kashmiri poet. “The issue in Kashmir is not communal but existential. Bred in an atmosphere of conflict, the people imagine their identity and demography to be under some kind of a threat.”
It is for this reason that the Amarnath yatra has become a bone of contention in the state. In 2008, when the then J&K governor SK Sinha announced the transfer of 40 hectares of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, the yatra’s management body, there was an immediate backlash in Kashmir, which soon ballooned into a violent regional confrontation between Kashmir and Jammu, leading to the death of around 60 Kashmiri youth.
Recently, the manager of a pilgrims’ camp site allegedly beat up a Muslim pony-wallah at Baltal, a base camp for the Amarnath yatra, triggering clashes that led to the burning of tents housing the pilgrims and injuries to around 25 people. Following this, the government was forced to temporarily suspend the yatra from that route.
While the announcement of new yatras causes unease among locals, the yatras are significant to the Pandits not just for religious reasons, but also because the pilgrimages are a way to express their nostalgia for their homeland and a means “to preserve their history and culture”.
Yatras in J&K
Vaishno Devi: The Vaishno Devi yatra is the biggest pilgrimage in J&K, open through the year. Around 80 lakh pilgrims visit the shrine every year. It is managed by the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board.
Shiv Khori: The pilgrimage to the Shiv Khori shrine in Udhampur, dedicated to Lord Shiva, starts in March. It attracts around 5 lakh pilgrims and is managed by the Shiv Khori Shrine Board.
Buddha Amarnath: The Buddha Amarnath yatra to a few springs in the hills of Poonch district begins in August. Around 2 lakh pilgrims undertake the yatra.
Amarnath: More than 5 lakh pilgrims visit the Amarnath shrine in July and August. The yatra is managed by the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board.
Machail: The Machail yatra, whose destination is a temple located 11,000 feet above the sea level in the Padder Valley in Kishtwar district, starts in August.
Kailash Kund: The Machail yatra is followed by another yatra to Kailash Kund, a frozen lake in the Chenab Valley.
Sindhu Darshan: Sindhu Darshan in Leh was started in 1997 by the then deputy prime minister LK Advani.
Gangabal: Gangabal is a freshwater lake located 12,000 ft above the sea level, at the foothills of the Harmukh — the highest peak in the Kashmir Valley. The yatra begins in September.
Kausar Nag: Kausar Nag yatra was started in 2009 from Reasi in Jammu. This year, the Kashmiri Pandits unsuccessfully attempted to undertake it from the Valley, with Kulgam town as the base camp.
“The yatras used to be undertaken prior to 1989 and had been discontinued since then due to the troubled situation. We are only resuming them. There is no conspiracy,” says Pandit. “Kashmir is our homeland. And you cannot keep us away from our sacred destinations.”
Khurram, however, contests this argument. “First, not all the contemplated yatras existed before 1989. Second, the ones that existed were low-key and undertaken on a small scale. A few thousand priests used to visit the Amarnath shrine until a decade ago. Now, you have 5 lakh pilgrims going to the high-altitude, ecologically fragile area and their number is growing by the year,” he says. “On top of that, they are planning to turn Kausar Nag and Gangabal into a replication of the Amarnath pilgrimage. But can our ecology take it? And why are they doing it now?”
This is a controversy that eludes any simple solution. Positions on both sides are only hardening by the day. The communal cauldron is on the simmer and prone to blowing up into a wider conflagration anytime.
Making matters worse is the fact that the yatras are not the issues that have roiled J&K in recent years. Last year, the communal riots that had broken out across the Chenab Valley on Eid left three people dead and more than 60 shops, a petrol pump, an oil tanker and around 93 vehicles burnt. The controversy then was over the arming of the predominantly Hindu Village Defence Committees (VDCs), a legacy of the counterinsurgency policy of the early 1990s. While the Muslims wanted the VDCs to be disarmed as militancy in the region was on the wane, the Hindus felt they needed the armed bodies for their security. There are 26,567 armed vdc members in 10 districts of Jammu province and Leh district of Ladakh, and around 96 percent of them are Hindus.
Similarly, the Modi government’s declared intention to bring back Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley has generated its own share of discontent. While most Pandit groups seek separate settlements in the Valley, the Valley-based parties have argued that it would create a perpetual communal divide and proposed that the Pandits should instead be reintegrated into Kashmiri society. The Pandits, however, view this proposition with suspicion and raise legitimate concerns regarding their security in such an arrangement.
The proposal to abrogate Article 370 takes on its own communal colour, with Hindu nationalist parties in Jammu supporting the idea and the Muslims opposing it. There are several other issues such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the deep sense of administrative discrimination harboured by all the three provinces, the grant of citizenship rights to Pakistani refugees in Jammu, which can be raked up anytime to disastrous social effect. There is a chance of something like that happening in the run-up to the Assembly polls, to create neat social divisions and consolidate vote banks.
The polarisation unfolds in, what has become by now, a familiar pattern. As soon as one of controversial issues returns to the public discourse, the separatists tap into the insecurities in Valley and declare their resistance to the alleged conspiracy of fomenting a demographic change. In turn, Hindu right-wing forces lose no time in opposing the separatists’ stand and taking the issue to the rest of the country, unleashing the possibility of greater communal discord.
However, as borne out by some recent instances of communal clashes, the deepening divisions in the state seem to be extending beyond the familiar fault lines into hitherto untouched spheres of everyday life. For instance, within the span of a fortnight last month, communal clashes broke out in the towns of Kathua and Bari Brahmana, leaving several people injured, including policemen.
At Bari Brahmana, the fight was over a 42-acre tract of land. The clash started after members of one community, who claimed the land as theirs, stopped people belonging to the other community from organising wrestling matches on it. And at Kathua, the violence was triggered by reports of cow slaughter in a nearby village. The mobs went on a rampage, setting kiosks on fire and damaging other property. Eleven people were injured.
But while these are localised incidents, nothing can beat the anxieties and paranoia triggered in the Valley by any newly-announced yatra or the plan for separate Kashmiri Pandit settlements, which are seen as disguised efforts to dilute the Muslim identity of the region.
Kausar Nag is one such contentious pilgrimage. On 31 July, a BJP leader flagged off the yatra to the lake at Reasi in Jammu province. Reviewing the arrangements to be made for the pilgrimage, the Reasi district administration directed the officers of the tourism department “to chalk out a comprehensive strategy to popularise Kausar Nag by erecting hoardings at prominent locations, so that pilgrims after visiting Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine, could be diverted to the lake for tourism promotion”.
Similarly, the Kulgam district administration wrote to the army and the health and forest departments to provide “foolproof arrangements to yatris from Kakran to Kausar Nag”, before withdrawing the permission following the backlash in the Valley. While the situation was contained just before it could tip into a communal inferno, it has left one more recurrent point of social tension in an already charged climate.