Week before its onset, Amarnath yatra runs into familiar controversy

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Pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra
Pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra

Home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde says it is under militant threat. J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah says there is no threat. Army launches “Operation Shiva” to secure it. Around 900 JK Police cadets rebel against deployment to protect it. Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Geelani says the government is inventing the Amarnath threat bogey to project Kashmiris as communal.

It is back to Amarnath yatra in Kashmir. A week before the pilgrimage is scheduled to begin, Kashmir is witnessing a familiar polarisation.

Meanwhile, there are reports that the ice stalagmite has melted to almost half of its size due the increasing temperature inside the cave shrine. With the 55 day yatra set to begin on June 28, there is a question mark about the survival of stalagmite through the period.

In 2007, stalagmite had completely thawed following which Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) had formed an artificial Shivlingam for the darshan of yatris. However the pilgrims disapproved of the arrangement and sought necessary measures by the Board to prolong the life of the naturally made stalagmite.

There are several aspects to the lingering crisis-prone nature of the pilgrimage. On one extreme is the hardline separatists who see the yatra as a disguised attempt to change the demography of Kashmir. And on another extreme are the right wing Hindu groups who want further extension of yatra period, construction of a concrete road and creation of infrastructure along the route.

But here the environmental groups come in: Their contention is that the yatra route falls along the ecologically fragile high-altitude area and an unregulated pilgrim rush will irreparably damage the environment. “Kedarnath should be an eye-opener for the government. There is a need to limit the daily number of pilgrims going for darshan,” says Hameeda Nayeem, convenor of the civil society group Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies. “Kashmiris have been conducting yatra for the past 180 years and there has never been a problem. But over the past decade, the disproportionate increase in the number of pilgrims has led to an environmental fallout and we want the government to urgently address this”.

But SASB in a move that has already generated fresh political controversy in J&K, has already extended the period of Amarnath pilgrimage from 39 to 55 days from this year. The decision was arrived at by the board in a three-hour meeting in New Delhi chaired by J&K Governor NN Vohra, early this year.

Even though the duration had been increased from 15 days to two months by the former JK Governor S K Sinha in 2004, a development which in no small measure contributed to the build-up to 2008 Amarnath unrest, the present governor N N Vohra in recent years had truncated the period to 39 days which also played to bitter opposition from Hindu groups across the country.

Now, this year, a new security angle has been added to the pilgrimage. Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has said there are intelligence inputs which suggest that the yatra will be under terror threat. “There is terror threat to Amarnath Yatra. All efforts will be made to ensure security of every pilgrim,” Shinde said.

However, the home minister was contradicted by the J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who said there was no heightened security threat to the pilgrims this year. “Talk about confusion within intelligence agencies, nowhere in the UHQ (Unified Headquarters) meeting yesterday (June 19) was a mention made of an increased threat yatra,” Abdullah tweeted. In another tweet on the meeting, CM said: “In fact, I asked a pointed question about whether the threats this year were higher than previous years and the answer was a categorical no.”

But soon after Shinde’s threat alarm, army launched Operation Shiva, to secure yatra. The name of the operation which has deeply religious connotations has also generated a degree of public unease. “ We have reservations about this name. It is very non-secular in its meaning. It shows the army is also out to politicise the pilgrimage,” says Khurram Pervez, convenor of human rights group Coalition of Civil Society.

On the other hand, playing up of the threat perception for yatra has touched off its own politics in the state. “No such threat exists either from people or militants. New Delhi is trying to mislead its people and the international community. It is highly deplorable,” Hurriyat G chief Geelani said at a press conference. “The pilgrimage should be run on the lines of Gangotri pilgrimage and the number of visiting yatris should be limited to save the fragile environment”.

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