[Reader-list] Amaranth Yatra

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Mon Jun 30 17:58:16 IST 2008

Dear Pawan,

Just because a terrain does not have trees, or that the altitude it  
is located in happens to be above the treeline, does not mean that it  
is not ecologically sensitive.
Often, it is precisely terrain of this nature, such as for instance  
is at the vicinity of the mouth of the Gomukh glacier above Gangotri, 
(again above the treeline) that is extremely fragile and needs very  
careful nurturing.

I know for a fact that the ecosystem of the Gomukh glacial region is  
very badly threatened because of the completely haphazard way in  
which access to this region (and the logistics of pilgrimage and  
tourism) has been managed. I can very easily see that something  
similar can happen in the case of Amarnath.

I would urge you not to make the discussion of this question into a  
'Hindu' question. It is not one, it is about the way in which State  
managed, so called, 'Temple Development Boards', enter into schemes  
to grab land, and about the ecological consequences of their land- 
grabbing propensities.

You might recall that some months back you tried to pose the question  
of the building of a shipping canal between India and Sri Lanka as a  
matter of hurting Hindu sentiments. I endorsed your opposition to the  
so called 'Sethu-Samudram Shipping Channel' scheme, because to me it  
represented a threat to a fragile marine ecosystem, not on the basis  
of its alleged injury to Hindu sentiments. I also pointed out to you  
and to others on the list that the protectors of Hindutva, while  
proposing a Panama Canal style waterway cutting through the apex of  
the Deccan peninsula as an alternative to the 'Sethu-Samudram' plan  
were  also proposing what was certainly a blueprint for an ecological  

Opposition to the proposed (and now rescinded) land grab proposal by  
the SASB in the Amarnath case does not automatically translate into  
partisanship across the Hindu-Muslim question in Kashmir. Those who  
translate it as such, whether they are Hindu, or Muslim, are  
needlessly confusing a straightforward matter by bringing their own  
secterian biases to bear on the issue. No one should be misled by  
such attempts at confusion.



On 30-Jun-08, at 4:44 PM, Pawan Durani wrote:

> Hello Shuddha ,
> Lemme just inform everyone that , the land may have belonged to Forest
> Department , but there is no single tree over there.
> Even when you reach Amarntah , there are no trees over there ,  
> becuase of
> high altitude.
> I visited the site, Baltal , two years back.
> Unfortunately the issue is not about ecology ..... the way it has been
> treated is a pure indicator that anything related to Hindus is not  
> tolerable
> in Kashmir, and proves once again that it is not "freedom" but Islamic
> fanaticism which rules the shot in Kashmir.
> Pawan
> On 6/30/08, Shuddhabrata Sengupta <shuddha at sarai.net> wrote:
>> Dear Sonia, Dear Rashneek, dear all,
>> Thank you, Sonia and Rashneek for the debate on the Amarnath Yatra
>> issue. The question of temple boards and their closeness to power,
>> and their lust for acquiring forest lands is not unique to Kashmir.
>> It also happens, as you will see below, (see the report - Sabarimala:
>> The Faith in Spate, by K.A. Shaji) in distant Kerala. The ruling left
>> front government in Kerala is as involved in this game as anyone
>> else, because 'Temple Boards' are gold-mines and no state government
>> wants to close an operation that earns them the gold that can be
>> mined in these gold mines. I am appending below a report on the
>> question of the Sabarimala Temple boards desire for even more
>> reserved forest land. The story is remarkably resonant of the
>> Amarnath issue. A local, highly culturally specific, syncretic
>> pilgrimage turning into the road-show of a revivalist 'Hinduism',
>> with lucrative revenue spin-offs.
>> I live in an area in Delhi where I have witnessed every year, for the
>> past few years - 'Chalo Amarnath Chalo' (Let's go to Amarnath)
>> posters and banners being put up by local RSS functionaries. And
>> there are active fundraising drives which culminate in a cavalcade of
>> Tata Sumos with the local 'Youth' blaring 'bhajans' from their
>> booming auto-sound systems taking off to go do 'darshan' of the
>> melting lingam. I don't think they (the Sumo Pilgrims of my
>> neighbourhood) really care whether or not the forests of Kashmir go
>> up in smoke.
>> I also know that the Sabarimala pilgrimage has been twisted out of
>> shape in a similar way, both by Hindutva enthusiasts, and by
>> construction contractors close to the ruling Left Front. Fragile
>> forests can barely sustain the burden of so much sudden faith.
>> Incidentally, revivalist Hindus are by no means alone in their
>> disregard for the local heritage and environment. The ruling
>> dispensation in Saudi Arabia has effectively turned the pilgrimage
>> sites of Mecca and Medina into an air-conditioned cultural wasteland.
>> it has systematically destroyed shrines that were considered holy by
>> millions of Muslim pilgrims, especially from South Asia, and
>> completely transformed the intricate urban fabric of Mecca and
>> Medina. There is a long history of protest, including in India, by
>> Muslims against the way in which the Saudi Government, in cohorts
>> with the Wahabi establishment has wrecked the topography of Mecca and
>> Medina. Similarly, the Israeli state's policy of expansion, through
>> settlements, and building high security segregated roads that cut
>> through the west bank of the Jordan river are often camouflaged under
>> an appeal to scriptural sanction for 'Greater' or 'Eretz' Israel.
>> There is a great deal of money to be made in pilgrimage, and it
>> affords everybody an opportunity to make some quick transformations
>> of the landscape in the name of 'infrastructure development'  and
>> 'settlement' , both of which are euphemisms for speculation in real
>> estate.
>> I am also appending a detailed report on the environmental impact of
>> what was proposed by the erstwhile governor Gen (Retd) Sinha of Jammu
>> and Kashmir for the Amarnath Yatra by Gautam Navlakha that appeared
>> recently in the website of a journal called Kashmir Affairs. Finally,
>> it is not my case that the acquisition of land for the Amarnath Board
>> (SASB) is wrong, and the acquisition of land for the so-called
>> 'Mughal Road', which has been pointed out by Aditya Raj Kaul, in a
>> recent post is wrong. Both are equally disastrous from the
>> environmental point of view. And the silence of political formations
>> (of all persuasions) on the environmental impact of the revived
>> Mughal Road and their recent discovery of environmentalism (in the
>> case of the Amarnath land transfer issue) does make their commitment
>> to environmentalism somewhat suspect. The PDP's stance is
>> particularly hypocritical, as the original decision has been ratified
>> by its own minister, (for Forest) in the (Indian Held) J&K state
>> government. Still, even if the commitment of all the protagonists is
>> suspect, I must say that I have rarely seen a popular movement
>> reverse a state-driven decision on an 'environmental' issue, and the
>> recent success of the agitation in Kashmir (whatever be the motives
>> that impelled it) which has resulted in a reversal of the Land
>> Transfer issue is something to be grateful for.
>> These are issues that need to be seen quite separately from secterian
>> concerns. I hope this debate can help us see them in that way.
>> best
>> Shuddha
>> -------------------
>> 1. Sabarimala: The Faith in Spate
>> by K A Shaji
>> http://www.boloji.com/society/115.htm
>> Legend has it that when Lord Ayyappa set out to seek solitude, he
>> settled upon Sabarimala. Its sylvan surroundings and undulating
>> terrain had made it an ideal retreat for the bachelor god. The
>> pristine monsoon forests had wrapped like an ornament around his
>> hermitage at the top of the hill. The Lord believed to have called
>> the area with tranquil atmosphere as his poonkavanam (sacred forest).
>> A shrine inside the forest and a deity who chose the calm ambience of
>> hills and valleys has few parallels in the country and outside. But
>> now, it seems, all of the glories of Sabarimala were a thing of the
>> past. When mythology meets present-day reality, Sabarimala is no more
>> a chosen abode of the hermit God. During January-February each year,
>> more than 50 million devotees, as claimed by the temple authorities,
>> are thronging this forest temple for annual pilgrimage, putting the
>> fragile ecology of the region under severe stress. Now, the holy hill
>> is a synonym of increasing inflow of pilgrims, inadequate
>> infrastructure, a devastated environment and a hapless wildlife.
>> While the entire hill and the adjacent river Pampa, the third largest
>> river in Kerala, are stinking due to sewage pollution and
>> accumulation of garbage, the situation is not much different in the
>> administrative and spiritual circles of the hill shrine. First, it
>> was a controversy involving Kannada film actress Jayamala and a group
>> of orthodox Hindus, who questioned her claim of touching the idol of
>> the bachelor god defying the barricades meant for preventing sexually
>> active women from entering the hill shrine. Then one of the highly
>> revered traditional priests of the temple was robbed of a large
>> amount of money and gold ornaments during his visit to the house of a
>> woman engaged in flesh trade by a mafia gang. And now, it is the turn
>> of aged father of a senior priest to allege that his son is under
>> influence of a powerful Ezhava community leader with shadowy nature
>> and the leader's followers are using his son to pocket the temple
>> money. In the meantime, the Left Front Government has disbanded the
>> existing administrative body of the temple citing corruption at high
>> level and is preparing to enact a legislation to keep the corrupt
>> community leaders out of the administrative body forever.
>> On monetary grounds, the temple is the third largest in the country,
>> standing very close to Tirupathi and Guruvayur. The cash-strapped
>> Kerala Government, despite its leftist moorings, is depending very
>> much on the income from the temple to meet salary needs of its
>> employees. In order to increase the revenue, the successive
>> governments and the so-called proponents of development are
>> vociferous of implementing multi-crore construction plans in
>> Sabarimala clearing forests and building a concrete jungle in its
>> place. But nobody in the spiritual and administrative levels of the
>> temple as well as the government establishment are apprehensive of
>> the increasing level of pollution and the extreme level of
>> deforestation. Their focus is entangled only in the growing number of
>> controversies and the commissions to be available after the beginning
>> of the construction work.
>> Located about 467 metres above sea level, the Sabarimala temple is
>> surrounded by 18 hills and situated inside Periyar Tiger Reserve, one
>> of the few safe havens for tigers in the country. According to bird
>> watcher B.Sethumadhavan, as many as 2000 species of flowering plants,
>> endemic and medicinal, have been identified among the region's flora.
>> `` About 63 species of mammals, some of them endangered like tigers,
>> elephants and lion tailed macaque live here. So far, 223 species of
>> birds and 45 species of reptiles including King Cobra have been
>> identified in this area,'' he said. The ever- expanding number of
>> pilgrims and mindless construction works are posing severe threat to
>> their very survival. Devotees of a Lord, who believed to have loved
>> the flora and fauna and their safekeeping, are now on a rampage in
>> the name of development forcing the wildlife to move out of their
>> traditional habitat.
>> As per legends, the vehicle of Lord Ayyappa is tiger. But,
>> astonishingly, neither the tiger nor the surrounding evergreen
>> forests do not come in the list of priorities before the |Travancore
>> Devaswam Board, which administers the shrine. ``There was an increase
>> of 35 per cent in revenue while comparing with last year during the
>> November-December period. In the number of visitors, the increase is
>> of 19 per cent. These figures show the need for immediate
>> developmental works in Sabarimala. But there are agencies like Forest
>> Department which cry for tigers and forests,'' alleges G.Raman Nair,
>> outgoing president of the board.
>> However, environmentalists and forest officials are countering the
>> allegation. ``The development works so far at Pampa have made it
>> impossible a soul-filling holy dip in river Pampa. At least, two
>> scientific studies conducted by Government's own agencies had found
>> that landslips and tremors would take place at the holy hillock any
>> time largely because of the extensive concrete flooring at the temple
>> premises. The devaswam is only interested in money making. It has no
>> concern for the impending dangers for both nature and devotees,''
>> pointed out Sumesh Mangalassery, a member of the environmental group
>> Kabani.
>> According to Sumesh, a panel of Kerala Legislature on environment led
>> by RSP leader A V Thamarakshan had submitted 32 proposals to the
>> Devaswam Board to protect Sabarimala around five years back. But none
>> of them were acceptable to the board. Even the suggestions of Kerala
>> State Pollution Control Board to minimise the pollution of river
>> Pampa were paid scant regard by the board. A visit by Tehelka to
>> Sabarimala found that river Pampa continues to remain the main victim
>> of the callous attitude of the authorities. It gets choked in the
>> temple area as solid waste including human excreta; plastic bags,
>> empty water bottles and coconut husks block the free flow of water.
>> About 35 million people took a holy dip in the river between November
>> and January, which is the major source of drinking water for three
>> districts.
>> According to a study by the pollution control board, the total
>> coliform count recorded at the river portion close to Sabarimala is
>> about 1,14,000 per 100 millilitres (ML) during the peak of
>> pilgrimage. Just before the pilgrimage season, it is merely 380 per
>> 100 ml- well below the permissible limits of 500 per 100 ml.
>> According to local people, the overflow of human faeces from sceptic
>> tanks around the temple stands the major reason of the pollution of
>> the river. ``More than 3,000 temporary toilets are functioning close
>> to the temple in addition to about 600 permanent toilets. The
>> capacity of the sewerage treatment plant is very limited,'' pointed
>> out K.Anirudhan of Sabarimala Samrakshana Samithy.
>> Most of the experts, who had conducted studies on the pollution and
>> environmental problems prevailing in Sabarimala, point to the need of
>> regulating the ever- increasing number of pilgrims. ``Sabarimala is
>> bursting at the seams with millions of devotees now. Thirty or forty
>> years ago, only around 50,000 pilgrims visited the temple. Today, the
>> number is fifty million and is rising at the rate of 20 per cent
>> every year. The ever-swelling flow resulted in a major mishap on
>> January 14, 1999, when 100 pilgrims died in a stampede at the site.
>> Indications are that Sabarimala is a disaster waiting to be happen,''
>> warns noted Kerala based environmentalist P K Uthaman. According to
>> him, almost two thousand tonnes of human waste are deposited in crude
>> earth pits and outside in Sabarimala every year. These wastes are
>> finding their way into not only the river Pampa but also to river
>> Periyar by underground as well as over ground rivulets, posing a
>> threat great health hazard for the pilgrims as well as those living
>> downstream.
>> In addition, the lack of post pilgrimage cleaning drives often result
>> in unabated flow of hazardous waste into the rivers. The temple area
>> has already been converted into a concrete jungle where guesthouses
>> and other structures are constructed haphazardly all around. They are
>> meant for temple officials, priests, VVIPs and police personnel.
>> According to M.Gopal, a pilgrim from Bangalore who visited Sabarimala
>> this year, human excreta and plastic waste were found strewn just
>> outside the Sannidhanam (the main building of the temple). As per
>> data available from forest department, over 2.5 lakh empty plastic
>> bottles of packaged water were collected from inside the tiger
>> reserve. The number of tetra packs collected would come around 4.5
>> lakh. The temple complex of the hermit, who believed in renunciation
>> of earthly attractions, is now filled with commercial shops selling
>> products ranging from gold ornaments to dress materials. All these
>> shops were constructed by clearing forests.
>> ``The total time available for darsan as of now is a total of 1431
>> hours, i.e. 515160 seconds. If a darsan goes on one at a time basis
>> and a devotee gets a second, the total strength of the pilgrims can
>> only be 5,15, 160 per year. If ten people could somehow cluster
>> together per second for darsan, the maximum number would be
>> 51,51,600,'' points out a document prepared by |School of Social
>> Sciences at Mahatma Gandhi University on behalf of Kerla Forest
>> Department. The document also questions the claims of the board that
>> over 50 million people visit the temple annually. But anyway, the
>> number of pilgrims' visting Sabarimala is many times more than its
>> capacity.
>> ``The authorities must find out some mechanism to regulate the
>> alarming increase in the number of pilgrims. Sabarimala is not only
>> an environmental but also a social disaster,'' opined Dr.Rajan
>> Gurukkal of School of Social Sciences. Now a day, the uncontrolled
>> flow of pilgrims from various entry points is resulting in people
>> swarming all around the protected sanctuary leading to man –animal
>> conflicts. Recently, an elephant trampled upon one pilgrim. Then it
>> was found that the pilgrims were sleeping in the corridor used by the
>> elephants for going to the river to drink water at the night. A large
>> number of such corridors were already disrupted due to the
>> construction works undertaken in the recent past.
>> According to Sedumadhavan, the authorities are even paying scant
>> attention on the safety of pilgrims. As many as 12,000 litres of
>> diesel are being stored just above the sannidhanam without any
>> storage licence or safety parameters. They are also keeping a large
>> number of crackers near the sanctum sanctoram without any safety
>> concern. The only solution on the part of Trvancore Devaswom Board
>> for all problems plaguing Sabarimala is denudation of nearby forests
>> and setting up new amenities. According to Rajan Gurukkal, such an
>> attempt would be disastrous as all the existing problems of
>> Sabarimala can be viwed as the after effect of deforestation.
>> The devaswam board has already ruined about 55.09 ha of forestland in
>> the name of sabarimala development. In the opinion of
>> environmentalists, they demand more forests to cut and smuggle out
>> precious trees and construction of further concrete strctures with
>> ulterior motives. Maintaining the sanctity of the shrine and the
>> precious eco-system never appeared a priority before them. So far,
>> the devaswam board was constituted once in five years by nomination
>> of people with no administrative acumen at the behest of successive
>> governments.
>> Rajan Gurukkal and his team at School of Social Sciences have
>> prepared a long-term action plan for saving Sabarimala from the
>> sequence of disasters in the offing. But the lobbies of corrupt and
>> communal elements are not allowing the devaswam to look into them.
>> Even the small step of Left Government in disbanding the existing
>> devaswam committee is being interpreted as an attempt by atheists to
>> interfere in Hindu religious matters. The move by left government to
>> appoint experts in place of politicians at the board also facing
>> opposition from Sangh Parivar organisations, who claim as custodians
>> of Hindu places of worship.
>> The board and its corrupt administrators were not able to get their
>> hand on the forest so far due to stringent central acts and Supreme
>> Court rulings. But even the outgoing members are repeating their old
>> slogan of `no development in Sabarimala would be possible without
>> deforestation.' Unless the authorities change their attitude from a
>> revenue-centred approach to a pilgrim centred aprach, there is not
>> much hope. But they still repeat that development (read
>> deforestation) could not be stopped for the sake of a few birds and
>> animals. ``The board had neither faith in environmental protection
>> nor in religious sanctity,'' opines Rajan Gurukkal.
>> Decongestion of base town Pampa by increasing facilities at a
>> relatively distant town of Nilakkal, demolition of unauthorised
>> concrete structures at Sannidhanam and Pampa, cleaning of the river,
>> better waste disposal facilities and provisions of basic facilities
>> for pilgrims without affecting ecology are the urgent needs of
>> Sabarimala. The tigers and elephants must be protected.
>> If there is no mechanism to check the number of pilgrims, that would
>> increase to two to three crores within years. Moderate elements among
>> the Hindu community are favouring a statutory body for Sabarimala in
>> line with Tirumala-Thirupathy Devasthanam and Amarnath temple. Such a
>> body consisting of experts from different fields can change the
>> course of priorities of the forest temple.
>> -----------
>> 2. Amarnath Yatra: The Pilgrimage to Eco Disaster
>> Gautam Navlakha
>> http://www.kashmiraffairs.org/gautam_amarnath%20yatra.html
>> Should one question the propriety of promoting pilgrimage in a
>> ecologically fragile area or wink at it in the name of devotees right
>> to free movement and worship? This question comes to mind when
>> looking at Amarnath Yatra especially the phenomenal increase in the
>> number of pilgrims. This increase is not of few hundred or few
>> thousand but runs into hundreds of thousands. There has been a
>> doubling of the period for pilgrimage from one month to two this year
>> as well as forty times increase in number of pilgrims, from 12,000 in
>> 1989 to 450,000 in 2005 (this year it is set to cross 500,000) are
>> cause for concern. In fact the actual period is longer because a
>> fortnight before the official yatra is reserved for army men and
>> their families to visit the Amarnath cave through ecologically more
>> vulnerable Baltal route. Moreover, in order to provide security for
>> pilgrims who come out in large number, the paramilitary forces have
>> to be deployed in large number. The current deployment will be in
>> excess of 20,000 for the entire period. Their presence and stay
>> cannot but affect the rise in pollution levels. Inclement weather too
>> is an issue because rains in the plain means snow in the higher
>> reaches. This results in crowding at the camps, straining services
>> including disposal of waste. But worse things can happen as in 1996
>> when unexpected heavy snowfall resulted in death of 243 pilgrims and
>> injuries to hundred more due to avalanche.
>> The State Pollution Control Board (SPCB), recently in a 37 page
>> report warns that generation of waste by pilgrims, absence of waste
>> disposal sites, open dumping of garbage, air pollution, sewage
>> generated by hotels, yatri camps and local residential areas makes
>> its way into Lidder river. The SPCB warned that waste generated by
>> pilgrims more than the local average and primarily contains plastics,
>> polythene and leftover food packets all along the route. According to
>> their calculation 55,000 kgs of plastic waste is generated every day
>> during the pilgrimage. Besides, thousands of open toilets erected
>> along the banks of Lidder river ensures that effluents enter the
>> river. Thousands of vehicles ply up and down the mountains around
>> Pahalgam all the way up to Chandanwari spewing carbon monoxide. The
>> Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), which came into existence on
>> February 21, 2001, has been dismissive of such claims. They assert
>> that 230 pre-fabricated toilets being raised in Nunwan base camp and
>> human waste disposal off in leach pits with micro-organism technology
>> using Bokaslin powder and other chemicals would take care of the
>> problem. However, the issue is more than the supposedly effective
>> modern methods to manage waste. The sheer presence of large mass of
>> people is a cause for concern. Department of Science and technology
>> through its principal investigator on glaciology has argued that "the
>> ecology, the environment and health of the glacier can be under
>> severe threat in case the Baltal route to the Holy Cave was
>> frequented by thousands of pilgrims". And pointed out that "depletion
>> and degradation (of glaciers) are the result of human breath, refuse
>> and land erosion". (The Tribune July 5, 2005).
>> It is disconcerting to note that opening of Baltal route for pilgrims
>> on foot and those using helicopters has crossed several thousand
>> every day. Apart from the Department of Science and Technology of J&K
>> government even the Nitish Sengupta committee, which was constituted
>> to look into the deaths of 243 pilgrims in 1996 due to the snowstorm,
>> had recommended that number of yatris be restricted to 5000 per day
>> for a period of one month and the total number of pilgrims be capped
>> at1.5 lakhs. According to them Baltal route should allow 1500
>> pilgrims and Pahalgam 3500 per day. However, the General JR Mukherjee
>> committee, which looked into the cause of death of 35 people, due to
>> cross fire, during the 2000 yatra, focussed on security arrangement
>> and wanted the duration of the yatra to increase as security scenario
>> improved. But neither report looked at the environmental impact of
>> the yatra. Thus when the SASB invokes the recommendations of the two
>> committees what it does is to use it selectively and link the number
>> of pilgrims to the issue of managing security for them. In this sense
>> they underplay the question whether the eco-system can bear heavy
>> influx of pilgrims. This emphasis on encouraging larger number of
>> pilgrims shows its impact on the environment in unexpected ways. Such
>> as the SASB contemplating "air conditioning" to preserve the shiva
>> lingam from melting. The recent controversy over the pilgrims
>> alleging that the SASB has been constructing the "snow lingam" is now
>> being passed off as due to change in the course of the water channels
>> after last year's earthquake and global warming. Without ruling this
>> out human contribution to this phenomenon cannot be ignored when
>> glaciers are rapidly receding. As a matter of fact yatra was never
>> undertaken in June precisely because formation of shiva lingam does
>> not always take place then. Incidentally the local people speak of
>> "human" intervention in restoring what is a natural phenomenon, as
>> something that has happened in the past too. This apart large number
>> of pilgrims means that going gets tough as one draws close to the
>> cave with traffic jam being the order of the day. At times pilgrims
>> have to wait for hours for their turn. Increase in dust in atmosphere
>> too is caused by crowds of people as well as helicopter service. The
>> dust raised is visible from long distance away. All this also means
>> that individual pilgrims, that is other than VIPs, are disallowed
>> from spending more than seconds inside the cave. Above all carbon
>> dioxide levels shoot up warming the area all around.
>> It cannot be that the SASB is unaware of the environmental concerns.
>> If it receives short shrift it is because the yatra has come to
>> symbolise Indian government's determination to promote its claim in
>> J&K. That pilgrimage is being heralded as victory against a movement
>> demanding azadi from India is available in the news portal of Indian
>> government, Press Information Bureau. It says that "yearning for
>> moksha (salvation) can move the devotees to the challenging heights
>> of Kashmir and will be a fitting gesture of solidarity with our
>> valiant soldiers who have been fighting the enemy to defend our
>> borders". (pib.nic.in/feature/feo799/f1507992.html). Thus what is
>> otherwise merely a religious pilgrimage of the Hindus has been
>> elevated to represent a patriotic enterprise. Besides, the SASB is
>> headed by the Governor and his principal secretary is the CEO of the
>> SASB. Thus the Government of India is clearly in charge of organising
>> the yatra. And it is the SASB which has been pushing for larger and
>> larger numbers of pilgrims and challenging the right of the state
>> government from interfering in anyway with the schedule announced by
>> the SASB.
>> It is true that not everyone who goes to Amarnath accepts this
>> association of religion with patriotism. But the fact of the matter
>> is that official perception of pilgrimage as patriotic duty has
>> allowed the communal fascist elements to join in organising their
>> supporters. Little wonder that frequency of conflict between section
>> of such 'pilgrims' and local population due to their obnoxious
>> behaviour has shown an increase. What is equally disconcerting is
>> that the SASB presided over by the Governor has also been engaged in
>> controversial transactions. The CEO of SASB is the principal
>> secretary to the Governor. Present CEO's wife, in her capacity of
>> Principal secretary forest department granted permission to SASB on
>> May 29, 2005 to use forest land. But this provision was not in
>> accordance with the provision of J&K Forest Conservation Act 1997
>> and, therefore, the state government withdrew the order. However,
>> thanks to a stay order by a division bench of the J&K High Court the
>> withdrawal of permission to occupy forest land, was suspended. Any
>> visitor to Pahalgam can observe how this forest land is being cleared
>> to setup camps for the yatris. In fact now the SASB has asked the
>> state government to give them land in the radius of 5kms of the cave.
>> This arouses local passions precisely because Indian security forces
>> and other entities have transferred large tracts of land to house
>> camps for security force personnel, or for central projects, as well
>> as for schools which are run by army among others. Even a pro-Indian
>> National Conference party has protested such transfers of land since
>> 1989. Not very far from the camp for the pilgrims in Pahalgam, in
>> Lidru (opposite Kulan village) what locals describe as one of the
>> finest meadows, spread over 550 kanals (one kanal=one eighth of acre)
>> in area, has been given to the army to run a school! Local population
>> feels helpless at being unable to stop this. Therefore, when SASB
>> wants large tract of land transferred to it under the claim of
>> providing accommodation for lakhs of pilgrims it must be weighed
>> against this local concern. Were the numbers of pilgrims to be
>> brought down the pressing need for transferring large areas to SASB
>> or for providing carpet security and thus deployment of force, can be
>> brought down.
>> This apart the SASB has also been involved in other controversial
>> acts. One such was the recent attempt by the SASB to bring down the
>> involvement of local people in the yatra. When on June 5, 2006 the
>> local pro-India Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) claimed that SASB was
>> ignoring livelihood of locals, the SASB countered by claiming that
>> such criticism would generate controversy and thus "jeopardise"
>> tourism in Kashmir. Quite apart from the fact that promotion of
>> pilgrimage for commerce flies in the face of proclaimed concern for
>> people's faith PDP pointed out that if local porters and ponywallahs
>> can strike work at Vaishnodevi Shrine against the (mis)management of
>> the Shri Vaishnodevi Shrine Board (SVDSB) and seek support from local
>> Congress leaders then what is wrong if local people from Pahalgam and
>> Kangan areas seek their help to protest against the practises of SASB
>> which discriminate against them. In fact the Pithoo Workers Union at
>> Katra have protested the suspension of six of their leaders, alleged
>> manhandling by SVDSB officials and demanded recall of its additional
>> CEO. Neither the Governor as head of SVDSB nor the Board issued any
>> statement chastising the Congress party!
>> Arguably, when yatra was halted between 1991-96 due to threat of
>> section of the militants it played into the hands of the extreme
>> right wing elements in Indian society who have since then become an
>> integral part of mobilising large numbers of pilgrims. Thus a form of
>> competitive communalism came into play. Thus when section of the
>> militants represented earlier by Harkatul Ansar and now Lashkar-e-
>> Taiyyaba or Jaish-e-Mohammed threaten to disrupt the pilgrimage it
>> only gets the backs up of the devout Hindus opens them to vitriol of
>> the rabidly anti-Muslim Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Shiv Sena etc.
>> and accentuates the communal divide. However, it is equally important
>> to note the actual fact that more people have died in yatra due to
>> inclement weather and cross fire than at the hands of the militants.
>> Besides, the main indigenous militant organisation Hizbul Mujahideen
>> has always supported the yatra and has consistently demonstrated its
>> opposition towards those who have tried to disrupt the yatra.
>> Moreover, prior to constituting SASB the state government, local
>> people and social activists provided aid and assistance to the
>> pilgrims. However, threat of environmental damage has become a matter
>> of utmost concern because the central government under the cover of
>> SASB remains unrelenting in its pursuit of ever larger numbers to
>> come for pilgrimage.
>> In a way the Amarnath yatra illustrates the way in which the Indian
>> government injects communalism in our body politic. And also
>> represents how secularism in India has been perverted to mean state
>> patronage of religion/s. This patronage is not equitably distributed
>> since Hindus outnumber others by more than eight times. Which is to
>> say that between un-equals equality ends up promoting Hindu religious
>> practises. In Amarnath yatra, in fact, the India government even
>> discarded its pretended neutrality by publicising the yatra as a
>> patriotic duty! Consequently, the likelihood of Amarnath pilgrimage
>> getting mired in controversy, over environmental damage and
>> eventually feeding into further alienation of people because they can
>> do little to save damage to their lived environment, has increased.
>> Trouble is the Indian government cares little for people and prefers
>> to pander to the extreme rightwing by projecting the yatra as a
>> patriotic enterprise to boost the morale of the Indian paramilitary
>> forces. The very same force which the local population regards as
>> symbol of their oppression. Thus a bigger mess is in the making right
>> before our own eyes.
>> ---------------
>> Shuddhabrata Sengupta
>> The Sarai Programme at CSDS
>> Raqs Media Collective
>> shuddha at sarai.net
>> www.sarai.net
>> www.raqsmediacollective.net
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Shuddhabrata Sengupta
The Sarai Programme at CSDS
Raqs Media Collective
shuddha at sarai.net

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