Amarnath Row: A Test for Kashmir's Syncretic Culture

Governments in India seem to believe in acting in haste, or without much forethought, and then pay the price later. The upsurge in Jammu and Kashmir could have been avoided if the fateful step of expanding the operations of the Amarnath shrine board and then rescinding the order had been preceded by the kind of wider consultations now being held by the centre.

Such care was all the more necessary in a state as sensitive and volatile as Jammu and Kashmir. It isn't only that Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has long been engaged in fomenting terrorism there and elsewhere in India, the presence of secessionist elements in the valley also means that communal relations have to be carefully nurtured.

It is a tribute to the innate strength of Kashmir's syncretic culture that Hindu-Muslim ties have remained largely unaffected by the present disturbances, which have had both Srinagar and parts of the Jammu region in their violent grip for days on end.

Arguably, the ordinary people have recognized the unholy intentions of both the separatists in the valley and the parochial Hindutva groups in Jammu. They are apparently not unaware that these outfits are more interested in advancing their own partisan causes than in promoting the interests of the state as a whole.

The origin of the dispute is also not unrelated to saffron machinations. What is noteworthy is that the presence of the then governor, S.K. Sinha, known for his pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sympathies, had complicated the situation when the decision was taken to transfer nearly 100 acres of forest land to the Amarnath board for the construction of facilities for pilgrims.

However, the state government's culpability for the injudicious step is no less. It should have anticipated that the move would be resented by sections of Muslims in the valley since they have traditionally been associated with the welfare of the Hindu pilgrims ever since a wandering shepherd, Buta Malik, discovered the cave with the ice lingam, the Hindu holy emblem, at the height of 12,760 feet in 1850.

Since then, Malik's s descendants have acted as custodians of the cave and received a percentage of donations from the pilgrims. But what this association signified was the age-old bond between the Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir.

That bond was in danger of being badly strained as the pro-Pakistani and secessionist outfits saw an opportunity to utilize the resentment in the valley to launch violent protests while usual suspects like Yasin Malik lost no time to jump into the fray with fast-unto-death threats. The waning influence of the fundamentalists must have also persuaded them to grab the chance to create trouble in order to boost their prospects.

Their protests inevitably sparked off similar outbreaks in Jammu where the saffron brotherhood realized that the controversy has given it a readymade issue to exploit. For the BJP, the Amarnath shrine issue, like the Ram Sethu controversy, is a godsend on the eve of the forthcoming round of state assembly elections since it enables the party to play the Hindu card - something it has been unable to do ever since it put the Ram temple issue on the backburner.

Not surprisingly, the BJP has been threatening a nationwide agitation in spite of the centre's admittedly belated attempts to defuse the situation by holding wide-ranging talks. It evidently wants to take the issue outside of Jammu as well with an eye on the polls, including the general election later this year or early in the next.

The centre's response, as may have been expected, has been tardy and unimaginative. The expiry of Sinha's gubernatorial term enabled it to put its own man, N.N. Vohra, in Raj Bhavan, and the latter's first act was to revoke the earlier order. But not only did it fail to satisfy the protesters in Srinagar, it also focused the ire of the Jammu agitators on the new governor.

The shrine board itself was set up following the Nitish Sengupta committee's report in 1996 on the deaths of 200 pilgrims because of bad weather. The need to upgrade the existing facilities was evidently felt to be beyond the capacity of the then caretakers.

The state government has now decided to step into the picture after taking over the land from the board. But having first bungled by handing over the forest tracts to the board, its claims about improving the facilities do not seem credible.

The all-party meeting organized by the centre may help to calm tempers to an extent, but whether the political elements in the two regions of the state will be responsible enough to tone down their rhetoric and let peace prevail is open to question.

There are some signs of hope as the restrictions on the movement of goods to the valley through Punjab and Jammu are being eased by the agitators. There is also the possibility of the centre accepting the BJP's demand that it hold talks with the Sri Amarnath Sangharsh Samity, which is spearheading the agitation.

But the problem is to find a solution acceptable to all. One suggestion has been to reconstitute the board with a larger percentage of local, especially Muslim, representation. Even if it is accepted by the Sangharsh Samity, whether the tension in the valley will be defused if the board again takes over the land cannot be said for certain.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)


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