July-August 2008 
Year 15    No.133
Jammu and Kashmir

Unholy war over land


A justifiable outcry against the transfer of forest land to the Amarnath shrine board in the Kashmir valley sparks violent protests in Jammu


Jammu is back in the news. The two-week lull has been broken, the violent agitation resuming with vigour over the controversial transfer of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) headed by governor of the state. And it is now induced with more virulent forms of xenophobia whipped up by sectarian statements and an economic blockade of the Kashmir valley. The city of temples has been turned into a virtual battlefield where violent agitators and the police clash, both engaged in a show of senseless brutality.

With the new Jammu and Kashmir governor, NN Vohra, sending a formal invitation for talks to the Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti (SAYSS) and the latter responding with a willingness to enter into negotiations, the deadlock may finally come to an end. But the damage done is irreparable, not just in terms of the trail of dead and injured or those left homeless after their houses were torched by agitated mobs or the economic losses incurred but more so in the form of the tarnished social fabric. The hardened stances and the sectarian and communal divides that the controversy eventually created, with no apparent scriptwriters scripting this disastrous fallout, is a grievous matter to be reckoned with.

Although the agitation in Kashmir began sometime in the third week of June, simmering discontent over the transfer of land to the shrine board has been brewing for years. At first glance the entire crisis appears to be the result of petty politicking resorted to by almost every political party in the state. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), known to hijack the slogans of the separatists to expand its own base in the valley, was quick to respond when several separatist organisations began murmurs of protest following the state cabinet’s decision to transfer the land. The PDP was then a partner in the state’s Congress-led coalition government.

At a press conference held on June 15, PDP leader and then deputy chief minister, Muzaffar Hussain Baig, while justifying the diversion of land as a temporary move to enable the creation of facilities for pilgrims also asserted that the Congress had been blackmailing the PDP into agreeing to the land transfer. Fresh efforts at unity by the two warring factions of the Hurriyat, led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani who, on July 19, decided to launch a joint agitation against the land transfer, spurred the PDP into action, compelling it to politicise the issue and come out in open revolt.

The Congress responded by supporting the transfer of land, hoping, in the run-up to the state assembly elections, to reap the harvest of votes in Jammu. Its main opponent in the Hindu-dominated region, the BJP, also joined in the chorus. In the valley, the National Conference jumped into the fray, blaming the PDP for the turnabout. For the separatists it was time to rejuvenate their ranks after a long hiatus. And as politicking began in the Kashmir valley, especially between the coalition partners, it gave the BJP and its sangh parivar, joined by traders and lawyers, an opportunity to begin mobilisation for trouble in Jammu. It was clear that every one of these groups was motivated by petty political interests. The divisive agenda seemed to work in the interests of every party and each one of them milked the opportunity, unmindful of how badly this was vitiating the atmosphere.

This is not the first time that regional and religious bias has been invoked by politicians. But never before has the state witnessed such turmoil in both regions, with people being mobilised in vast numbers. The valley erupted in manifest opposition to the land deal. Jammu reacted to oppose the sudden Kashmiri outburst. Years of mistrust coupled with electoral politics are evident catalysts in the recent tumult. But there are other reasons beyond these as well. With elections to the Jammu and Kashmir state legislative assembly just a few months away, vote bank politics may well have fuelled the fire. But the initial spark was provided much before the various parties began playing politics.

There is a common misconception that the valley’s response to the transfer of land was triggered by an Islamist agenda. Some intellectuals compared unfolding events to the protests against sex scandals two years ago or the anti-Bihari labourer slogans of last year. The opposition to the SASB land transfer did not however fall in the same category. The previous agitations, though invoked by some separatist groups, did not inspire a total revolt. The agitation against the transfer of land to the SASB has a history, one that has probably had a detrimental effect on the Kashmiri Muslim psyche. And at the root of this wounded psyche is a man called SK Sinha, former governor of Jammu and Kashmir, and the agenda of the saffron brigade that has been in play since the beginning of the 1990s.

The Amarnath yatra, an ancient pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave, is said to have begun in the latter half of the 19th century after a Muslim shepherd named Buta Malik discovered the shrine, a cave in the southern Kashmir Himalayas that is the site of an unusual ice stalagmite formed naturally in the shape of a lingam. A 15-day yatra that culminates on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan in August, the annual pilgrimage has taken place peacefully and uninterruptedly every year since it first began.

It was only after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 that a lesser-known militant group threatened to stop the yatra. Other militant groups, including the Hizb ul-Mujahideen, opposed these threats. However, the saffron brigade, which had failed miserably in its 1991 Ekta Yatra led by Murli Manohar Joshi and was looking for trouble in Kashmir to suit its politics elsewhere in the country, saw the threats as a perfect opportunity. They retaliated with calls for ‘Chalo Amarnath’, asking pilgrims to go to the shrine in large numbers. Nothing significant happened in immediate result but the number of pilgrims to Amarnath began to show a steady increase each year.

In 1996, when the number of pilgrims crossed the one lakh mark and landslides and avalanches claimed the lives of several yatris, the government set up the Nitish Sengupta Committee to look into the causes of such incidents and recommend measures to ensure that the pilgrimage could be carried out smoothly. The Sengupta Committee report observed that both from the environmental point of view and for the security of pilgrims it was necessary to curtail the number of pilgrims who visited the shrine. The report also suggested the establishment of a regulatory authority to monitor the pilgrimage’s organisation and ensure adequate facilities for the pilgrims.

That is how the legislative act came into existence whereby the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board was in place by 2001. According to the act, the board was to be headed by the state governor, if he or she was a Hindu. If the governor did not happen to be a Hindu the board would be headed by any Hindu from the state, nominated by the governor. For a seasonal yatra of 15 days, the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board Act had vested the shrine board with sweeping powers.

In 2003 SK Sinha took over as governor of Jammu and Kashmir, shortly after the PDP’s Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became chief minister in November 2002, supported by a coalition of allies, including the Congress. As a Hindu, Sinha also automatically became chairman of the shrine board. In 2004, due to changes in the lunar calendar, the yatra was extended by a few weeks. But Sinha decided to make this a regular feature, acting in direct contravention of the Sengupta recommendations which formed the very basis of the board’s creation.

In 2005 Sinha and Mufti were engaged in a controversy over the yatra’s extension after Sinha proposed that the duration of the yatra be extended to three months. Mufti was well aware of the implications of the proposed move, both from the security and the environmental point of view; his opposition to Sinha also stemmed from concerns about Raj Bhavan’s interference in administrative matters and counter-insurgency networking. Ultimately, after a few Congress ministers came out in Sinha’s support and threatened to resign over the issue, the centre intervened and Mufti partially yielded to the demands, agreeing to the duration of the yatra being extended to two months.

But more is not always better. There are two routes to the Amarnath cave, one from Pahalgam and the other from Baltal, Sonamarg. The long trek winding up steep hills is not easily manoeuvrable. The cold and inhospitable weather conditions are not suitable for habitation. Occasional landslides and avalanches are an additional problem and ensuring the security and safety of pilgrims is an arduous and unmanageable task. Only the barest minimum facilities for pilgrims can be provided and this only at the base camps where some form of medical care is also possible.

Managing a two month-yatra every year was not without peril, especially with more and more pilgrims trickling in, the number doubling almost every year. The SASB’s cancellation of the minimal registration fee, the absence of facilities for lakhs of people, the creation of which is next to impossible in this terrain, and the lack of clear travel advisories to pilgrims, many of whom arrive without even basic woollen clothing or prior medical check-ups, has already taken its toll.

There were protests even from religio-spiritual quarters as priests from the Dashnami Akhara in Jammu, who traditionally perform the prayers at the Amarnath cave along with priests from Mattan in South Kashmir, contested Sinha’s moves to extend the yatra. But Sinha was unrelenting. The priests didn’t have much say. Thanks to the shrine board, which gradually also robbed the yatra of its secular character, they along with the Malik family had lost rights over any decision pertaining to the shrine or the pilgrimage. Since Buta Malik’s discovery of the shrine in the 1800s the Malik family has been closely associated with the Amarnath yatra and even received a share of the donations that pilgrims made on the journey.

The yatra was once a collective affair organised by priests from Mattan and the Dashnami Akhara in Jammu together with local people as well as the state government. Priests from Mattan and the Dashnami Akhara performed the prayers. The Malik family received a share of the offerings. Local pony-wallahs carried the yatris and organised langars. And the state government managed the security and other facilities for the pilgrims.

According to tradition, the head priest of the Dashnami Akhara carries the holy mace all the way up to the cave. When the priest and his entourage left Srinagar’s Lal Chowk area with the holy mace the occasion was marked by celebrations, with both Hindus and Muslims joining in to give them a warm send off at the Dal Gate, about two or three kilometres away. As insurgency changed much of the social landscape in the valley, these celebrations became less exuberant but the holy mace still left from the Dashnami Akhara building in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk every year.

But when the pony-wallahs complained of unnecessary harassment following the implementation of new rules that required them to pay a licence fee (interestingly, for a yatra that lasted only a few weeks in the year) people in the valley grew wary of Sinha’s designs. The board’s writ however was final in all decisions pertaining to the pilgrimage even though it did not have the infrastructure or the wherewithal to manage the yatra on its own. The SASB came into being as a regulatory authority and borrowed state infrastructure to provide both security and facilities for the yatris, funds for which were allocated from the state budget every year.

The functioning of the board was not transparent, nor could the governor, who took refuge in his constitutional position, be held accountable. When queries regarding the Amarnath shrine board came up in the legislative assembly last winter Raj Bhavan refused to furnish any information in this regard. And ever since Sinha took charge of things the SASB has been mired in controversy. From the yatra’s duration becoming a bone of contention in 2005 to the melting lingam the same year. The very next year the shrine board was accused of having an artificial ice lingam installed in the cave after procuring ice in bulk from New Delhi. The board denied the charge although it admitted to the presence of the artificial ice lingam. An inquiry commission under a retired high court judge that was appointed to probe the issue bailed Sinha and the SASB out even as its findings left much unexplained. Nevertheless, the melting lingam appalled many yatris and reports of it being tampered with sent many pilgrims packing.

The Amarnath cave derives its spirituality from the naturally formed ice lingam and the icy heights of the mountains where it is located. As head priest of the Dashnami Akhara, Deepindra Giri has been carrying the holy mace to the cave during the yatra for several years. Giri had opposed the yatra’s extension all along, maintaining that this would adversely affect the environment and cause the lingam to melt. Bearing the holy mace, Giri reaches the cave at the very end of the annual pilgrimage. He has not seen the lingam in the past four years. Long before the holy mace reaches the shrine the lingam is reduced to just an icy platform or nothing at all.

So this year when it was decided that 800 kanals of forest land would be transferred to the board, eyebrows were naturally raised.

The ‘Chalo Amarnath’ call of the saffron brigade in the 1990s was followed by the creation of the shrine board in 2001, which took place when the National Conference was in power in the state and the BJP-led NDA government was in power at the centre. (The National Conference was a coalition ally of the NDA and its current president, Omar Abdullah, was a minister in the NDA government.) There was no resentment against the yatra at the time. But when Sinha’s moves boded ill for the locals people began suspecting that there was indeed a hidden agenda behind the very creation of the board and with Sinha’s being sent in as the man in command. His dubious role as governor of Assam during the 1990s was also frequently discussed.

Sinha’s entire tenure as governor of Jammu and Kashmir was marked by an intense obsession with the yatra. He had been pursuing the land transfer matter since 2005 but the PDP had been persistent in resisting these efforts. A high court ruling in a public interest litigation had also recommended that land should be made available to the Amarnath shrine board for the creation of temporary facilities for the yatris. After the Congress took over the reins of power in November 2005, with Ghulam Nabi Azad in charge, the issue became a sore point between the party and their ally, the PDP, at several cabinet meetings.

The initial proposal was to ‘acquire’ 3,600 kanals of land for the creation of facilities, including sheds and toilets, for the pilgrims. In fact, even before the land transfer was okayed in May 2008, Sinha was looking to spread his wings with a fresh proposal to take over control of Sonamarg and Pahalgam from the development authorities in the two hill resorts. Both tourist resorts serve as base camps for the Amarnath pilgrimage. Sinha’s growing demands were making the Kashmiris increasingly insecure.

It is not known whose agenda Sinha was pursuing. But that he had the partial if not full backing of the centre all along was fairly evident, even as power changed hands from a BJP-led NDA government to a Congress-led UPA government in New Delhi. Despite Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s objections and a prolonged confrontation in 2005 over the yatra’s duration, the then chief minister was ultimately forced to give in to Sinha’s demands at the centre’s insistence. By this time the Congress was in the saddle in New Delhi. After Ghulam Nabi Azad took over as chief minister of the coalition government, talk was rife in official circles that Azad was using Sinha as a counterweight against Mufti.

But how does the constitutional head of a state become such a superpower without the backing of someone at the power centre? For three years, right up to March 2008, the PDP had resisted all efforts to transfer the land to the SASB, as is evident from reports about confrontations between the coalition members on the issue. What happened between March and May 2008 to prompt the PDP to abandon its stand, this moreover at the fag end of Sinha’s career?

SK Sinha’s tenure as governor formally ended on June 2 but it was extended by a few weeks, days in which public resentment against the land transfer was building. Congress spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan maintained – only after Sinha’s exit from Jammu and Kashmir – that he was a communal man, pointing out his equally reprehensible role in Assam. That it took more than four years for the Congress to recognise Sinha’s troublesome qualities is difficult to digest. Was the Congress oblivious of his past record, his obvious right-wing leanings? If such facts were known they were conveniently ignored for some reason or the other, making the constitutional head of Jammu and Kashmir all-powerful and seemingly unquestionable.

In any event, the view that the land transfer formed part of a design to bring about a demographic change in Kashmir did not have its roots in Islamic fundamentalism. It was the product of Sinha’s sinister moves which bred suspicion. Whether or not there was any design to bring about such a change in so inhospitable a terrain, there were certainly legitimate reasons for insecurity and anger.

It has been contended that 800 kanals of land was not enough space in which to effect any kind of demographic change in a place where 99 per cent of the population was Muslim. One is indeed aware that 800 kanals of land managed by the Amarnath shrine board, headed by a non-state subject, would perhaps be insufficient to bring about any demographic change. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind the sequence of events that gave rise to the scepticism and insecurity of the Kashmiris and to place the blame where it should rightfully lie – on Sinha’s shoulders.

Call it a temporary diversion or call it a permanent transfer of land, on the psyche of a people who had earlier agitated against offering vast tracts of land in Gulmarg to hoteliers and corporations from outside the state it created an identical negative impact. Thanks to his past actions Sinha was already regarded with considerable suspicion and his new moves were now seen as part of a deliberate agenda against the locals. Eight hundred kanals of land may not be enough to settle even a small number of non-state subjects. But under a constitutional head of state who had become too demanding it could well have been the beginning of such a settlement. After all, the Gaza strip was created bit by bit, not overnight.

The psychological impact of such fears and the pent-up anger of the people – long years of suppression, human rights abuse, increasing alienation and a growing disillusionment with the peace process – led to a spontaneous agitation in the valley. In fact, the final spark was not provided by Islamists, petty politicking between different parties, the unity moves of the two Hurriyat factions or their creation of the Action Committee against Land Transfer. The final spark was lit by the chief executive officer of the SASB, Arun Kumar.

At a press conference on June 17, responding to Muzaffar Hussain Baig’s claims that the PDP had been arm-twisted into okaying the deal, Arun Kumar stated that the land transfer was ‘permanent’. Kumar’s press conference assumed significance in that his offensive remarks became the final provocation, setting the tone for a massive agitation in Kashmir. It was not just the ‘permanent land transfer’ he referred to, remarks that he later tried to distance himself from. It was also his provocative comparison between the Haj pilgrimage and the Amarnath pilgrimage and his insistence that the SASB would make the Amarnath yatra a permanent feature to accommodate the increasing number of Hindus in the world. Arun Kumar’s outburst strengthened the fears and insecurities of a people whose obsession with the history of Palestine invoked fears that this was the first step towards the creation of a Gaza strip here.

(Interestingly, Arun Kumar’s rather mysterious role in the land transfer matter also comes into focus on an earlier occasion when the initial proposal for the allocation of 3,600 kanals of land was sent to the state forest department in 2005. His wife, Sonali Kumar, who happened to be forest commissioner at the time, gave the proposal the green light. When Mufti learnt of this he cancelled the order on the grounds that it had not received the mandatory clearance from the cabinet and also that the transfer of forest land would amount to violation of a Supreme Court directive.)

By June 19, violent protests, brutally dealt with, had begun in the Kashmir valley. On June 27, a Friday, a complete bandh was observed in the valley to oppose both the transfer of land and the killing of two persons in police firing during protests in downtown Srinagar. At Friday afternoon prayers in various mosques across Kashmir imams and separatist leaders exhorted people to gather in public protest against the land transfer. Thousands of people all over the valley descended on the streets. In Srinagar alone, the summer capital of the state, more than one lakh people took part in various peaceful demonstrations. In view of the earlier deaths in police firing, the police and security forces had perhaps decided to avoid any direct confrontation with the protesters and allowed them to assemble freely.

Most of them converged at Lal Chowk, some hoisting green flags at the historic crossing’s Clock Tower. Slogans of ‘azadi’ dominated the scene. But pro-Pakistan and religious slogans were also heard. The agitation against the Amarnath land transfer had become an occasion for political revolt, suppressed by years of indifference and to some extent by the attenuation of the separatist leadership. But when slogans of ‘hum kya chahte hain… azadi (What do we want… freedom)’ turned into azadi ka matlab kya… La ilaha il Allah (What is freedom… Allah)’ the reaction was just the opposite in the Jammu region where an agitation waited in the wings for a collapsing state administration.

When some Kashmiri youth hoisted green Islamic flags at Srinagar’s historic Lal Chowk and the electronic media gave copious coverage to the incident the masses in Jammu, unmindful of the history of events, perceived it as a war between two religions, not as a people’s war for their land or even as a people’s struggle to decide what happens on their land. In the 1990s massive agitations had rocked the Hindu-dominated town of Katra in the Jammu region, base camp for the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage, against the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board’s move to build a motorable road to the shrine. The decision was not in the public interest and the protests were both supported and justified. Yet when protests took place in Kashmir for similar reasons they were given a religious colour. The green flags and Islamic slogans only contributed to this religious paranoia.

On June 25, NN Vohra took over as the new governor of Jammu and Kashmir. A few days later, on June 28, the PDP pulled out of the coalition government, leaving a one-legged Congress at the helm. The next day Vohra wrote to the chief minister, saying that the SASB was not interested in pursuing the land transfer if the state government could give assurance that it would provide suitable facilities for the yatra. Two days later the cabinet of a minority government met to cancel the land transfer order.

There were two reasons why the order had to be revoked and it was obvious that the state government had been pressurised to do so by the centre. First, the land agitation had strengthened the hands of the separatists and New Delhi believed that any further delay would fritter away the gains of the peace process. This was not the first agitation against government policies in the valley but the fact that it was fast assuming the shape of a revolt, especially at a time when the Indian government was hoping to cash in on the decreased militancy-related violence and the weakening of separatist leaders, had sounded alarm bells. And second, the dawning realisation that the decision to transfer the land had been unsound along with recognition of the damage that Sinha and the land deal had wrought.

But the Congress government failed to offer any explanation, either for its initial order on the land transfer or the subsequent need for its cancellation. Because the Congress was busy politicising the issue and busy getting even with the PDP, both washing their dirty linen in public, the government had no explanations to offer the people, either in Kashmir or Jammu, the constituency that the Congress had been eyeing. This seems to have acted as a catalyst for the agitation in the state’s winter capital.

The cancellation of the land transfer order had an adverse fallout in the Jammu region where the sangh parivar, prompted by its mentor, Lal Krishna Advani, was already up in arms against what they had begun to call ‘surrendering to separatists and anti-nationals’. In Kashmir, the religious slogans, green flags and pro-Pakistan slogans were, as always, expressions of an anti-India sentiment. But the public outcry, the anger had both a history and justification. In Jammu, the sangh parivar sought to legitimise the agitation on the grounds that this was an expression of ‘Jammu sentiment’ – a euphemism for Hindu sentiment.

Peoples’ sentiments, nurtured on the theory that Jammu has always been discriminated against, were easily whipped up in the panic inspired by the ‘unity’ that the Kashmiri leadership, including mainstream political parties, displayed on the issue. Not many who came out on the streets in protest knew the basis for the agitation. The popular sentiment was anti-Kashmir and anti-Muslim, fed by myths that Hindu land had been taken away by Muslims, which the sangh parivar had so cleverly perpetuated.

It took three days for Congress ministers to respond to the agitation in Jammu where they adopted a more diffident position, claiming that the land had been transferred because the former governor wanted it but the transfer order had been cancelled because the new governor didn’t. Two days later the chief minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, addressed a hurried press conference where he insisted that ‘this was a win-win situation for Jammu’. The lack of any explanation about what the land transfer signified, what its repercussions would have been, why it was opposed in the Kashmir valley and how the cancellation of the order would impact or not impact the yatra, created conditions conducive to the fertility of sangh parivar propaganda, something that these groups had long been waiting for. Azad’s remarks on the day the land transfer order was cancelled – that the agitation in Kashmir was against a non-issue – itself legitimised the agitation in Jammu where demands were made for revocation of the cancellation of the previous order i.e. restoring the land to the SASB.

The government had virtually no story to tell. Or perhaps it lacked the desire to do so. But the media did. Every local electronic media channel in Jammu was awash with stories. They ran an almost round the clock ‘soap opera’ showcasing unknown individuals from the saffron brigade mouthing their propaganda, raising slogans or burning effigies. Meagre protests being held in small mohallas appeared to be getting a live telecast. These were the only voices people heard and their only source of information or rather, disinformation.

That the protests in Jammu were not marked by spontaneity but by a steady build-up is evident from the fact that in the first few days of the agitation only a few protesters, supporters of the sangh parivar, were out on the streets. Gradually, the numbers started swelling into thousands, with people from the suburbs of Jammu city coming out to participate in the violent protests. Three Hindu-dominated districts in the region were badly affected. Rajouri town and Bhaderwah were also on the boil. Many of the areas that erupted in violence had no previous history of any organised forms of protest. It was clear that the efforts of the local electronic media had worked to complement mass mobilisation campaigns by the Bajrang Dal, the VHP and the RSS.

Before the Amarnath controversy the BJP stood fractured and weakened. But the more rabid groups in the sangh parivar had been quietly consolidating their positions; over the past few years some of their national-level leaders had made frequent visits to Jammu for this purpose. Fringe groups like the various factions of the Shiv Sena used the agitation as a means to drum up support. And with some Delhi-based Kashmiri Pandit groups and the Panun Kashmir working overtime to brand the Kashmir agitation as Islamist, groups driven by the Hindutva ideology saw the Pandit migrant camps as fertile hunting ground.

Many Pandits in the migrant camps who cherished the renewed hope that they could soon return to the Kashmir valley grew sceptical after the agitation in the valley began. The mass processions in Kashmir were far too reminiscent of the 1990s. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the selective killings of Pandits, reports of which have always been wildly exaggerated, that drove the Pandits out of the valley then. It was in fact an outburst similar to the one we are witnessing today that was largely responsible for the Pandits’ insecurity, sentiments that the then governor exploited in order to encourage a mass exodus of Pandits from Kashmir. Having quietened over the years, it is this bottled up anger in the Pandits that resurfaced and it is this anger that the sangh parivar is exploiting today. Within days of the agitation several Hindutva groups were enriched with new cadres, including many from the Pandit camps.

Jammu, which had not succumbed to any provocations in the last two decades, was on the boil. In the past, communal harmony had been ensured by the peoples’ bid to protect not only the secular fabric of the region but also the economic interests of traders and the business community who form an important component of the local population, particularly in Jammu city. But this time propagandists had been working overtime to cash in on the Hindu sentiment in Jammu, creating insecurities within its Muslim population even as the attacks on Gujjars and the anti-Muslim discourse further vitiated the atmosphere. The secular voices had all but disappeared, swept along by the sudden frenzy or lost in deafening silence.

The Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti, a protest group formed in the course of the Jammu agitation, demanded revocation of the cancellation of the land transfer order. The SAYSS consisted of a group of saffron brigade members, the Jammu Bar Association, a few intellectuals, traders and business groups and even included a Muslim group who joined in perhaps to ensure the safety of members of their community. The dominant voice in the SAYSS was that of the sangh parivar who has been rebuffing all voices within the committee that are in favour of a peaceful agitation.

The committee sought to dismiss any allegations that the agitation was communal in nature, stating that its grievances were directed against the Kashmiri leadership. However, the continuing dichotomy – whether their protest was an expression of ‘Jammu’ sentiment or ‘Hindu’ sentiment – remains unexplained. How was Jammu sentiment associated with a piece of forest land? And as long as yatris were being taken care of – either by the SASB, which has never had the infrastructure or the wherewithal to take up this gigantic task, or the state government – how could Hindu sentiment be affected?

For people misled by myths it was difficult to sift fact from fiction or differentiate between Hindutva and Hindu sentiments. Hinduism, a complete philosophy of pacifism, karma and coexistence, is in no way safeguarded by a small piece of land controlled by a shrine board. Religious sentiments are linked to the preservation of shrines, their spirituality (in this case to the ice lingam which melts away every year due to the flawed policies of the SASB) and their sanctity. Religious sentiments have little to do with the arrangements for pilgrimages which are managed, as always, by the state government with the shrine board acting in a supervisory capacity. But the agitation was built on systematic misconceptions, the dissemination of rumours and the incitement to hatred against the Kashmiris, which is more reflective of Hindutva than of Hinduism. It is time for the people of Jammu to understand the difference and to resist the stirrings of this dangerous propaganda.

At the same time, the Kashmiris must recognise that although religious slogans are popular expressions of resentment and alienation against India they can create insecurities in the minds of people in the state who belong to other communities. Valley-centric politics has long revolved around mosques and religious slogans, not just in the last two decades but well before that, even in the time of Sheikh Abdullah whose obsession with Hazratbal politics was conspicuous. In fact, the use of mosques to mobilise people for political purposes or protests has become an accepted part of life. There is no need to justify this. If the state’s pluralist fabric has to be kept intact in a harmonious mould it is time to shun politics that can create insecurities and divisions.

Violent street protests are still a ritual in Jammu even as the SAYSS has agreed to enter into talks to resolve the issue. The month-long agitation has cost businessmen thousands of crores of rupees in Jammu city alone. Health care and education have been severely hit. And the violence and hatred of recent weeks will undoubtedly have a significant psychological impact in the long run. But the most harmful outcome of recent events is the damage done by the creation of communal and regional divides that do not augur well for the social fabric of the state or for eventual peace.

It is vital that secular individuals and groups across the board come forward to dispel all manner of propaganda and to work together to prevent a repeat of what Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed in the past six weeks or more. And at this juncture it would be wise to examine and reflect on what has been happening here and why before we even attempt to create a space for wounds to heal.

Ten days later: Dangerous divide

The rift is complete, the regional divide in Jammu and Kashmir getting even more pronounced with the communal fallout. Seventy-five hutments belonging to Muslim Gujjars have been torched in Samba, Kathua and Akhnoor, Rajouri, Poonch, Doda, Bhaderwah and Kishtwar. These areas, where the demographic balance between Hindus and Muslims is fragile, have been marked by tensions.

On August 12, a serious communal clash broke out in Kishtwar, replete with violence, torching of properties and the death of two in police firing. Tempers are still high. Many Muslim families from various parts of the region who have settled in Jammu city have shifted to their ancestral homes though there are no specific incidents of harassment. But reports of Muslim drivers being harassed by mobs on the Jammu-Poonch and Jammu-Srinagar highways have begun to haunt them.

The SAYSS however denies the communal fallout, arguing that Muslim groups support them and have even been joining in the protests. The flip side of the story is the allegations of forced participation. The Muslim Federation, which supports the SAYSS, has constantly taken up issues of harassment on a communal basis and its insecurity with the SAYSS leadership. But has it in turn been pressurised into ‘counter propaganda’ launched by Kashmiri leaders?  Going beyond the stated position that ‘this agitation is not communal but we are all together’, the SAYSS has done precious little to prevent any damage to the secular fabric. It has not even condemned the incidents of communal violence that have come to light.

What adds to the insecurities of Muslims are statements by the SAYSS leaders that smack of an extremist Hindu right-wing agenda. A case in point is the ‘Quit Jammu’ slogan by the BJP. The party’s leaders declared that ‘supporters of Geelani, Abdullahs and Muftis’ living in Bhatindi, a colony that came up on illegally encroached forest land during National Conference rule, should quit Jammu. Following criticism, they sought to describe it as a campaign against illegal encroachments and not one fostered by communal design. But the communal overtones are unmistakeable. Bhatindi has a vast Muslim population, including a few Kashmiris. Several residents of Jammu, including Hindus and Sikhs, have also settled in Bhatindi or own land here. Among them is a distinguished BJP leader.

So why were the Kashmiris among them made particular targets? And why were several other mushrooming, illegally encroached colonies conveniently ignored? Another glaring example is the manner in which several constituents of the ‘secular’ SAYSS sought to condemn the damage to properties belonging to Hindus in Kishtwar. How is it that their secularism did not prompt them to condemn the damage to Muslim-owned properties and the killing of two Muslims in the same incident? Still more conspicuous are the reports that armed cadres of the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have sneaked into Jammu from outside the state. Though the administration officially denies such reports, some police officers, on conditions of anonymity, confirmed the cadres’ presence in the Kashmiri Pandit-dominated areas of Jammu.

Clearly, the divide is well pronounced. Jammu versus Kashmir is becoming Hindu versus Muslim. But contrary to what the SAYSS claims, it is the Kashmiri Muslim who is the main target and not the Kashmiri ruling elite. And although it now seeks to distance itself from its earlier statements, it was the SAYSS which had announced at several press conferences that it was starting an economic blockade of Kashmir valley.

The incidents of harassment of Muslim drivers on highways, especially Kashmiri Muslims, some of whom were badly beaten up and their vehicles burnt down, tell the real story. For a few days the economic blockade was complete, with no trucks moving on the roads and a limp administration unable to keep the national highway clear of disruptions by mobs. It was only after the army was called out in Jammu that disruptions were eased and traffic on the highway marginally improved.

However, supplies continue to be affected due to a continuous bandh in Jammu since July 24, affecting the movement of local trucks between Jammu and Srinagar, which is the major source of supplies to all regions in the state. As is obvious, the situation is extremely grave. Most areas of the state, including Kashmir valley, are cut off during winter months and supplies have to be stocked well before October, especially for the two districts of Ladakh where the only road link closes by September end.

Threats of an economic blockade thus created a heightened insecurity among Kashmiris and the two Hurriyat factions, supported by traders, responded with a ‘Chalo Muzaffarabad’ call on August 11. The administration bungled with their inaction. No curfew was imposed before the march. When a sea of humanity, led by Hurriyat leaders, Shabir Shah and Sheikh Abdul Aziz, descended on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road the security forces began firing indiscriminately, killing six persons, including Aziz, and injuring 100 people. Over 24 persons were killed over the next three days. There was mayhem in the valley. Crowds defied curfew to protest. Many said that the situation was a roll-back to 1990.

In fact, it is far worse. Then it was passion and anger against the Indian state that brought out the gun. In August 2008 it is the anger and venom of an unarmed public against not just the Indian state but extremist Hindus, the Hindutvavadis and dangerously, the Jammu region too.

The perils in this are long-term. Communal violence may not be so apparent today but hatred and venom, deepened by myths and rumours on both sides, with demands for a division of the state on communal lines, may prove more lethal.

Jammu and Kashmir is sitting on a ticking time bomb. When will it explode? If divisions are allowed to grow and remain unaddressed we may well have reached the point of no return. The unity of the state and communal harmony within it is imperative, for its plurality thrives on the overlapping of cultures and interdependent economies. The centre, which has been dragging its feet with a futile attempt at an all-party parliamentarian delegation, must act fast. The silence from the prime minister and the UPA leadership is deafening.

There can be no settlement without involving both sides. There must be dialogue facilitated between agitating groups so that misconceptions and myths can be cleared and the dispute resolved. 

(Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is a peace activist and executive editor of The Kashmir Times.)



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