Demystifying State Narrative around Amarnath Yatra
Mohammad Ashraf Khwaja
Every year thousands of pilgrims from mainland India set off for an arduous pilgrimage to Amarnath Yatra in South Kashmir. The Yatra invented during Dogra period would witness a limited number of pilgrims and would last for a couple of weeks. It would be a low key affair bereft of political overtones. However, in the course of time, the ascendance of Hindutva in the public realm and the reassertion of Indian nationalism maliciously intertwined with cultural ingredients of Hindu faith, the yatra witnessed sudden significance in religious circles. For the Indian state, it got an instrumental value to socialize its population in the spirit of imperialism. It started pushing it as more of a national and patriotic tour than merely a religious affair.
Indira Gandhi once famously suggested her father-Prime Minister Nehru to facilitate more inflow of tourists from Gujarat and Bombay to Kashmir, only to arrest despondency in the valley. Sangh Parivar, on more than one occasion, suggested to Indianize the Kashmiri Muslims through pilgrimage tourism. Yatra also worked as a tool to give a sense of normalcy in the region. Successful conduct of yatra means everything is perfectly in order. The constant cycle of killing and brutalizing the local population is just hogwash, a non-issue. It is exactly as normal as it was when the British royal family visited the colony of ‘India’ in 1911 just a few years after the death of a million souls in Indian famine of 1899-1900 or for that matter the partition of Bengal in 1905. A JKCCS report on Amarnath yatra (2017) suggests that there is a severe repercussion of this long period pilgrimage on the natives of valley. Waste from the langars – free kitchens run by NGOs for pilgrims are usually being dumped in shallow pits. One could imagine what situation would be like when lakhs of people would use to travel through the mountains, leaving behind more rotting food and toxic litter in the form of plastic. Yatris contributed to this mess by throwing plastic and other waste around the camp, which is being carried into the river by the rains and the rivulets. The attitude of most of the langars towards Kashmiris is said to be objectionable. The Shiv Shakti Seva Mandal’s langar at Posh Pathri, which prides itself in serving more than 100 dishes per day, does not allow Kashmiris to eat at the langar.
The report further reflects that the increased numbers of Yatris in 1996 also coincided with an environmental anomaly in the month of August 1996. Among the 60,000 odd people mobilized to undertake the Yatra, many were religious fundamentalists who participated with the belief that they were establishing hegemony over the region, while others were from the villages who had no idea as to the nature of the Yatra, the high altitudes that need to be traversed and extreme weather conditions. The report of JKCCS also mentions that since the formation of the SASB, duration of yatra has become increasingly contentious, with socio-religious organizations pushing for an increase in the number of days and people of Kashmir asking that it be limited to 30 days. Until 1996, the yatra was 15 to 19 days long. One of the recommendations of the Nitish Sengupta report was that the Yatra be spread over a month which would reduce overcrowding that takes place in a short time, making it a challenge for the administration to respond to any kind of mishap that might occur. Before the SASB was formed, the yatra used to start from the Dashnami Akhara at Srinagar. After the formation of the Board, the Yatra starts at the base camp in Jammu, from where buses hired by the government carry the yatris to either Baltal or Pahalgam. The buses travel in a convoy of about 50 to 60 vehicles with a security escort of at least 3 CRPF vehicles in each convoy. Every comfort of the yatri is assured – food, travel and accommodation. The only expense that the yatri needs to absorb is travel from their homes to Jammu.
A 3-tier grid security is provided for the yatra. The primary responsibility for providing security lies with Army. However, several other military and para-military forces support this process. They include Border Security Force (BSF), Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF), National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF), Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) and Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) of the state Police, as well as those of the Traffic Police, Security, CID and Armed Police. Coordination of all these institutions is done by a Joint Police Control Room (JPCR). This section presents the role of each of these institutions in the yatra. When the yatra convoy’s move between the first base camp in Jammu until Nunwan/Baltal, they are accompanied by armed personnel who are stationed at the head, in the middle and at the end of the convoy.
Some say history repeats itself, so does imperialism. No one has learnt the nitty-gritty of imperialism better than India- thanks to the British imperial legacy. Back to the topic, the large-scale inflow of yatris was vigorously pursued as a state-policy when Farooq Abdullah was installed as Chief Minister by New Delhi in1996 and the subsequent formation of Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) in 2000 (where Abdullah was very much instrumental in its formation). This actually paved the way for the extension of its time period and increased the number of annual yatris. The yatra was further incentivized by extensive publicity, political patronage and subsidized travel packages. During the course of this whole yatra period, the state government along with the nationalist media seemingly comes to a kind of standstill. In the making of Kashmir, an atootang (inseparable organ) in its nationalist discourse the populist Indian leadership- secular and right wing, alike- the yatra to Amarnath has served to make any realistic solution of political dispute increasingly difficult. Since the lower middle-class Indians who can’t afford to visit tourist destinations in other parts of the world that match Kashmir valley in its beauty and climate prefer to undertake subsidized and cheap pilgrimage journey to the valley, and in the process visit other tourist destinations without the requirement to buy an expensive travel package. The state deploys heavy paramilitary personnel and imposes a false sense of insecurity accruing from the indigenous population while transporting these pilgrims to breathtaking places of Kashmir. Instantly, these middle class and lower-middle-class Indians who had no clue of Kashmir – its culture, politics, conflict, geography, history, Pandit displacement etc- till yesterday instantly become its experts, ambassadors and self-appointed guardians. The pilgrimage journey prepares them to assume that ‘their’ Kashmir is brutally populated by the ungrateful, unsavoury agents of Pakistan (Kashmiri is the ‘other’ who they never talk to and about whom they build views after watching emotionally charged TV debates). In the course of the journey, they assume self-appointed roles of ambassadors and stake-holders of Kashmir; they become ‘political’ and help build opinions for greater integration of Kashmir with the Indian mainland.
Since they aren’t allowed to undertake the pious journey without a security blanket and aren’t allowed to mix up with the local population- drivers, shopkeepers and caterers, students – they fail to comprehend the true essence of Kashmir and its people. It is dangerous for the state discourse to survive if they are allowed to travel with ease and mix up with the local population because it would bust the myths about Kashmir carved out by the political elite and the mainstream nationalist media. Every year these lakhs of visitors make it difficult for Indian public to view Kashmir as a political dispute that needs redress: rather, they prefer to view it through the narrow jingoistic prism. They view it through the eyes of a privileged population living in the Empire. For it gives them a sense of control and ownership of the territory. (The author can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org).