Jammu and Kashmir: Communalizing Amarnath Pilgrimage and Demonising a Movement

March 31, 2015


By Gautam Navlakha

Amarnath cave is one of the sacred sites for Hindu followers of Shiva. Its antiquity is undisputed. But when overwhelming majority of Kashmiris , barring Brahmins, became Muslims from 14th century onwards, the ‘yatra’ began losing the traditional fervor and significance attached to the pilgrimage. It did continue but in a much less of a popular ritual and probably got revived during 19th century after its re-discovery by a Gujjar shepherd Buta Malik during the establishment of the Hindu kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir by Dogra ruler Gulab Singh in 1846. Under Dogra Hindu rule the ‘yatra’ began once again receiving royal patronage and they began also to encourage Shaivites from Punjab, in particular, to undertake this pilgrimage. (1)

The pilgrimage is famous for a wonderful natural phenomenon. Stalagmite gets formed due to freezing of water drops in the roof of the cave. The frozen drops fall to the cave floor and grows vertically to form a shape like a ‘lingam’. The waxing and waning of ice lingam, or the forming of ice in the shape of lingam, and then its meltdown was known to the ancients. However, the ‘yatra’ was, until modern times, not a mass pilgrimage. In 1986 51,000 made the ‘yatra’; in 1987 52,000 did; and in 1988 it jumped to 96,000, only to come down to 5000 in 1989, on the eve of the mass uprising in Kashmir. However, it truly acquired a mass character in 21st century when several lakhs made the pilgrimage when an all Hindu religious body was set up and made autonomous of the State.

Until the formation of SASB, the ‘yatra’ would begin on Ashadh Purnima (full moon) and conclude on Shravan Purnima, i.e. a period of 30 days. Prior to constituting SASB the state government, local people and local social activists provided aid and assistance to the pilgrims. Since SASB came into being the emphasis is on larger and larger numbers of pilgrims requiring massive arrangements to accommodate large masses in a ecologically fragile mountain region.

In that sense Amarnath yatra is not like any other pilgrimage. Closest parallel that can be drawn with is Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet and Gomukh, Kedarenath, Badrinath etc in Uttarakhand. The common factor is their location high up in the mountain, the hazardous nature of the ‘yatra’, the carrying capacity of the mountainous region, and suitabiloity of mass pilgrimage impacting the ecology of the area . At both Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet and Gomukh in Uttarakhand, consequently, the period of pilgrimage is restricted and the numbers regulated. System of ceiling on number was practiced at Vashnodevi also where a cap of 20,000 per day was in place. In fact Nitish Sengupta committee report (1996) calls for “regulation of the total number of pilgrims to about 1 lakh during the 30 day period, (and) …. also regulate the maximum number of people who can be permitted at any point of this journey at any given time”.

My concern with the ‘yatra’ has to do with the manner of Indian State’s response and projection of the ‘yatra’ against the background of military suppression of a popular movement since 1990. The politico-religious significance of Amarnath yatra was brought home most tragically in 2008 when Jammu based organization Shri Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti was unleashed against the Kashmiri Muslims protesting the lack of concern for local residents and their fear over the threat posed to their life and livelihood needs by the ‘yatra’ taking on a mass character. The Kashmiri agitation focused on diversion of forest land but forests and meadows in the Pahalgam region are critical for quality and quantity of water flow into LIdder. The anger in Kashmir in 2008 was fuelled by the manner in which the CEO of the SASB, a Hindu IAS officer, went about claiming that there was a “permanent transfer” of forest land for SASB’s needs, and this was perceived as setting a legal precedent which could be used for transferring forest and other land to non-state subjects. Conspiracy theories had a field day after this. However, more than 70 persons lost their lives almost all of them who died were Muslims. However, communal projection of the ‘yatra’ and its elevation as an act of ‘patriotism’ has a different origin.

After the Kargil war in 1999 the news portal of the Indian government,  Press Information Bureau, had this to say on Amarnath yatra : “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). With Indian State promoting religious pilgrimage as a mark of patriotism it is then a small step away from enabling majoritarian bigots a handle to exploit it for their self-interest and self-promotion.

Shri Amaranath Shrine Board (SASB) was set up by the National Conference in 2002 after the passage of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board Act in November 2000 in the state Assembly. At this point of time National Conference government headed by Farooq Abdullah was an alliance member of BJP led NDA in New Delhi. The elections of 1996 which brought NC government to power was “elected” by no more than two per cent of the electorate in Kashmir. The representative character of the Assembly which enacted this Act itself, therefore, was in doubt, even if the passage of the Bill and the Act were formally all in accordance with rules. But politics of manipulation and encroachment by the Indian State in even the running of the state administration in J&K help create facts on the ground.

The Act lay down that the Board only comprised Hindus, is open to non state subjects, and is presided over by the Governor provided he is a ‘Hindu’! The SASB saw itself as a sovereign body accountable to no one and wanted to takeover an entire area to prepare for larger and larger turnout of pilgrims. The conflict that ensued was referred to the High Court in 2005. The 2005 judgment of one judge bench [Justice Permod Kohli in Ram Pal Bathonia versus State of J&K 2005(3) 415[HC] decided on 15.04.2005] held that: “Since the Board intends to up-grade the infra-structure across the tracks and at different places, the State shall, immediately permit the user of the land by the Board, if not already allowed to enable it to carry out Forest Department has already granted permission to the Board for the purpose…“. The Court said that since the Assembly itself had passed the SASB Act which under Section 16 of the Act gave powers to the Board. 16(d) of the SASB Act authorises the Board to “undertake developmental activities concern the area of the shrine and its surroundings”. (Para 36)

When the state Government cancelled forest land allotted to the SASB vide Order No 210 of 20-05-2005 the matter again reached the High Court. On May 28th the High Court ordered, while striking down the government order No 210 of 20-05-2005, by laying down that forest land thus divested would remain with the SASB for the duration of the ‘yatra’. Using the Jammu High Court’s pronouncements that everything being done by the board is above legislature’s scrutiny and will be deemed to be done in ‘good faith’, SASB began to make more demands.

Recall the infamous statement of CEO of SASB (who as an IAS cadre was principal secretary to the Governor) on January 1, 2008. He claimed on behalf of the SASB that the legislature has no authority to question SASB. Or the statement issued by him on June 16,2008 that 40 ha of forest land has been “permanently transferred” and that the board has paid the state Rs 1.25 cr to purchase the land, and that period of yatra should be extended. The SASB also asked for 400 acres of forest land even as they had taken over Pahalgam Golf Course and wanted an Amarnath Development Board to be set up for SASB to manage, bypassing the Pahalgam Development Board already in place. The CEO of the SASB also alleged that Kashmiris are willing to wink at “pollution caused by Muslims but not by Hindus”. Such statements by an administrator (IAS at that) full of loathing for Kashmiri Muslims were deliberately aimed at stoking anger and rage by giving vent to Hindu majoritarian prejudices.

However, since then while the yatra carried on uninterrupted with large numbers of pilgrims the concern over environment and other voices of reason were underplayed in the frenzy generated by the ‘yatra’. Ironically, when it did get raised it was ironically invoked for the benefit of the ‘faithfuls’, and not the local residents. And therein lies a story.

Supreme Court Intervenes

On July 13, 2012 a two judge bench comprising Justice BS Chauhan and Swatantra Kumar on their own motion versus Union of India said that “(t)his Court has repeatedly held that in terms of Article 21 of the Constitution of India, a person has a right to live in dignity and not be subjected to inhuman treatment particularly in such places where large number of people are bound to visit because of their faith”. It pointed to “Today’s Times of India and The Hindustan Times reports 67 deaths of (Amarnath) pilgrims mostly because of cardiac arrest as well as for other reasons….In our considered opinion the pilgrims have a constitutional right under Article 21 and 19(1)(d) to move freely within the territory of India, free of fear, with dignity and safety and to ensure enforcement of such right is the primary obligation of the state and the central government”. It then went on to say that “Visit of lakhs people to the state of J&K generates revenue for the state, in fact, for the residents of the state and add to the need for better tourism.”

They go on to say that “(i)t is a settled canon of constitutional law that the doctrine of sustainable development also forms part of Article 21 of the Constitution. The ‘precautionary principle’ and the ‘polluter pays principle” flow from the core value in Article 21. Supreme Court in its judicial dictum in the case of Glenrock Estates Pvt Ltd vs State of Tamilnadu (2010) 10 SCC 96 has held that “forests in India are an important part of environment. They constitute a national asset and intergenerational equity is also part of the Article 21…..The state is not only expected but is under a constitutional command to treat every citizen with human dignity and ensure equal treatment to all”. “ And then points out that pilgrims “ have a rights and state is under constitutional obligation to provide safe passages, proper medical aid, appropriate arrangement and at least some shelter to the thousand of yatris visiting holy cave every day.”

In other words the plight of the devotees of Shiva pained the H’ble judges to take up the matter suo moto. Such was their concern that they also went on to implicitly reprimand the state and the residents by pointing out that they stand to make pecuniary gains from tourism, and therefore implied that the needs and welfare of pilgrims must be given weight over that of the residents of the state. The H’ble judges , therefore, argue that “It is a settled canon of constitutional law that the doctrine of sustainable development also forms part of Article 21 of the Constitution. By presuming that pilgrims benefit the state government and permanent residents and their interest are subsumed under interests of pilgrims, because it is assumed that pilgrims welfare will ultimately bring benefit to the residents.

Thus Article 21 and 19(1)(d) is invoked on behalf of the pilgrims. The first order they issued was on July 23rd when they set up a special high powered committee (SHPC). The elevation of right of the ‘faithfuls’ and its application to the area where the cave is located cannot be de-linked from other considerations even if the Court moved by their own ‘faith’ could do so.

The area is described thus by the District Forest Officer, Pahalgam in a communication dated 5-10-2012 to the Pahalgam Development Authority. The letter mentioned that:

“whatever Pahalgam is famous and important for is because of its forests and undisturbed natural microclmatic region created by these forests in the biggest ever catchment of 123,600 hectares named and codified (HDDERIEL) wherein 98 number of micro water sheds has a stable base to contribute the Jhelum basin predominately. Viewing the importance of the fragile zone Government vide order # 148/FST of 2005 dated 29.03.2005 had asked that “no agency be authorized to use forest land (grassland in forests) for any activity which proves hazardous for the regeneration of the younger seedlings and saplings…..That circular shape of Sheshnag spread over approximately 578 kanals need not be disturbed as concrete work will definitely contribute to erosion and will choke the oozing capacity of the lakes because these slopes are acting as a sponge to pave the way for the filtered seepage of melted precipitation.”

This being the case it stands to reason that whatever facilities or arrangements were made for pilgrims cannot over-ride the more pressing need for protecting the environment. The SHPC presumably given the terms of reference did not spell out their position on the overall impact of ‘yatra’ on the environment and local community and the water basin. They also express helplessness at stopping mass of ‘faithfuls’ from undertaking this hazardous yatra. For instance SHPC points out that Pilgrimage is hazardous.

The high altitude trek to the Holy Cave involves exposure to extreme cold, low humidity, exposure to high ultra violet radiations and reduced air pressure….The pilgrim is most likely to acquire AMS, which affect the brain and lungs, and is known to occur when the yatris climbs to areas which are over 8000 feet high”. [para 3.3, SHPC Report, 2013]

The then GOC in C 15th Corps, LT General SA Hasnain had informed the SHPC that in order to “dominate” the entire yatra route

“as per prescribed guidelines, fifteen days before the Yatra troops are required 45 days ahead of the yatra…..They are imparted pre-induction training for 12 days, followed by 15 days of acclitimization/induction at various locations. [para3.4 SHPC Report, 2013]

It also noted that “lack of acclimitization would still result in the ‘yatris’ risking their lives in these high altitude areas”. [para 3.45]

However, the ‘Yatra’ is also a huge military operation which comprises in words of SHPC:

“ Apart from the Army’s role to secure the entire yatra area, a three tier security grid is provided with the deployment of CRPF, BSF, IRBns, ITBP, SDRF, NDRF, MRT, ATS, and State Police, Traffic Police, Security, CID and Armed Police.” [para 5.14] Their strength has been “increasing in tandem with the increasing strength of yatra.” [para 5.16].

For instance in 2009 3,92,774 pilgrims made it to the cave. There were 36 companies (about 100 in a company) of CRPF, 31 cos of Armed Police, 27 cos of BSF, 758 men of district police. By 2012 when the pilgrim numbers climbed to 6,21,104 the size of force rose to 66 cos of CRPF, 40 cos of Armed Police, 19 cos of BSF, 5 cos of IRBn, and 35 cos of District Police. This is in addition to Army deployment (not shared) in the upper reaches of the area.

Why is there such a massive deployment of military for a pilgrimage of Saivite Hindus? Especially when the CRPF considers J&K to be a “peace posting”! (27 June, 2014, Times of India). This makes for a strange peace posting where 600,000 troops are deployed, of which army has around 300,000, the J&K Police including SOG and SPOs 130,000, and para military from outside the state, approximately between 1.5 to 1.75 lakhs!

Arguably, when yatra was affected between 1991-96 due to threat posed by a section of the militants (primarily non-indegenous) it played into the hands of the extreme right wing Hindu 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 non-indegenous militants represented by Harkatul Ansar (fore runner of Jaish I Mohammed and Lashkar I Toiba) threatened to disrupt the pilgrimage it got the backs up of the devout Hindus and opened them to vitriol of the rabidly anti-Muslim VHP, Shiv Sena etc.

But that is one side of the story, and regrettably the only story played up by the media. Because, it is equally important to note that militants belonging to Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Hizbul Mujahideen and Muslim Janbaz Force,all of them indegenous groups, came out in support of ‘yatra’ and opposed those militants who threatened to attack the pilgrims. Nitish Sengupta committee noted in his report that during the 1996 tragedy in which more than 230 “yatris”, locals, soldiers perished in some places militants rendered help to ‘yatris’.

A letter from one of pilgrims eyewitness to the tragedy in 1996, in which 205 yatris and 25 porters and security personnel lost their lives, wrote to the Nitish Sengupta Committee. The letter dated 14/10/1996 by one Akhilesh Bannerjee from Krishnagar noted among other things that “(a)t the most critical juncture of life the porters, pithuwallah, local people helped the jatris like mother, father and son with unfathomable love ad sympathy sometimes even risking their own lives”. He then adds that “BSF jawans remained there, like silent and passive on-lookers – yes inactive spectators. Sometimes instead of being savior they have appeared as source of troubles to the dying jatris.”

Besides, in the past decade or so not only has armed militancy declined with their numbers coming down below 300, but no threat has been held out by any militant group against the pilgrims since 2002 when nine pilgrims were killed and 32 injured when a lone Pakistani militant attacked Amarnath base camp at Pahalgam. The lone militant, allegedly a Pakistani according to the police, itself raised several questions, because of the ease with which he could enter what is clearly highly secured venture! Anyhow, it is worth noting that the 1996 pilgrimage took place only because indigenous militants declared that they neither oppose pilgrimage nor target pilgrims. The tragedy that struck the pilgrims in 1996 was a much bigger threat posed to the ‘yatra’ by the nature.

Nevertheless, citing threat perception and likelihood of attacks on Indian tourists and pilgrims from the militants, in what CRPF claims is now to be a “peace posting”, the pilgrimage turns into a massive military operation. This year, like earlier years, the Army and the agencies sounded alert about possible threat to Amarnath Yatra, while J&K police dismissed this. (Asian Age, 11th June, 2014)

Local participation gradually began to decline as SASB came into being even as there has been a five times increase in the period for pilgrimage from a traditional fortnight to two and half months between 1989 and 2014. While two months is the official ‘yatra’, a fortnight before is set aside for service personnel and their families to visit the Amarnath cave, through ecologically more vulnerable Baltal route. Between 1989 and 2013 the number of pilgrims too has increased by an incredible forty times, from 12,000 to six lakhs plus. And in order to provide security for pilgrims deployment of security forces too has increased and is in excess of 35,000 for the entire period. Such large numbers also mean a commensurate increase in number of vehicles to ferry people and goods. In particular presence of large number of people at heights between 11,000 to 13,500 ft, where the cave is located, is fraught with danger.

Eco-sensitive nature of the region

In order to develop an area in the vicinity of a mountain range as well as a water basin the first thing that has to be considered is what the carrying capacity of the area is. Pahalgam area, according to the Nitish Sengupta Committee, cannot accommodate more than 12-15,000 persons. It wanted a cap of 9-10,000 per day on Pahalgam route. Any expansion of the carrying capacity could result in ther destruction of the forests and water bodies around. Indeed had it not been for local community’s protest and moving the High Court and the orders of the Court declaring as illegal large number of resorts and hotels constructed in the forest belt of Pahalgam in order to accommodate more and more tourists, primarily the pilgrims, the matter took a different turn. Its significance can only be realized against the backdrop of this area’s ecological sensitivity.

The State Pollution Control Board, in a 37 page report in 2006 had warned 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. 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. And thousands of vehicles ply up and down the mountains around Pahalgam all the way up to Chandanwari spewing carbon monoxide causing the temperatures to rise. With the opening of Baltal route for pilgrims on foot and those using helicopters the immediate prospect of irreversible damage has mounted. At the same time it cannot be denied that because of public pressure and outcry, every now and then, some improvements have taken place. Yet, they leave much to desire.

J&K’s Department of Science and technology through its principal investigator on glaciology  Prof MN Kaul had warned in 2005 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).

 A noted environmentalist MRD Kundangar told a local Srinagar daily [Greater Kashmir June 10,2008] that “(t)he yatris during their Amarnath yatra do not only defecate on the banks of the Lidder river but throw tons of non-degradable items like polythene, plastic items directly into the river. This has resulted in the deterioration of its water quality”. He pointed out that “(t)he chemical oxygen demand of the Lidder has been recorded between 17-92 mg/l, which is beyond the permissible level. Such enriched waters with hazardous chemicals ranges can no way be recommended for potable purposes. It has crossed all permissible limits due to flow of sewage and open defecation . Lidder has been turned into a cesspool”. 

Finally a study undertaken by Department of Earth Sceinces at Kashmir University found “huge quantity of garbage, in dispersed form, is being disposed of around this (Amarnath) area and finds its way into the Lidder.” And then adds that there is “heavy sewage ingress” into Lidder from hotels, commercial places and residential area….(which) also responsible for the deteriorating quality of water”. (The Tribune 21st May,2014) In other words even if infrastructure is developed and STPs upgraded, the pressure to accommodate more and more pilgrims exposes the area to other threats. It has been pointed out that a crowd forms just below the Holy Cave with pilgrims waiting for their turn. With several thousand people present each with an average body temperature of 32 degree Celsius the heat generated increases exponentially.

Instead of being mindful of the threat of environmental degradation and its impact on local residents, the Supreme Court fore-grounded the interests of the Hindu “faithful”.

Especially because there is dispute between Pahalgam Development Authority as well as the Forest Department over illegal constructions and encroachment into forest land. The above mentioned HC judgment completely ignored rights of local community in the area, ecological considerations, and overlapping jurisdictions etc. For instance suppose SASB starts inviting more pilgrims, constructing structures in the name of improving pilgrimage which clashes with the environment,depletes forest cover, reduces precipitation, which directly impacts Lidder basin which feeds in turn the Indus Water Basin and is critical for the very well-being of the local people’s survival, then according to the rist High Court judgment  in para 36 that there shall be “no interference … caused by any of the State agencies in implementation of the decision of the Board”.!

Presence of huge military force for the entire duration of yatra, the proximity of such force and pilgrims to the water bodies, inadequate capacity of the STPs at Baltal and Nunwan camps to ensure effective treatment of waste, absence of a solution for the food waste which says SHPC is “high in grease and biological material”, helicopter services and other motor transport…all contribute to degrading a eco system of an area whose water basin is of critical importance for the life and livelihood of the residents. Tourists come and go. Their temporary comfort, even of the faithful, by all means must be ensured, but not at the expense of the needs of the local population. Indeed these needs cannot be placed at par, let alone accorded greater priority. One could argue that even for the ‘faithfuls’ it is in their enlightened self-interest that the area be protected and preserved for the sake of local population and future generations. Or else one can wonder what kind of a ‘faith’ is it which undermines ecology of an area putting into peril the life and livelihood of local residents and sacrificing the interests of the future generations?

That Lidder river basin located in the same area as the Amarnath pilgrimmage is vital for the life and livelihood of local residents, goes without saying. But it is also something which India is obligated to protect because of the Indus Water Treaty. Since rivers were divided by India and Pakistan in 1960 between them and Jhelum, Chenab and Indus (Sindh) waters were allocated to Pakistan any deterioration in quality & quantity of water and its uninterrupted flow goes against the IWT. So the preservation of the region so vital for water basin located there is of utmost importance.

Thus the Act passed by an Assembly on 14th November 2000 ( recall how fraudulent the polls were of 1996) which allowed such an unrepresentative legislative assembly to then enact laws such as SASB Act which through its section 16 handed over “sovereign” power (High Court’s language) to the Board in the name of “development”  to benefit pilgrims. The judgment is also unfortunate because it shows no awareness of ecology and its impact on local community, and infact claims that as the terrain improves number of pilgrims could keep rising. So what about the carrying capacity of an area? Should it not matter? Can the State, which claims to be secular, allow takeover of one area for the benefit of a religious community (hindus) and downplay the rights and concerns of the local community which is predominately Muslims? 


As mentioned above, the Shri Amaranath Shrine Board (SASB) was set up by the National Conference in 2002. It is claimed this was as per the recommendation of Nitish Sengupta Commission which looked into the 1996 tragedy in which 205 yatris and 25 porters and security personnel lost their lives. But the Nitish Sengupta Committee report (1996), had contrary to the claims, had never proposed an all Hindu body. He proposed that administration of the yatra should be handed over to the department of tourism, as is the case in every other state of India where religious tourism comes under the purview of the tourism department of the respective states. He wanted that local tentwallahs should be allowed to offer accommodation and dhaba owners provide food for yatris. So the SASB is a different creation than what the Nitish Sengupta committee envisaged. Thus J&K where Muslims are more in numbers became an area where Hindu majoritarianism was aggressively promoted in the name of a Hindu “minority” in J&K. This was a ridiculous and insidious proposition because Hindus are in absolute majority in India. The top echelons of bureaucracy, police and agencies in J&K is dominated by Hindus, and the military force deployed in J&K is predominately non-Muslim.

How else can one otherwise explain that on April 18, 2007 the doors of the Hari Parbat fort in Srinagar were thrown open to public, only to be closed within 24 hours. Because members of press found that whereas the temple and gurudwara located inside had been refurbished, the mosque remained in ruins! It was explained away by the senior officers by claiming that soldiers worshipped in temple and gurudwara and therefore these were restored whereas there were no Muslim soldiers and therefore the mosque remained in a decrepit state. The significance of no Muslim presence at Hari Parbat only reflects the un-representative character of the Indian military. Hari Parbat remains closed to public. Seven years down the line with Indian State indifferent to restoring the Mosque inside the fort. It appears that Indian State could not care less to project itself as a non-sectarian force in J&K.

The SASB which comprises non state subjects, is presided over by the governor provided he is a Hindu, and has for its other members only Hindus. It saw itself as being a sovereign body under Governor Lt. General SK Sinha, accountable to no one and went ahead to takeover an entire area to prepare for larger and larger turnout of pilgrims. Clause 16(d) of the SASB Act authorized them to carry out “development activity concerning the area of shrine and its surroundings”. So the SASB demanded that an Amarnath Development Authority be setup to help develop the area lying from Baltal to the Holy Cave on the Sonmarg side and Chandanwari to the Holy Cave on the Pahalgam side. [The fact that the Act created a sovereign body accountable to no one but itself and with a mandate to “develop” the area also shows how a pliable state government, then headed by National Conference, could part with powers and create a sovereign body of Hindu stakeholders, which jeopardizes the interests of the local residents.].

Using this, as well as Jammu High Court’s pronouncement that everything being done by the board is above legislature’s scrutiny and will be deemed to be done in ‘good faith’, SASB began to make outrageous demands. Recall the infamous statement of CEO of SASB (who as an IAS cadre was principal secretary to the Governor) on January 1, 2008 wherein he claimed that the legislature has no authority to question SASB. Or the statement issued by the CEO of SASB on June 16 that forest land has been “permanently transferred” and that the board has paid the state Rs 1.25 cr to purchase the land, that period of yatra should be extended, and complained that Kashmiri Muslims are willing to wink at “pollution caused by Muslims but not by Hindus”. These statements were deliberately pitched to rouse the right wing Hindus and damn the Muslims and to provoke anger.

Now the SASB, it is said, was set up on the basis of recommendations made by Nitish Sengupta Committee’s (1996). But SASB was not tasked with micro managing the yatra or to turn it into an all Hindu affair from which Muslims were to be kept away. Among the various acts of governor SK Sinha was to summarily discontinue the traditional role of the Malik family as protector of the shrine and their right to get one third of the offering. Instead of regulating and restricting the number of pilgrims SASB went in an overdrive to stretch it for a longer duration and for larger and larger numbers of pilgrims. Non state subjects were engaged for various services traditionally performed by the local Muslims and Pandits. Some of the things done by SASB, an opaque government body, meant to pander to majoritarian demands, were bizarre.

SHPC itself noted that SASB in past years explored various “technological options like using refrigeration, installing cooling panels, using chemical ice etc for prolonging the life of Ice Lingam. SASB had even examined installing an “artificial crystal lingam” (made up of supreme glass crystal) I the Holy Cave….” But since then SASB has changed its mind and now says that “nothing should be done at the Holy Cave through any technological intervention which could interfere with the annual formation of the natural ice lingam”. [para 5.24]. In other words personality of the Chairman and CEO plays quite a role.

Besides, larger and larger 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 few seconds inside the cave. Concentration of people also contributes to warming the area. But above all carbon dioxide levels shoots up warming the area all around. What would be the cumulative impact of this damage in Baltal and Nunwan on local habitation and livelihood needs of people have yet to be evaluated. But immense they will be, going merely by the deterioration and depletion of river Lidder.

SHPC again noted that “pilgrims throw coins, currency notes, decorative chunnis and brass lotas etc towards the Lingam. All this results in denting and eroding the Ice Lingam and consequently, reducing its life. Furthermore body heat of the large number of yatris who visit the shrine every day also results in precipitating rapid ice melt…..Flash photography and burning of agairbattis, dhoops etc is also prohibited….” [para 5.22]

The meltdown of the natural stalagmite or the ‘snow lingam’ shows that presence of huge numbers of yatris is the major reason for this. The critical importance of protecting the ecology of this area can not be underplayed when it is kept in mind that while tourists come and go, local inhabitants depend on the water, meadows, forest and land for their life and livelihood. Any damage to the ecology could, thus, prove fatal for them, which is what pollution of Lidder river by SASB’s unregulated promotion of yatra and destruction of the ecology of Nunwan valley threatens to bring about.

In this sense Indian state’s ‘himalayan’ blunder was to transform a Hindu Shaivite pilgrimage into a patriotic enterprise to lure larger and larger numbers of pilgrims, never mind the threat to local community and its interests or the damage to the ecology of the area.

So what indeed were Nitish Sengupta committee’s main recommendations?

Setup after the 1996 Amarnath Yatra Tragedy in which 205 yatris and 25 porters and security personnel lost their lives the report emphasized that “the pilgrimage to Amarnath is not just pilgrimage but high altitude mountaineering” (p 54). It wanted a minimum age of 15 and maximum of 65 years for the yatris. (p 55) It repeatedly makes the point that at this altitude, the hazardous nature of the track and uncertain weather conditions, calls for regulating the number of pilgrims and period of yatra. “It has to be emphasized here that carrying capacity of this pathway of about 32 kms i.e. between Chandanwari and the cave, is extremely limited. It passes all along at very high altitude, well above the tree line and through areas with no human habitation”. (p 5) For eight months of the year there is snow and formation of natural stalagmite (snow lingam) begins only by June.

Therefore, Amarnath yatra cannot be compared with any other pilgrimage and the closest parallel can be drawn with Kailsah Mansarovar in Tibet and Gomukh in Uttarakhand. At both Kailash Mansarovar and Gomukh the period of pilgrimage is restricted and the numbers strictly regulated. System of ceiling on number is practiced at Vaishno Devi also where a cap of 20,000 per day is in place. In fact Nitish Sengupta, ( page 52 of the report), says that “(a)long with the regulation of the total number of pilgrims to about 1 lakh during the 30 day period, we should also regulate the maximum number of people who can be permitted at any point of this journey at any given time”. And adds “we could lay down a ceiling of 3000 pilgrims that can be permitted to travel on any of these sectors, (i.e Chandawanri to Sheshnag; Sheshnag to Panjtarani; and Panjtarani to the Cave) in a single day”.

It also called for restricting havans performance at the Holy Cave since they “pollute the purity of the atmosphere and also constitute fire hazard”. (p58) The report opposed proposal for making road from Chandawari to Sheshnag and then up to Panjtarani motorable. Because “(a)llowing the motor vehicles to go into this area will not only damage the environment of these areas, but will also spoil the pristine scenic charm of these mountains and valleys.” (p 60) But the SASB went ahead not only encouraging ‘havans’ by all and sundry VIPs, but introduced helicopter services for pilgrims which is a major source of pollution. It may be that helicopters no longer land close to the Holy Cave, but for aging and not so aging VIPs and VVIPs rules are bent. The meltdown of the natural stalagmite or the ‘snow lingam’ within fifteen days of the yatra in 2008 also showed that presence of huge numbers of yatris and the helicopter services is the major reason for this. The critical importance of protecting the ecology of this area can not be underplayed when it is kept in mind that while tourists come and go, local inhabitants depend on the water and land for their life and livelihood. Any damage to the ecology could, thus, prove fatal for them, which is what pollution of Lidder river by SASB’s unregulated promotion of yatra and destruction of the ecology of Nunwan valley threatens to bring about.

The report proposed that administration of the yatra should be handed over to the department of tourism, as is the case in every other state of India where religious tourism comes under the purview of the tourism department of the respective states. It wanted that local tentwallahs should be allowed to offer accommodation and dhaba owners provide food for yatris. (p 62). Moreover, in so far as the high powered board was concerned the committee recommended that the CM should be the chairperson. The board was to supervise the yatra and prepare strategic plan for providing temporary facilities. (It so happens that permanent structures are visible to naked eye in Domel area of Baltal in violation of the High Court order.) As of now 2204 kanals, of which 1500 kanals is forest land (and from which 800 kanals were to be “diverted” to SASB for temporary use) are being used for yatris in Baltal route. This land includes 56 kanals of private land including a graveyard. The agreement signed by the Indian government with the SASS reveals that Indian state prefers appeasing Hindu fanatics rather than in protecting the fragile area. While interests of Kashmiris is far removed from the consciousness of the judiciary, such unregulated large scale promotion of ‘yatra’ poses a threat also to devout Hindus as any degradation of the area and well being of the Kashmiris will irrevocably damage the health of the area for their progenies thanks to the Indian state.

Towards Conclusion

That the highest court was moved by the plight of Amarnath pilgrims and they took up the matter suo moto must be placed against the very same apex court never once taking up suo moto the plight of Kashmiri Muslims at the hands of Indian military. It was not moved by the plight of hapless civilians being butchered by the Indian military in 2008, 2009 and 2010. This majoritarian bias of the apex court itself raises a serious concern over the erosion of the principle of equality before law . Clearly, some are more equal than others for the supreme court. So faith and pilgrims acquires urgency not ecological destruction of Lidder water basin which threatens the life, liberty and livelihood of the Kashmiris!

Indeed the peremptory way in which NC passed this Act in 2000 and New Delhi went about promoting Amarnath pilgrimage highlights the difference between appearance and reality. Indian authorities go on overdrive saying “religious fundamentalism is at the root of separatism in Kashmir”. While they project Amarnath pilgrimage shamelessly as “patriotic duty”, and make a bid to enlarge their control over land, forest and water, identify themselves as promoters and protectors of Hindu sectarian interests….and yet they remain avowedly ‘secular’. So much so that no Indian political party or funded NGOs, so vocal in denouncing religious fundamentalism otherwise, speaks out against the fact that Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal have held regular meetings in public places in J&K where they openly display guns and spout venom. They regularly disrupt meetings, press conferences and get wide mostly favourable coverage in India’s mainstream media. No one asks how come such rascalry operate with such freedom in a “disturbed area” where extraordinary powers have been given to security forces to even kill on mere suspicion. (See Indian Express June 23, 2008 for photograph of one such meeting). And, yet, no sooner a person raises questions about Amarnath pilgrimage and the political designs behind its promotion it is held out as evidence of Islamic “fundamentalism”. Is it not ‘pot calling the kettle black’?

Significantly, even a right wing extremist party as BJP when in power in Uttarakhand on 1 May, 2008 imposed a limit on the number of pilgrims visiting Gangotri and Goumukh to 150 persons per day so as to protect the fragile ecology of the area. Yet, in the case of Amarnath, and despite overwhelming evidence of environmental degradation posed by stupendous increase in the period and number of pilgrims and large number of security forces deployed for protection of such pilgrims, there is no one who dares challenge the SASB’s stubborn extension of the ‘yatra’. Indeed if the CEO of SASB is to be believed since “the population of India will increase we will have to consider further extsnion of yatra period”.

In other words, it is when we begin to critically examine any area of concern we begin to discover the role of the Indian State in fomenting majoritarian communalism assiduously. (4) Amarnath yatra and its promotion not only brings out the communal nature of even religious pilgrimage, but even more serious is that the Indian military is projected as a defender of Hindu faith! The presence of six lakhs soldiers gets explained away as needed now to also protect tourists especially the religious tourists.

It is necessary, therefore, to ask ourselves if J&K was an “integral” part of India then why has Indian state and society been so cruelly indifferent to the concerns of the local people? Why were they singled out for unprecedented savagery inflicted on them by the Indian military? Is it because Indians looked upon J&K, and jealously guard it, as a trophy of war, a conquered Muslim majority territory won by India in a war with Pakistan in 1947-48? Therefore, having won, the victors, want to make the most of it by widening their control over Kashmir by introducing religious faith of pilgrims to create stakes for Hindus? We need to ask ourselves why and how India’s constitutional democracy has been abridged and devalued, thanks to a war against a people who continue to be treated as a subject population and their Muslimness is made into something sinister. Even as brazen communalisation promoted by the Indian State in J&K is all but ignored. (5)


1. There is a dispute among some scholars about the significance of Amarnath yatra and its historicity. Independent of that dispute and basing myself on the fact that Kashmiris converted to Islam it stand to reason that there would have been a decline in its popularity. Thus although ‘yatra’ may have continued it did in a much reduced form. The difficult high mountain terrain was also not conducive to making it a popular pilgrimage, even more arduous than the pilgrimage to Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gomukh etc.

2.I may add that as per Protocol Additional II (1977) to the Geneva convention of 12 august 1949, relating to the protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts, under its Article 4(b) prohibits collective punishment. Economic blockade too is an act of war.

3. There is a body of opinion which claims that Jammu based Amarnath agitation of 2008 was based on a sense of regional discrimination. But their inability to establish this hypothesis undermines such claims. Indeed going by data available in the Economic Survey for 2006-07 as well as 07-08 district wise figures question these assumptions. For instance Table 3.12 in the Economic Survey 2007-08 of J&K depicts per capita GSDP at current and constant prices which shows that Srinagar, Jammu, Kathua, Pulwama, Udhampur and then Rajouri, in that order, figure on top. Bottom is taken up by Kupwara, Kargil, Doda, Leh and Poonch. If this is read together with annual per capita expenditure in each of the three divisions, namely Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh, between 1992-93 to 2008-2009 it is abundantly clear that it is Kashmir which follows after Jammu and Ladakh. For instance in 2008-2009 the per capita outlay for Jammu is Rs 4818.52; Rs 4147.30 for Ladakh and Rs 4081.21 for Kashmir. Total outlay for 2008-09, if placed against population too shows that Kashmir with 6.7 mn people received Rs 2757 cr; Jammu with 5.4 mn received Rs 2632 cr; and Ladakh with 2.91 lakh got Rs 121 cr. IF one reads it together it cuts through the argument of regional discrimination. Indeed the data suggests a communal divide in that both in Jammu and Ladakh divisions, the districts with high Muslim presence are worse off than non-Muslim majority districts. It is surprising that the NDA government in 2014 announced schemes which single out Jammu and Ladakh but completely ignore Kashmir and there is not a single edit or comment against it! It is only Kashmiri leaders who have spoken out but not Hindus, secular, communal or egalitarian.

It is also worth noting that under Hindu Dogra rule 1846-1947 upper caste Hindus were privileged community whereas Muslims were dis-empowered across the board losing even their ownership of the land they cultivated. The upper caste Hindus lost the preferential system in 1947 and their virtual monopoly over administration began to decline as Muslims entered services which were difficult for them to enter under the Dogra Hindu rule. It is this which the source origin of the claim for discrimination of Jammu by Kashmir. It is significant that privileged Hindus of J&K rarely spoke up for their fellow citizens who were Muslims prior to 1947!!!

Consequently, in the make believe world that we inhabit where State’s capacity to play mischief with people’s lives and aspirations has increased immeasurably the metamorphosis of a religious pilgrimage into a zealotry promoted by the Indian State in Kashmir brings out the nature of the predatory State we are confronted with. It is predatory because it promotes bigotry by linking faith with patriotism and because life and livelihood needs of the local people are get marginalized.

4. See my article “Collating Information or ‘Communalising’ the Army?”; EPW Vol 41, No 8, February 25-March 3, 2006.

5. Indeed also ignored are the rights of all those who profess no religion but who remain curious about a natural phenomenon. In the dust raised there is nobody who champions the rights and freedoms of atheists and agnostics or simply non-believers.


Primary Sources:

1. Supreme Court of India bench of BS Chauhan and Swantara Kumar. Writ Petition No 284/2012. Court on its own Motion versus Union of India and others.

2. Special High Powered Committee constituted by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in WP No 284/2012. Order issued by the SC on 20th July, 2012.

3. Justice Permod Kohli in Ram Pal Bathonia versus State of J&K 2005(3) 415[HC).

4. Justices H Imtiyaz Hussain & Hasnain Massodi in Pahalgam People’s Welfare Organisation vs State of J&K and others. WP No 484/2010. 05/05/2011

5. Justice Virender Singh & Hasnanin Massodi in Pahalgam People’s Welfare Organisation vs State of J&K and others. In WP # 484/2010. 11/07/2012

6. Justices Imtiyaz Hussain & Muzzafar Hussain Attar in Pahalgam People’s Welfare Organisation vs State of J&K and others, WP # 484/2010. 24/12/2012.

7. Enquiry Report on Amarnath Yatra Tragedy 1996, by Dr Nitish Sengupta Committee Report . Department of Kashmir Affairs, Government of India , (December 1996)

8. Lt General (retd) SK Sinha, The First Field Marshal Manekshaw Memorial Lecture, mimeograph. August 16th, 2008.

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