A study on Amarnath Yatra by a Bangalore-based NGO and J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) has highlighted the nexus between the corporate houses of India, right wing Hindu groups and the Government of India (GoI) through Shri Amarnath Yatra Shrine Board (SASB) to facilitate the Hindu agenda and change demography of Jammu and Kashmir under the garb of faith.
The report, ‘Amarnath Yatra: a Militarized Pilgrimage’ compiled by ‘Equations’ – a Bangalore based NGO and JKCCS was released on the 13th death anniversary of Asiya Jeelani, a freelance journalist who was killed in landmine explosion in 2004.
The report is based on data collected from RTIs filed on multiple departments, interviews with government officials in Kashmir, all concerned authorities and organisation, and people in Kashmir, Jammu, Delhi and Ludhiana and secondary sources.
Swati Sheshadari, a member of the research team, told reporters that the report seeks to start a critical inquiry into religious tourism while challenging the role of a constitutionally secular state in promotion and sustenance of this practice.
While equating SASB to a dictatorial body, she said, “The socio-religious organisations in Delhi, Jammu chamber of commerce, some ex-servicemen of army are consulted by the SASB on management of the yatra. It totally ignores Kashmiris, who are the main stakeholders because it is their ecology and demography, which is being invaded and destroyed.”
“The number of Yatris participating has increased from mere thousands in 1990 to over 3 lakh in 2015. Right Wing Hindu organisations like Bajrang Dal and VHP are continuously increasing the popularity of the Yatra in lieu with NGOs running langars,” Swati said.
She said the traditional duration of 15-days of Yatra have now gone up to 55 days owing to pressure from socio-religious organisations in Jammu and other parts of country.
The report states that increase in number of days was institutionalised after the formation of the SASB in 2001, a statutory independent board, headed by the Governor, which functions as a ‘State within the State’, without any accountability and few regulatory checks on its wide and arbitrary exercise of powers.
“The socio-religious organisations involved in yatra by their own admission are furthering the cause of nationalist organisations for a Hindu state,” she said adding Muslim majority region fundamentally is struggling for right to self-determination since 1947.
The report, as per Swati, also deflates the economic benefit narrative being spun around the Yatra.
“The primary benefactors of the Yatra are the Tour and Travel operators and Helicopter service providers from outside the valley and the Kashmiris are only confined to miniscule roles of providing the tents, ponies, load bearers and taxi drivers,” she said.
According to report, about 30,000 security personnel were deployed in 2015 for yatra duty. “It is in addition to camps of armed forces located on the route, which remain additionally activated for the duration of the yatra”.
“Once a J&K Chief Minister had asked for reducing the number of armed forces deployed for yatra, the very next day three-tier security was announced. They have drones and CCTVs around the camp and they don’t let common people to visit the yatra site. All this implies that the might of SASB and socio-religious organisations supersedes the state government,” Swati said.
On the environmental front, the report raises serious questions on allowing unregulated large number yatris in the two valleys Lidder and Sindh.
“There seems to be a constant effort to increase the facilities and infrastructure for the yatris along with increase in period of the Yatra duration. The increase in number of people participating in Yatra without any assessment will have an impact on the environment in the region,” it said.
Swati said human defecation dumps of fifty one thousand kilograms lie in the open and mix with the tributaries of the Lidder and Sindh causing water borne diseases in the lower areas of South Kashmir.
Besides, the glaciers are receding, which is changing farming pattern in the valley, she said.
Speaking on the occasion JKCCS president Parvez Imroz said there has been structural violations in Kashmir on all fronts by the Government of India (GoI) through its military and now under the garb of religion by innovating new yatras like the Kousar Nag and Buddha Amarnath, which have no historical background.
Noted rights activist, Gautam Navlakha, stressed on the yatris to understand the designs of hypocrites, who under the garb of their faith are channelizing their own agenda of religious fascism.
“We aren’t against the yatra. However, under the garb of Yatra, the ecology, demography and geopolitics of the region is being played with. The Betaab valley basin is part of Indus Water Treaty and any change to it can destabilize the peace in the region. Faith can’t trump other considerations,” he said.
The speakers urged the GoI to restrict the Amarnath yatra to 15 days along with de-militarizing it.
“The GoI should conduct an environmental impact assessment of yatra on the environment and regulate carrying capacity scientifically. It should also audit langars, regulate influence of socio-religious organisations on SASB, ban new yatras and reconstitute the SASB,” they said.