Today, on the 13th death anniversary of rights activist Asiya Jeelani, and in memory of her life, work and struggle for justice, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and EQUATIONS, a Bangalore based research, campaign and advocacy organisation working on issues of tourism and ecology, releases a report, ‘Amarnath Yatra: a Militarised Pilgrimage’ based on a study on the Amarnath Yatra, between 2014-2016. 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. The report seeks to begin a critical enquiry into religious tourism and challenges the role of a constitutionally secular state in its promotion and sustenance. The Yatra underlines the undemocratic functioning of Indian rule in Kashmir and draws attention to issues of militarization, communal conflicts, resource monopolisation, and ecological devastation.
The report reveals the following important findings and conclusions:
- Over a period of time, and especially from the 1990s, the demographics of the Yatra has changed, with lakhs of Yatris participating from many regions of India. The number of Yatris participating has increased from mere thousands until 1990, with an increase since 1996 to over 3 lakhs in 2015. What was traditionally a 15-day Yatra is now conducted for between 45-55 days. The increase in number of days was institutionalised after the formation of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (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.
- Given the eco-sensitive and precarious nature of the region, and the critical role it plays in terms of providing water and environmental stability to the Valley, there are serious implications of unregulated large visitations in the two valleys – Lidder and Sindh. Environmental concerns are linked to: carrying capacity, sanitation and solid waste and other environmental concerns like seismisity of the area, impact on glaciers and high altitude flora and fauna.
- Based on interviews with key personnel of the armed forces, it appears that about 30,000 personnel were deployed in 2015 for the purpose of the Yatra. This is in addition to the camps of the armed forces located on the route, who are additionally activated for the duration of the Yatra. The Report also looks at the history of conflicts related to the Yatra, particularly the Amarnath land row of 2008, and the role of militarization in such conflicts.
- NGOs set up langars or community kitchens along the Yatra route. 75% of the langar organisers come from Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. While langars are accountable to follow rules and regulations vis-a-vis menu, waste disposal practices and services that they are allowed / disallowed to provide, it was found that they violate most of them especially linked to the menu and waste disposal practices, leading to visible ecological degradation along the route. The share of Kashmiri tour and travel operators and hotel owners is minuscule since tour operators used are mostly from Jammu or outside the state and very few people stay in hotels due to the presence of the SASB camps along the route. Kashmiris who comprise unorganised service providers including tentwalas, ponywalas, dandiwalas, loadbearers and taxi drivers, have little bargaining power to negotiate fair wages and rates. The report contests claims of socio-religious organisations that people of Kashmir gain the most from the Yatra because of economic benefits.
- Since the 1980s, there has been an increasing trend of State encouragement and facilitation of newer Yatra pilgrimages in the region. Some of these, like the Amarnath Yatra, are coloured with religious-nationalist hues like the Buddha Amarnath, Kauser Nag and Sindhu Darshan Yatras. While some others like the Machail Yatra and Kailash Kund Yatra are the attempt to escalate a localised Yatra into a pan-Jammu/pan-India Yatra with economic motivations at their helm and often patronised by the tourism industry. The history of the Yatra is ridden with conflicts over resource allocation and land use, which are likely to be further exacerbated by this communalised State policy.
- In its dealing in relation to the Yatra, the Indian State comes through clearly as a Hindu state, privileging the rights of Hindu pilgrims over pressing local environmental and human rights concerns. In Kashmir this divisive communalisation has further significance given that it is a disputed territory, and a Muslim majority region.
- Following are the key demands emerging from the observations and analysis of data:
- Restrict the Yatra to its traditional period of 15 days. Very importantly, the faith of the yatris cannot be instrumentalised to further India’s political interests. We also call upon devotee groups to resist this use of their faith.
- De-militarize the Amarnath Yatra. The military has no place in a space of divinity. If the terrain renders the Yatra dangerous then disaster management institutions need to be involved and not the armed forces
- Conduct an Environment Impact Assessment of the pilgrimage and make necessary changes to the numbers allowed, and to its conduct. Carrying capacity should be scientifically established and regulatory mechanisms should accordingly be put in place.
- The number of langars should be rationalised, so should the menu. Discriminatory practices like disallowing entry of Kashmiris in the langars should be actively discouraged by the State.
- The Kashmiri service providers who primarily service the unorganised aspects of the Yatra, namely, tent owners, people who carry Yatris on dandis, porters and horse owners have to be recognised as equal participants of the Yatra as those of the organised sector.
- The extra constitutional role played by socio-religious organistions in the SASB,and the impunity they enjoy in their functioning, must be curtailed, in keeping with principles of secularism, enshrined in the Indian laws and the constitution
- The SASB Act needs to be repealed, or amended bearing in mind secular, constitutional tenets. The SASB which functions like a state within the state needs to be reformed such that it plays only an implementing role with final decision making reposed with the JK government.
- Attempts to create more Amarnaths like Buddha Amarnath and Kauser Nag need to nipped at the bud before they become another site of active conflict