Two Briefs from Amarnath

“How Can We Give It Away?” The Amarnath Land Dispute and the Environment

One hundred acres – less than half a kilometre squared – is not a lot of land by any standards. Yet in the troubled valley of Kashmir, it’s enough to spark off furious protests in which dozens have been killed, unravelling a decade of relative stability in only a few weeks.

Initially the problem was described as an environmental dispute. A diminutive patch of forest land was granted by the local government to the Sri Amarnathji Shrine Board, for the purpose of erecting temporary facilities for the Hindu pilgrims who flock every year to an important shrine in the holy Amarnath cave. In recent years the number of pilgrims has swelled to nearly 500,000, posing an increasing threat to the ecology of the mountains. The problem made international news a couple of years ago, when the sheer body-heat of pilgrims caused Amarnath’s sacred Shiva-lingam – the natural stalagmite of ice which is worshipped as a manifestation of Shiva – to completely melt away.

The proposed land grant, however, sparked furious protests from Kashmir’s Muslims, who saw it as an attempt to establish a permanent Hindu presence in the region. In response to waves of opposition, the government revoked the deal; only prompting the state’s Hindus to take to the streets themselves in protest at the government’s backing down.

The situation is now deadlocked, and has been used by extremists of both sides for their own ideological agendas. What started as an environmental dispute has rapidly escalated into full-blown religious and communal conflict. It’s a reminder of the extent to which religion is politicised here; and of the Kashmiri population’s deep suspicion of Indian designs upon its land.

But following the pilgrims to Amarnath, it’s clear there is a problem. The route is littered with mounds of plastic waste, and the rivers are banked with human excrement. Portaloos are provided at the campsites, but when they fill up they’re simply emptied down the hillside. At first it seems unbelievable that pilgrims could so wantonly pollute a place they regard as sacred. But, as one local man points out: “They don’t regard all Kashmir as sacred. Only the holy cave.”

“It’s a fact that recently the number of pilgrims has increased,” explains Professor Syed Iqbal Husnain, Chairman of the Government of Sikkim’s Glacier and Climate Commission, who is in the area studying melting glaciers. “There is the heat generated by bodies. There are diesel generators, and even helicopter rides to the cave now – that heats the atmosphere more. It is not only a problem for the Shiva-lingam, but glaciers in the valley will be adversely affected. That is the main water resource for the region. The livelihood of the people is connected to that water.”

While the local Muslim population has traditionally benefited from the influx of pilgrims, providing food, accommodation and ponies, it’s clear that many increasingly resent this lack of concern for nature. Immediately underneath the holy cave I speak to Malik Bashir, a local man making a living selling prasad – religious offerings – to the pilgrims who pass his stall. “The pilgrimage is a good thing for us, it means a lot of money. But they throw rubbish, they shit in the water. The plastic is not cleared away, but left to be frozen in the ice. And the dirty water that is going down, we are drinking that. Every year, it causes illness in the villages.”

“They destroy the nature, coming here,” confirms a neighbouring stall-owner. “The problem is a lack of education. The people are environmentally illiterate, and the government does nothing.”

But the land grant was – officially – an attempt by Jammu & Kashmir’s government to improve this very situation. The area was earmarked for the construction of temporary toilets and improved sanitation to stop the flow of effluence into the rivers. The irony is that the same Kashmiris who complain of the threat to the environment passionately oppose the construction of facilities that might help to actually reduce it.

What of the need to improve sanitation?, I ask Malik. Wouldn’t granting this small amount of land ease the strain on the environment?

“The Indians want to take over our land,” he replies, shaking his head. “This land is part of our Kashmir. How can we give it away?”

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“We Carry Them On Our Shoulders” The Amarnath Land Dispute and the Army

14,000 feet up in the Himalayas of Kashmir, watching lines of saffron-clad pilgrims wind their way along a mountain track against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks, the violence elsewhere in the state seems a world away. Prodigiously bearded holy men, old women in sandals or bare feet, even a one-legged man making determined progress on crutches; this arduous three-day mountain trek could belong to another age. But looking more closely at the scene, I see sandbagged machinegun posts covering the slopes, and the camouflage fatigues of soldiers stationed at regular intervals along the path.

Two months ago, Kashmir exploded. After a decade of relative peace and stability, widespread religious and communal conflict has once again erupted throughout the state. A curfew is in place in the valley – the first state-wide restriction to be imposed in years – and tens of thousands of extra troops have been deployed in what is already one of the most heavily militarised regions in the world. The pilgrimage has been targeted by militants before – thirty-two sadhus, or holy men, were murdered in 2000 at the base camp of Pahalgam – and with tensions running high this year, the army is taking no chances. At times it seems as if the soldiers are as much a feature of the pilgrimage as the pilgrims themselves.

Every year between June and August up to 500,000 Hindus visit this predominantly Muslim region to worship the sacred Shiva-lingam, a naturally-formed stalagmite of ice that appears in the holy Amarnath cave. But the pilgrimage is not, in itself, the cause of the uproar in the valley. The furore is over a patch of land measuring just one hundred acres.

On May 26th the local government granted this land to the Sri Amarnathji Shrine Board, the Hindu group that maintains the holy shrine. With the ever-increasing number of pilgrims, this area was to be set aside for temporary toilets and facilities to reduce the pollution that inevitably results from such a huge influx of people. In the eyes of Kashmir’s Muslims, however, the deal was nothing but a Hindu land grab, and thousands took to the streets in angry protest. Taken aback by the scale of opposition, the government revoked the deal; only prompting furious counter-protests from the state’s Hindu population.

From here, things only got worse. Dozens died when the police opened fire on protestors in Srinagar – the state’s summer capital – and meanwhile Hindus in Jammu – the state’s winter capital – blocked the only road between the cities, sparking fears of an “economic blockade” aimed at starving the Muslims into submission.

The troops deployed on the route to Amarnath have a markedly different attitude to the troops I’ve encountered elsewhere in Kashmir. In stark contrast to the soldiers in the valley – where they are seen as an occupying army rather than protectors of a holy shrine – they are friendly and courteous, sharing the pilgrims’ food and drink and enthusiastically joining in the cries of “jai Shiva shankar!” and “bom bom bhole!” that echo up and down the barren slopes. Like the pilgrims themselves, they come from every corner of India – Orissa, Bihar, Rajastan, even Kerala and Tamil Nadu – and, like the pilgrims, most are Hindu.

A gentle old sadhu named Bir Singh Chowdri explains, in halting English, how grateful he is for the army’s presence: “With army here, Hindus feel safe. The soldiers are God,” he says.

Mr. Chowdri’s opinion couldn’t be further from the views of most Kashmiri Muslims, who live their lives year round in the shadow of the gun. An estimated half a million troops are deployed, and since the separatist insurgency erupted in 1989 the army has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians, plus hundreds of cases of rape and countless ‘disappearances.’

This militarisation of a population has meant entire an entire generation growing up under military occupation, daily putting up with curfews, checkpoints and the constant threat of arrest. On the road from Jammu to Srinagar, on the first leg of our trip to Amarnath, we glimpse some of these everyday frustrations when the local bus we’re travelling on is pulled over no fewer than six times. Each time the soldiers make us wait for up to forty-five minutes before allowing us to proceed. Once we are told the road ahead is blocked by an angry mob. Then we are told there has been a landslide; another time, a suicide protest. The journey, incidentally, reveals evidence of none of these things; our fellow passengers say it’s more likely the road was cleared to make way for a troop convoy.

As well as these problems on the road, we witness some of the frequent strikes that shut down commercial life in the valley, halting taxi and bus services and choking basic food supplies. The Muslim strikes in Srinagar and around are a response to the Hindu strikes in Jammu, the state’s twin capitals currently locked in a bizarre tit-for-tat struggle. The land dispute – like many disputes here – has opened up much deeper grievances, and the “economic blockade” of the road has only added to Kashmir’s profound feeling of isolation; the belief that Indian people are against them.

But despite this politically-charged religious conflict, what we discover on the Amarnath pilgrimage is also a rare example of tolerance. This is something media coverage has tended to overlook. According to tradition, after all, it was a Muslim shepherd who discovered the holy cave in the first place, and for centuries local Muslims have provided food, accommodation and ponies for visiting Hindus from every part of the subcontinent. Amarnath also links them in other, often surprising, ways. While Hindus enthusiastically point out the shapes of the natural rock formations around the holy cave – the elephant-headed shape of Ganesha, the rock that resembles Shiva’s sacred bull, and the form of the great serpent Sheshnag winding up the opposite cliff-face – at least one Muslim explains to me that, if I look at the rock very carefully, it’s also possible to make out the Arabic word for ‘Allah.’

I talk to Reyaz Ahmed, a local Kashmiri who runs a stall selling prasad– religious offerings – for pilgrims to take to the shrine. He looks as if he’s in his early twenties, which would make him part of the generation that has known military occupation for their entire lives. “We have nothing against the Hindus coming here, we provide them every assistance. Here you see Hindus and Muslims working together, as brothers.”

He points to a group of dandy-wallahs – the men hired to carry particularly old or infirm pilgrims to the cave on an improvised dandy, or sedan chair – and adds, with only a hint of tongue-in-cheek: “You see, we even carry them on our shoulders.”