Kashmir Scan, August 2014
Why Kausar Nag scared the people in Valley and its prevention made Kashmiri Pandits furious
By AHMAD RIYAZ
The decision by a Kashmiri Pandit group, All Parties Migrants Coordination Committee, to start a yatra to Kausar Nag brought J&K to the brink of a fresh unrest. Even though the yatra to the high altitude fresh water lake has been going on for the past five years through Reasi in Jammu province, the Pandits wanted to mount it from Valley, with Kulgam town as its base camp.
This raised the hackles in Kashmir Valley, already edgy about the growing scale of Amarnath yatra, visited every year by half-a-million devotees through July and August. Civil society and the Hurriyat groups were the first to react, with Hurriyat (G) chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani terming the yatra as India’s dubious plan to strengthen the occupation of its land with a religious excuse. He also called for hartal in protest against the pilgrimage.
This set up the stage for a fresh confrontation along regional and communal lines in a state already sitting on several social and political faultlines. Sensing this danger, Government was the first to backtrack. On July 31, when a group of around 40 Pandits led by APMCC chief Vinod Pandit reached Kulgam to begin the pilgrimage, they met a protest by the local population. Members of a hastily forged NGO Kausar Nag Bachao protested in the town, arguing that the pilgrimage to Kausar Nag would pollute the lake, the source of their streams.
The state government turned back the pilgrims, withdrew its permission, a decision which left Kashmiri Pandits angry.
Vinod Pandit alleged that the state government had succumbed to the pressure from the separatists. “How can government not allow us to perform our religious duty. This is shameful,” he said.
This generated some anger at the national level too with senior BJP leaders demanding that the state government allow the pilgrimage to go ahead. The MoS Personnel in Modi Government Dr Jitendra Singh met home minister Rajnath Singh to demand action against the “unilateral decision” by the state government. And the US-based Kashmiri Pandits Kashmir Overseas Association wrote to Prime Minister Modi seeking his intervention in the matter.
But groups in Kashmir had the reasons to stand their ground. The Pandits insistence on the pilgrimage played into the existing deep existential fears. For a majority of people in the Valley the attempt to start fresh yatras is seen as a part of the larger plan to dilute the Muslim character of the Valley and a calibrated effort to change the demography of the state.
What alarms people more are that some of these pilgrimages do not seem to have evolved naturally out of a sense of religious obligation. Their sudden and coordinated emergence also scared them.
The issue in Kashmir was not communal but existential. Bred in the conflict people imagine their identity and demography is under some kind of a threat.
People have become more conscious after 2008 transfer of 40 hectares of forest land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. There was an immediate backlash in Kashmir which soon blew up into a violent regional face-off between Kashmir and Jammu, leading to death of around 60 Kashmiri youth.
But if anything the shrill chorus of the politics over the yatras in J&K has helped obscure from the public eye, it is the environmental impact of the massive human interference in the high-altitude ecologically fragile areas.
Same is the case with Kausar Nag yatra. The heated political tug of war over the pilgrimage has prevented a clear-eyed understanding of the environmental toll that the pilgrimage would take on the pristine lake, which is a source of water for a large swathe of South Kashmir.
But sadly, such concerns though expressed by all the stake-holders do not get the required traction when it comes to defending or opposing the yatras. The debate follows a, by now, familiar course. It starts with an assertion of the right to perform a religious duty and soon degenerates into politics. It becomes a game of one-upmanship and a display of power between the ideologically opposed political actors.
Any voice in Valley against the alleged game-plan through yatras to change the Valley’s demography is resisted by the Hindu rightwing parties which quickly takes the issue to the mainland India creating possibility of a bigger communal discord.
And lost between them are the genuine concerns of the environmentalists about the ecology. And lost is also the space for an honest and objective discussion about the wisdom of creating a network of yatras to inaccessible and unspoilt high-altitude destinations.
And in its absence it is but natural that the doubts grow on both sides of the divide as to the intentions of the other. In Kashmir the new yatras forged in a suspiciously coordinated manner are generally perceived to be a part of the long term design to change Kashmir’s demography.
On the contrary, the Hindu community interprets these fears as a disguised denial of their right to religious duty. This has threatened to create a fresh faultline in the state which can any time blow into a violent communal divide. One hopes that this time both the communities see through it and not allow this to succeed.