A painful pilgrimage

Print edition : August 03, 2002

TERRORISTS were expected to pose the big threat to the Amarnath Yatra this summer. So far, greed, corruption and communalism have worked to undo what was hoped would be the best-organised pilgrimage yet.

P.K. Babria was among 47 pilgrims who arrived from Gujarat, carrying with them the mandatory cards issued to all those who wish to make their way to the Amarnath cave-shrine. What they did not know was that the cards their travel agent had issued were fake. This year, in order to prevent precisely this kind of fraud, cards were issued through branches of the Jammu & Kashmir Bank. The decision, however, received little publicity outside the State, and most people just did not know about the new system. Hundreds of them, like Babria, had to return home, their money and time wasted.

Travel agents and pilgrims attempting to buck the system accounted for a good deal of the chaos. By June 19, the ice Shivling, for which the shrine is famous, was just three feet high. Pilgrims who had received cards for later dates, knowing that the icon would soon have melted away by then, piled into Jammu demanding quick passage. Several visitors complained bank officials had connived with travel agents to corner the best dates for affluent clients. A brisk business in evading police check-points outside Jammu, predictably enough, soon evolved. As a direct result, more pilgrims than they could house piled into the under-equipped and already crammed facilities at Pahalgam.

Where an average of 3,500 pilgrims were scheduled to leave Jammu each day, the number often rose above 6,000.

The authorities, caught off guard, used rain at Pahalgam as an excuse to block the pilgrimage for two days. The rain, sources say, was not in fact that heavy to block passage altogether, but provided a pretext to clear the overflow at the base of the pilgrimage route. But this in turn led to a huge logjam in Jammu, from where buses leave for Pahalgam in convoy. The frustrated and angry pilgrims were egged on by some politicians into a confrontation with the authorities. Vishwa Hindu Parishad State president Rama Kant Dubey, for one, was saying that "all Hindus living in this country have the right to visit any shrine. It is for the government to make arrangements".

Few pilgrims could have missed just how much the government had done, mismanagement aside. Police and paramilitary personnel lined the route from Jammu, while troops from the Army patrolled the heights above Pahalgam to prevent any terrorist attack. Sadly, this too became an occasion to spread communal venom. Since many of the police personnel charged with checking the cards were Muslims, Hindu chauvinist leaders alleged that there was a State government-led enterprise to harass pilgrims. The card system was introduced in order to prevent terrorism or climate-related tragedies of the kind that have taken place in the past.

Sadly, at least some of the pain seemed to have been inflicted by the security force personnel themselves. On July 23, for example, two police constables were beaten by plainclothes military intelligence personnel. Their crime: refusing access to the area to the armed soldiers, who in any case had no business to be operating on the main yatra route. Sources told Frontline that some pilgrim leaders had been egging on Hindu soldiers and paramilitary personnel to avenge their supposed humiliation at the hands of the police.

It is also true, however, that the State administration failed miserably to put necessary infrastructure in place to cope with the rush. "The fact is," admits a senior government official, "that we had expected there would be few pilgrims this year, because of the terrorist threat. In the event, the numbers were lower than in past years, but not considerably lower." Additional accommodation facilities in Pahalgam were put in place only after the rush forced a delay in the yatra. As in past years, the absence of proper sanitation and waste-disposal facilities ensured that the ecologically fragile Lidder Valley suffered enormous damage.

The administrative problems apart, the Amarnath Yatra seems set to become the site of more ugly confrontations unless a serious effort is made to de-politicise the event. Sadly, the pilgrimage is attracting growing numbers of right-wing Hindu activists, for whom the event represents something of a conquest of Kashmir. Altercations with local people, abusive behaviour, and outright hooliganism have, as a result, become increasingly common. While the overwhelming majority of pilgrims are still ordinary believers, who wish for nothing more than a quiet and successful visit to the shrine they revere, the minority has succeeded in souring relations with the local community.

Clearly, the Amarnath Shrine Board needs to make a serious effort to deal with the huge numbers of pilgrims who will come to the shrine each year, terrorism or no terrorism. It has a model in the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, which over the years has succeeded in making a disorganised and chaotic pilgrimage route one of the best-managed in India. If Amarnath does not go the same way, the consequences will be worse than a spoiled pilgrimage, or the odd altercation.

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