Book Review: The Clash of Faith

The year 2009 will surely be remembered for the spontaneous agitation over the Amarnath land for Hindu pilgrims. A keen witness to the uprising, Prof. Hari Om, Gulab Singh Chair, Jammu University, Jammu, has recorded the circumstances in which the people rose; the actors behind the scenes; and its political fallout. Jammu and Kashmir: Conflicting Perceptions is a welcome insight into one of the most powerful and emotive movements in the contemporary era, a movement which held out despite threats of violence and militancy in the State. An unexpected fallout of the publication is controversy over the Maharaja Gulab Singh Chair itself, as the book shows a constitutional functionary in poor light. During the crisis, Dr Karan Singh, scion of the erstwhile ruling family, sought removal of the said eminence.

The holy cave of Amarnath is one of the most revered abodes of Lord Shiva, and its annual pilgrimage an eagerly awaited national attraction. Beginning on Vyas Purnima, it concludes on Shravan (Rakhi) Purnima; the traditional route of 141 kms. is via Pahalgam, Chandanwari, Pissu Ghati, Sheshnag and Panjtarani. There is another route via Sonamarg; more recently the state government opened a shorter third route.

Hari Om debunks the myth that the pilgrimage originated after the holy cave was “discovered” in 1860 by shepherds Juma Malik, Aadam Malik and Buta Malik of village Batakot in Pahalgam area. A number of ancient texts and historical chronicles attest to the history and origin of Amarnath Yatra, including the Nilmata Purana (6th century); Bhringish Samhita and Amarnatha Mahamatya (pre-6th century); Kalhana’s seminal Rajatarangini (1148-49); Jonaraja’s Zaina Rajatarangini; Suka’s Rajatarangini; Pragyabhatta’s Rajavali Pitaka (these cover the era up to 1596); Abul Fazal’s Ain-i-Akbari (Vol. 3); Francois Bernier’s Travels in Mughal Empire; Charles Ellison Bates’ A Gazetteer of Kashmir; Moorcraft William’s & George Trebeck’s Travels in the Himalayan provinces of Hindustan and the Punjab, in Ladakh and Kashmir, in Peshawar, Kabul, Kunduz and Bokhara; Ved Kumari’s Nilmata Purana, Vol. I; and N.K. Zutshi’s Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin of Kashmir.

In 1996, a terrible natural calamity at Amarnath took many lives. The Nitish Sengupta Committee appointed by then Union Home Minister Inderjit Gupta suggested a host of measures to minimize future casualties, including opening the shorter Baltal route, and setting up a trust board on the lines of the Vaishno Devi shrine trust. In August 2000, militants attacked the base camp at Pahalgam and killed over 31 persons, prompting Farooq Abdullah to enact the Jammu and Kashmir Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Act (JKSASA).

In 2001, Farooq Abdullah announced transfer of 5,000 kanals of government land to the Shrine Board for pilgrim facilities during the pilgrimage and authorized Swami Gian Ji, founder of Shiv Ashram, to “repair and renovate” the two sarais (rest houses) at Baltal. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became chief minister in November 2002; his strained relations with the Governor deteriorated further when in May 2004 Lt Gen SK Sinha accepted the public demand that the annual Amarnath pilgrimage be of two months duration as the month of Shravan witnessed the celestial rarity of three Purnimas (full moons).

In March-April 2005 Mufti cancelled the land allotted to the Shrine Board. Ghulam Nabi Azad became CM in November 2005; he allotted the land to the shrine board in May 2008. PDP raised objections of the pretext of environmental degradation; All-Party Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq joined the fray, raising the bogey of ‘a conspiracy to change the demography of the Kashmir Valley…’ They were joined by the Kashmir High Court Bar Association, United Jehad Council, and mainstream political parties. In June, N.N. Vohra, the Centre’s pointsman on Kashmir, became Governor. He violated the Shrine Board Act by unilaterally asking the State Government to take back the Baltal land and handle the pilgrimage itself.

BJP threatened an economic blockade, demanding Congress break ties with the PDP for vitiating the Amarnath yatra for votebank politics; a complete hartal called in Jammu on June 30, 2008 was a success. This encouraged the RSS to set up a Sangharsh Samiti at a meeting at Ved Mandir, Jammu, under the auspices of prant pracharak Arun Kumar, as a “non-political platform” to ensure continuation of the agitation. Senior RSS functionary Ashok Kaul and BJP leader Chaman Lal Gupta became members of the core group. Leela Karan Sharma, advocate and RSS follower, was made convener of the SAYSS. Says Hari Om, among the real actors who worked behind the scenes where then BJP national general secretaries Arun Jaitley and Ram Lal.

SAYSS managed to attract the support of several Jammu-based social, religious and marginal political groups. Its 72-hour-long Jammu shutdown, a roaring success, made three specific demands – restore Baltal land to the Shrine Board, recall Governor N.N. Vohra, and dismiss the Congress-led government. The movement became strong after July 23, when Kuldip Verma of Bishnah committed suicide at Parade Ground, Jammu, in reaction to Omar Abdullah’s July 22 statement in Parliament that, “we will not give an inch of land to the Shrine Board.”

This prompted the real forces behind the agitation to constitute another 33-member core group comprising all Jammu-based organizations in SAYSS. Its convener was also Leela Karan Sharma. This broad-based core group met at regular intervals to endorse all decisions of the smaller core group; thereafter the SAYSS leadership would go to the general house and obtain its consent. On several occasions, some youth grew impatient with this approach.

SAYSS’ problem was that it was intellectually ill-equipped; Leela Karan Sharma was inarticulate. The single-point agenda of SAYSS was to compel the government to give back the Baltal land, not rake up discrimination against Jammu or make any political statement. But office-bearers often went beyond the mandate, and created confusion.

Hari Om says that despite many contradictions in its stand, the role played by the BJP state unit was very significant as it educated public opinion, established that the struggle in Jammu was ideological, countered arguments advanced by opponents of the Jammu agitation, kept the issue of discrimination against Jammu alive, and took all possible steps to cultivate the Muslims of the region. It also consistently opposed all demands which had the potential to widen the gulf between Kashmir and New Delhi.

The eventual resolution of the Baltal land issue on August 31, 2009, led political parties to rush to woo their respective constituencies. BJP maintained a low profile for inexplicable reasons, perhaps to dispel the notion that it had a major role in the movement and to convey a feeling that it would not take political mileage out of the land issue. Hari Om expresses bafflement why BJP, which had said the Amarnath land issue would be its chief election plank during in the Assembly and 2009 general elections, turned so apologetic. He notes the party had turned apologetic in 1992 as well, when kar sewaks (volunteers) demolished the disputed structure at Ayodhya. The Jammu-based Congress leaders availed of this vacuum to claim credit for the Union Government and party high command! The subsequent election results reflected this confusion!

All in all, an interesting, racy, and readable account by an inside observer of a major chapter in our contemporary history.

The Pioneer, 6 June 2010

Conflicting Perceptions

Hari Om

Yak Publishing Channel

Jammu, 2009

Pages 417

Price: 975/-

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