The Yatra, with all its attendant issues, is upon us once again. The threat looming large over the fragile ecological balance of Pahalgam and the areas in the vicinity of the Amaranth Cave due to burgeoning pilgrim traffic has become increasingly evident in recent years, so much so that now even the Supreme Court has come to recognize it. The growing number of pilgrims visiting the cave has always been projected as a sign of peace and a harbinger of prosperity by authorities who never tire of quoting the statistics as indicative of progress and achievement, especially when they have nothing else to project. An objective view would have been enough to convince anyone that the fragile tract was being badly affected by the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims pushed into it over a period of two months. But an ‘objective’ view is precisely what has always been missing in the Kashmir context because of many confounding factors being combined together to distort something simple and obvious. Consequently, even if a religious figure like the Shankaracharya of Puri voices his displeasure, as he has already done, over the damage wrought by the uncontrolled pilgrim rush, it has every chance of being ignored.
The Amarnath Yatra, which used to be purely a religious journey undertaken by a devout few, has become a highly politicized event. Chauvinistic forces like the VHP, supported covertly as well as overtly by their political allies, have sought to hijack it and change its very character by introducing changes like extending its duration. It was at their behest that the land transfer to the Shrine Board was sanctioned, leading to the turmoil and bloodshed of 2008, and the siege that followed to ‘punish’ the local population. These chauvinistic elements have repeatedly attempted to wrest control from the traditional caretakers of the cave, represented by Mahant Deependra Giri, the custodian of the Holy Mace of Lord Shiva, who has courted controversy on many occasions by strongly resisting their intrusion.
With state authorities as helpless bystanders or active collaborators, these quarters have not only shown total disregard for environmental concerns, but also not hesitated to adapt religion and traditions to fit their own agenda even if that entails violating established guidelines and practices. The Mahant has been stressing throughout that the annual pilgrimage should be held only in the month of Shravan as per tradition, and that extending it beyond that period goes against the dictates of religion. He has also consistently opposed the Baltal route which is said to be a creation of the army. According to him, and he quotes scripture to support his contention, the only sanctioned route is the one via Pahalgam, with the various halts along it, like Chandanwari and Mahagunas, forming an important part of the yatra.
Commercialization, which has spawned the term ‘pilgrim tourism,’ is an additional factor causing the steep rise in pilgrim traffic. In this age of instant gratification and crass commercialism, religion has been reduced to ‘tailor made packages,’ and it is ease and convenience that take precedence over tradition and scriptures.
What is true of Pahalgam and other stops on the way to the Amarnath Cave is equally true of the whole of the Kashmir Valley. The unprecedented flow of tourists, that too in the absence of proper infrastructure, is an invitation to disaster. By promoting this mad rush, and projecting it as the solution for every problem in Kashmir, authorities are making Kashmiris shoot themselves in the foot. It is true that the state attracts a lot of tourists because of its cool climes and the breath-taking natural beauty of the Valley, but projecting it as the only means to achieve progress and prosperity in this region is just a cover up for the authorities’ lack of imagination as well as initiative. Even if it is accepted that tourism in Kashmir is, as authorities always maintain, the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs, the way it is being exploited is akin to killing the goose to extract all its golden eggs at once.
The lack of a clear-cut policy this indicates descends directly from the fact that every government is Kashmir is a ‘care-taker’ government whose existence is dependent on the discretion of the powers-that-be in New Delhi. This makes governments in Kashmir either obsequious collaborators or helpless bystanders, with a role restricted to ‘policing’ the ‘subjects’ and maintaining ‘peace’. That is partly why a religious trek has become a symbolic assertion of control and power over a territory, and by extension, its inhabitants.