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Amarnath fallout may engulf India

By Neerja Chowdhury
August 12, 2008 17:44 IST
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When Omar Abdullah declared in the Lok Sabha that the Amarnath Yatra would continue in Jammu and Kashmir as long as there were Muslims in the Valley, he was applauded by all sections of the House during the trust vote.

The reason why he struck a chord in many was because he was articulating the very basis of India -- and of Kashmir-- as an entity, and indeed of Kashmiriyat. It is these ideas which are at stake in the conflict, which has engulfed Jammu and Kashmir during the last month, and not just the transfer of a piece of land.

The upheaval since May 20, when a decision of the J&K cabinet to transfer 100 acres of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, has brought into focus all the faultlines in the state over 60 years. It was a classic case of how non-issues become issues.

Nobody -- not even the separatists -- are suggesting that the yatra be stopped. There is an all round consensus that the yatris should be facilitated in every way. The contentious issue is one of modalities.

Viewed dispassionately, the transfer of land was not to outsiders, though there was the environmental angle to it. Rationally speaking, the fear of the demographic change was misplaced. It was not as if thousands of Hindus were about to be settled, which as many pointed out, would not even be feasible at an altitude of 10,000 feet in an area which is snowbound for eight months in a year.

The land was transferred to the SASB on a temporary basis. But the government failed to explain this to people before the situation spun out of control. Damage was also done when an aide of then J&K Governor General (retired) S K Sinha explained to journalists that the land transfer, though temporary, was meant for as long as needed, and was therefore "forever".

Politics is about perception and in this case the government should have been mindful of the context in which it was making the decision -- 60 years of distrust of Delhi and the sensitivity of a border state.

The decision to transfer the land to the SASB was needless. The state government had been making the arrangements for the yatris and could have enlarged and improved the facilities, without anyone taking objection.

With elections slated for later this year, then chief minister Ghulam Nabi Aad may have hoped to win brownie points with the people of Jammu by going in for the land transfer. Another reason could be to please his friend, Sinha, who may have wanted to be remembered by posterity for doing for Amarnath yatris what former Governor Jagmohan had done for Vaishno Devi.

But Vaishno Devi is located in Jammu while the Amarnath cave is in the Valley , though paradoxically that is also the beauty of what Amarnath represents -- a place of pilgrimage of the Hindus, discovered and tended by the Muslims, lying in the heart of a Muslim dominated area and the yatra taking place every year despite the conflict of six decades.

Competitive politics has played havoc with issues. The People's Democratic Front leadership seized on the anger in the Valley to delink from the government, even though its ministers were involved in the cabinet decision to transfer land to SASB and the nodal forest ministry was headed by a PDP minister.

In a bid to upstage Azad, who belongs to Jammu and it is here that the Congress got most of its seats last time, the Bharatiya Janata Party got an issue to flog. Its affiliates got into the act the moment the land order was revoked by Azad after mass protests convulsed the Valley.

The Hurriyat leadership saw in the situation an opportunity to bounce back centrestage and they played on the fears of the Valley Muslims -- and their distrust of Delhi -- about a demographic change. The moderates led by Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and hardliner Syed Ali Geelani sunk their differences.

Once, the decision had been made to transfer the land, it was bad politics to revoke it under pressure. If those who are supposed to be in the know are to be believed, Intelligence Bureau reports on day one suggested that the order should be revoked. Had it been rescinded then, the Hindus of Jammu might not have reacted the way they did. When they did, after sitting on it for two weeks, the message went to the country that the government was caving in under pressure because the shrine was a Hindu one. Even the liberal Hindus began to react.

Now the implications of the land transfer are not confined to Jammu alone which continues to burn. Nor are they limited to the Congress, which is expected to lose in both regions of the state. The Hurriyat and the separatists have got a fillip in the Valley and the BJP in Jammu.

Pakistan too is fishing in troubled waters. After its studied silence initially, the Pakistan Senate passed a resolution last week criticising the attacks on Muslims in Jammu, and the economic blockade imposed by the Hindus. As it is Indo-Pak relations had hit a rough patch, after the recent ceasefire violations and bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

The Kashmir events may have serious all-India implications. The BJP has called for a `jail bharo' movement nationally to protest against the Amarnath fiasco, and this will have its own fallout in the days to come

The Kashmir flareup is reminiscent of the politics of flip flop in the eighties -- from the Shah Bano judgement to the opening of the locks of the Ram Mandir, culminating in the demolition of Babri Masjid -- and it changed the politics of north India.

The whole affair has underscored the bankruptcy of leadership at all levels. Azad was clearly out of sync with the mood in the Valley, and with what BJP leader Arun Jaitley later described as the "Jammu psyche".

As for Delhi, it was like Rome burning and Nero sleeping. The Centre was too occupied with the nuke deal politics to pay heed to what was happening in the border state and left it to the Governor to sort things out.

Finally when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the initiative to call an all party meet and it was decided to send an all party group to Srinagar and Jammu to try and defuse the situation, it was like an attempt to shut the gates after the horses had bolted.

This time the divide between the Valley and Jammu is so sharp and along communal lines and it will take a long time for the wounds to heal. It may give an impetus to the moves for trifurcation of the state. There is talk already in Jammu. In the past such efforts did not take off. Today they may find more takers.

The struggle of Kashmiris for autonomy is one thing. The idea of trifurcating the state -- a Muslim Valley, a Hindu Jammu and a Buddhist Ladakh -- will undercut the very idea of India. India said `no' to nationhood on the basis of religion at the time of independence, and this would also apply to statehood. If it accepts this, or is forced to accept it, it could be a downhill journey for a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, and have a bearing on the future of India as an entity.

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Neerja Chowdhury