BOOK EXCERPT: Baltal controversy - 1
by Hari Om on 04 Jun 2010 3 Comments

Up to 1990, the number of pilgrims, who used to visit the holy shrine, ranged between 10,000 and 15,000 annually. The nineties was the period when the Indian economy grew substantially. This gave a boost to domestic tourism, particularly the pilgrimage tourism. The phenomenal rise of pilgrims to the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine also took place around this period, as also to the Shri Amarnath Shrine. The pilgrimage to the Shrine was certainly a challenge to the government because of the rise of secessionist militancy…


Establishment of Shrine Board


… The situation in Kashmir had turned so alarming and frightening in January 1990 that almost all the members of the miniscule minority of Kashmiri Hindus quit their original habitat and migrated to Jammu and other parts of the country to escape their physical liquidation at the hands of the dreaded militants and religious extremists, who were also ably backed by Pakistan and its army and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).


…Things on the law and order front started improving, particularly after 1994. In 1995, some ardent believers in the concept of people’s democracy started a campaign aimed at making the authorities to organize elections in Jammu and Kashmir…


The P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Union Government, which was fully aware of the nature of the secessionist movement in the state as well as its diversity and peculiar demographic landscape, virtually ignored the formulations of the opponents of the idea of election in the state, notwithstanding the fact that the Prime Minister did make a major policy statement in Burkina Faso. He had said “Sky is the limit”. He obviously meant that he was prepared to grant more political autonomy to Kashmir. It is, however, a different matter that he did nothing whatsoever in this direction.


…certain elements wanted the government to hold the Parliamentary and Assembly elections simultaneously in May 1996... The parliamentary elections were held in the stipulated month… While the turnout in Kashmir province was quite low, the people of Jammu and Ladakh took part in the parliamentary elections with great enthusiasm. The Congress and the BJP took part in the electoral exercise. The Congress won all the six seats – two in Jammu, three in Kashmir and one in Ladakh. The Congress maintained lead in more than fifty of the eighty seven Assembly constituencies. The BJP came out of the democratic exercise minus everything. The NC did not participate in the parliamentary elections on the ground that the time was not ripe and that the Union Government had not done anything to fulfill the Burkina Faso commitment.


The elections were held in a peaceful environment. Not a single terrorist-related incident took place anywhere in the state. The peaceful elections emboldened the authorities in the Delhi’s South and North Blocks and the Election Commission of India to hold Assembly elections in the state in September 1996. The NC, which had boycotted the parliamentary elections, took the plunge this time and captured over fifty seats… NC president, Farooq Abdullah, became Chief Minister for the third time.


…1996 was significant in another sense as well. Just before the installation of the popularly-elected government, the state had witnessed a disaster at Amarnath. It was caused by a natural calamity. Several pilgrims lost their lives. The Amarnath disaster attracted the attention of the then Union Home Minister, Inderjit Gupta. He appointed a one-man committee under a former Secretary to the Union Government, Nitish Sengupta, to look into the whole issue and suggest measures aimed at minimizing casualties in case a natural calamity again occurred. He submitted his report on December 2, 1996.


Nitish Sengupta made twenty major recommendations. All these recommendations were accepted by the government. One of the recommendations was the “activisation of the shorter Baltal route to the holy cave in order to ease the hardship of the traditional route via Chandanwari and Sheshnag”. Yet another significant recommendation was to the effect that a “trust board for Amarnath on the lines of the trust for the Vaishno Devi shrine” be set up…


Things changed dramatically on August 1, 2000, when militants attacked the base camp at Pahalgam and shot dead as many as twenty one pilgrims. The terrorist attack also left ten others, including security personnel and local civilians, dead and several others serious wounded. This was the first major terrorist attack on the pilgrims and it was obviously aimed at frightening and discouraging the Amarnath devotees... … the government of Farooq Abdullah enacted in 2000 Jammu and Kashmir Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Act (JKSASA) [Act No. XVII of 2000]


Conflict between Sinha and Mufti


Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took over as Chief Minister on November 2, 2002... He strove to the hilt to hasten peace process between India and Pakistan and repeatedly urged upon the Union Government to resolve the Kashmir problem. His view was that the people had elected the new government only for getting their day-to-day work done and undertaking developmental activities…


[Governor Lt. Gen. S.K.Sinha (Retd)] was of the view that the policies of the Mufti Government had the potential of harming paramount national interests and jeopardizing national security. The Governor had umpteen times publicly disapproved of the Mufti’s “healing touch” policy… family members of a slain terrorist were entitled to get more than two lakh rupees from the government, as also a monthly allowance of Rs 3,000 and bank loan on easy terms.


…The relations between the head of the state and the head of the government, which were already strained, turned extremely bitter in May 2004. The fundamental reason was that the Governor, who was also chairman of the Shrine Board, had announced that the 2004 annual Amarnath pilgrimage would be of two months duration…


In 2004, a rare event took place. That year, in the month of Shravana, three Poornimas were to occur and the first Poornima was on July 2. Several religious organizations and social groups urged the Shrine Board as well as the State Government to extend the period of pilgrimage from July 2 to August 30 (Rakhsa Bandhan Poornima) considering the significance of the event. The Shrine Board… announced that the pilgrimage would commence on July 2. It also announced that while the Baltal route would remain open for pilgrims from July 2 to August 30, the Pahalgam route would be thrown open only from August 1…


The Chief Minister opposed the suggestion... [this] created a sort of furore in Jammu and other parts of the country… The people of Jammu province and several political and Hindu organizations, including the BJP, the VHP, the BD, the SS and the RSS, stood solidly behind the state Governor. They repeatedly accused Mufti Mohammad Sayeed of “outraging the Hindu sentiments” and “vitiating” the Amarnath pilgrimage... Their unstinted support to the Governor and bitter opposition to the Mufti created an awkward position for the Congress, whose core constituency was Jammu. Almost all Jammu-based Congress ministers opposed the Mufti line and openly made common cause with those supporting the Governor’s decision.


… A compromise formula was suggested. According to the formula, the duration of the pilgrimage would be neither two months nor one month but it would be forty five days… the pilgrimage started with great pomp and show on July 15, 2004. Over four lakh devotees visited the Amarnath cave. It created a new record.         


Another controversy


March-April 2005, again witnessed a serious confrontation between the Government of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Governor, Gen. S.K. Sinha. This time the conflict between the two was over a piece of land, which was allotted to the Shrine Board on March 29, 2005... in response to a written proposal from the Principal Secretary to the Governor and the Chief Executive Officer of the Shrine Board, Arun Kumar. His proposal had sought the “transfer of 3642 kanals of land for seven halting places on the Baltal-Amarnathji Shrine and (the) Chandanwari-Amarnathji Shrine routes”. …


… news regarding the transfer of land to the Shrine Board reached Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who took no time in revoking the order. His government not only cancelled the land transfer order… Before the Shrine Board could approach the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and obtain a stay, Ram Pal Bathonia, knocked at the doors of the High Court and pleaded, among other things, for the land restoration. The matter was heard by a single-bench, headed by Justice Permod Kohli. The Shrine Board also became a party. After hearing three sides (counsels for Bathonia, the Shrine Board and the State Government), Justice Kohli directed the State Government to invoke the land transfer order and allow the Shrine Board to use the “forest land for the facilities for the pilgrims” [April 15, 2005 – upheld on appeal by double bench of High Court comprising Justices V.K. Jhanji and Y.P. Nargotra]


Land diversion


On November 2, 2005, Ghulam Nabi Azad became Chief Minister… diffused the tensions between the head of the government and head of the state. Both started working in unison. In the meantime, the Shrine Board once again requested the State Government to divert the Baltal land so that it could undertake developmental activities designed to create additional facilities for the pilgrims. Ultimately, it was on May 20, 2008, that the Cabinet endorsed the Shrine Board’s proposal. The government communicated its decision to the Shrine Board six days later i.e., May 26.


Kashmir up in arms


Between May 20 and May 23, not a single Kashmiri leader raised a hue and cry against the government decision. This was quite significant because on May 19, a day before the approval of the land diversion proposal, Governor S.K. Sinha, along with his team and former Cabinet Minister and NC leader, Mian Altaf, visited Baltal. There he informed the officers and workers of (Kangan area) that the Shrine Board had taken all the precautionary steps to ensure that the “wild life sanctuaries (in the area) are not disturbed and health and hygiene is maintained at all costs”. … He also told them that “Shri Amarnath yatra is a symbol of Kashmir’s pluralistic ethos and its successful accomplishment is impossible without the active support of the majority community” (Muslim). …


Commending the significance of the pilgrimage for “local economy”, Mian Altaf took to task those who had developed the habit of creating controversies on the eve of the pilgrimage every year and asserted that “apart from being a source of earning for hundreds of locals, the people have an emotional attachment with this yatra as they have grown witnessing this annual event for decades”…


Things started taking an ugly turn on May 23, when the spokesman of the PDP, Basharat Bukhari, attacked the Shrine Board and accused it of ignoring the “admonitions of environmentalists and local administration” and constructing structures and three hundred lavatories in Baltal and Pahalgam en-route the Amarnath cave. He charged the Shrine Board with undertaking activities “which would certainly cause environmental degradation and population hazards, thereby endangering the very vitals of the natural resources. Besides opposing the idea of constructing a mechanized road between Baltal and the cave, the spokesman of the PDP asked the Shrine Board “not to function as a parallel government” and warned that his party would “lock horns with all those forces allergic to the preservation and protection of the interests of the people of Kashmir” (Ibid.,  May 25, 2008).


… on June 10 that chairman of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and well-known religious preacher, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, expressed his resentment over the official decision. He said that “attaining of 800 kanals of land by SASB in Sindh Forest Division and the proposed plan of the Board to raise structures on the land is a conspiracy (hatched) to engineer a change in the demography of the Kashmir Valley on the pattern of Israeli policy in Palestine”.


… On June 13, the Mirwaiz addressed the Friday congregation at the Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, his headquarters, and incited the devotees to defeat what he called the “designs of repressive regime” aimed at “depriving the hapless people of Kashmir of a major part of their resources”, degenerating and polluting Kashmir’s environment and changing the Valley’s demographic landscape. He ended his Friday address with the remark that the “people would rise against this colonial mindset by rising above political or other distinctions” and ensure the collapse of the “nefarious designs” of the government” (Ibid., June 14, 2008).     


… Almost all the recognized and prominent separatist leaders, including the former Kashmir High Court Bar Association (KHCBA) president, Mian Abdul Qayoom, joined the crusade against it. On June 12, United Jehad Council (UJC) chairman and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) chief, Syed Salah-u-Din, not just termed the official decision on the land diversion as a “big conspiracy against the people of Kashmir by the coalition government”, but asked the people of Kashmir to start “massive agitation” to defeat the “conspiracy”. He was of the view that the “entire Pahalgam area would be brought under the SASB and the transfer of 800 kanals of land was first step towards it”. He further said that efforts were afoot to “transform this land, forests and tourist resorts…into military colonies”; that “in the name of development of religious places, the government was trying to settle non-state subjects to change the demography of this place and strengthen the illegitimate occupation”; and that the “criminal conspiracy (hatched by) India was a gross violation of international norms and also amounts to deprivation of the basic rights of the people of the disputed territory” (Ibid., June 13, 2008).


The same day, the ardent votary of the Kashmir’s integration with Pakistan and the Hurriyat Conference (Geelani) chairman, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, also took the plunge and addressed a largely-attended press conference in Srinagar. Addressing media persons, he said that “under the garb of ‘yatra operation’, the Government of India, in accordance with a well thought-out and organized conspiracy, is aiming (at) settling non-state subjects in the Valley”. He said that “most of people in the yatra are from BD, RSS and VHP, who had organized anti-Muslim programmes in Gujarat, Mumbai and other parts of India”.


He explained away what he meant by “yatra operation”. He said that the “duration of the pilgrimage, which was one week before the onset of (the) ongoing movement, has been extended up to two months and also the number of devotees, which was around 12,000, has gone up to four lakhs” and that all this had been done as per the strategy evolved and implemented by the Government of India...


Mainstream leaders jumped on to separatists’ bandwagon


Paradoxically, almost all the Kashmir-based mainstream leaders jumped on to the separatists’ bandwagon demanding revocation of the land transfer order. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Muzzaffar Hussain Beig and former minister (PDP); Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah (NC); former minister Ghulam Rasool Kar (Congress); MLA M.Y. Tarigami (CPI-M); former Chief Minister Ghulam Mohammad Shah (Awami National Conference); Hakkim Mohammad Yasin (PDF), to mention only a few, adopted a view which was more or less similar to the one the separatists had adopted. It became extremely difficult to say who was a separatist and who was a mainstream leader. They operated from different platforms but behaved like one people.    


The PDP, which was part of the government and party to the land diversion decision, was the first to side with the separatists and demand revocation of transfer order. It happened on June 16, when Muzzaffar Hussain Beig accused two Jammu-based Congress Ministers, Mangat Ram Sharma (Medical Education Minister) and Gulchain Singh Charak (Education Minister), of “blackmailing” the PDP ministers with a view to making them endorse the land diversion decision. According to a report, Muzzaffar Hussain Beig told a local news agency, KNS, that “100 acres of forest land was transferred to (the) SASB under pressure from the Congress, as two of its Ministers had threatened to stall work on the Mughal road connecting the Kashmir Valley with Muslim areas of Jammu region – Rajouri and Poonch districts”.


Both the Congress Ministers refuted the allegation in no time and dismissed the charge as “baseless and unfortunate”. “Never had any such condition been put up nor was there any discussion on this subject (during the Cabinet meeting) of give and take of land and work on Mughal road”, both of them said. They went to the extent of saying that “it is a figment of imagination… at least such a baseless statement is not expected of a man of his stature” and that “by this statement…Beig…has downsized himself in our eyes” (The Hindustan Times, June 17, 2008). Significantly, Union Minister of Water Resources and president of the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC), Saif-ud-Din Soz, sided with the Congress Ministers and stated that the statement of Muzzaffar Hussain Beig had the potential of “vitiating atmosphere” in the state and bringing bad name to the ruling coalition (The Kashmir Times, June 19, 2008)…

Farooq Abdullah, who had on June 16 and 17 justified the creation of the Shrine Board while talking to media persons in Jammu saying “the land is there, it shall always remain there, the Shrine Board will use it only during the yatra period” (Dainik Jagran, Jammu, June 17, 2008), took a complete U-turn on June 19. Farooq Abdullah, an ardent believer in the concept of limited accession with India, changed his stance when he was in Srinagar… he not only asked the State Government to cancel the land transfer order, but also threatened action against all those involved in the matter. To be more exact, he said “the coalition government has only three months in power. They must revoke the order or quit the government. We are surely going to come to power (after the Assembly elections). The first thing my government will do is to convene a session of the legislature to get the order revoked and bring the SASB and others involved into it to task. We will not hesitate putting the guilty behind the bars. We will ensure that the SASB and Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board are made accountable to the legislature and that they do not run parallel governments” (The Kashmir Times, Greater Kashmir, The Rising Kashmir and The Indian Express, June 20, 2008)…


Violation of JKSASA


In the meantime, Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha relinquished his office on June 25. Former Union Home Secretary and the Union Government’s point-man, N.N. Vohra, replaced him. The appointment of N.N. Vohra changed the situation dramatically. It was under this situation that Deputy Chief Minister Muzzaffar Hussain Beig, along with other party leaders and ministers, met Governor N.N. Vohra…on June 26 and [told him he] he had a solution to the problem. His solution was that the Governor in his capacity as chairman of the Shrine Board should write a letter to the government to the effect that the Shrine Board no more needed the Baltal land and that the yatra should be managed by the government. Muzzaffar Hussain Beig met the Governor in the morning (Rising Kashmir and Amar Ujala, Jammu, June 27, 2008).


The same day, National Conference president, Omar Abdullah, who so far had maintained a low profile, also met the Governor... and suggested an identical solution…


The state unit of the BJP, which had come to believe that the Governor was likely to endorse the suggestion of Muzzaffar Hussain Beig and Omar Abdullah, sought an appointment with N.N. Vohra on June 27 and decided to send a five-member delegation to Srinagar. The Governor asked the party leaders to meet him on June 29 at 5 pm…


…On the same day, a large number of Jammu-based Hindu parties, including the BJP, the VHP, the BD and the SS, organized a massive protest march, which started from Bhagwati Nagar, Jammu, raising slogans “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Vande Mataram”. (Bhagwati Nagar was the base camp for the Amarnath pilgrims.) Later, they staged a sit-in at the busy Jewel Chowk, where they burnt the effigies of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Muzzaffar Hussain Beig. The protestors also seized the Tawi Bridge and disrupted traffic movement for hours together. They, like the BJP, appealed to the Governor not to accept the suggestions of Kashmiri leaders… In Kathua district, the people of Ghatti, Budhi, Mertha and Barnoti (all small villages and towns) blocked the vehicular traffic on the Jammu-Pathankot national highway, the state’s lifeline (The Kashmir Times, June 29, 2008).   


…Governor N.N. Vohra…in the intervening night of June 28-29 wrote a letter to the State Government on the lines suggested by the Kashmiri leaders. The news about this spread like a wildfire on June 29, the day the BJP’s five-member delegation was to leave for Kashmir by air (Jet Airways’ aircraft). The Governor’s action infuriated the BJP leaders ...[they] accused the Governor of “surrendering before communal forces” and demanded his dismissal…


The operative part of the Governor’s letter clearly indicated five things. One was that Governor N.N. Vohra and Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad made up their mind to take back from the Shrine Board the Baltal land and deprive the Shrine Board of its right to make arrangements for the yatra as early as on June 26. The other was the behind-the-scene activities of the Union Government, which resulted in the form of the Governor’s D.O. letter. It is said that National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan, played a significant role. In other words, whatever N.N. Vohra did he did at the behest of the Union Government. The third was that the parties like the NC and the PDP had lobbied in New Delhi, used their connections at right places and persuaded the South and North Blocks to ask N.N. Vohra to hand over the control of the Baltal land to the State Government, coupled with a warning that not to endorse their suggestion would be only to put the Kashmir Valley on fire and create a situation leading to bloodshed. The fourth was that N.N. Vohra had violated the Shrine Board Act by taking a decision unilaterally. The Shrine Board Act had clearly laid down that the chairman of the Shrine Board could not act on his own and that it was the Shrine Board which had the power to take any decision concerning arrangements for the pilgrimage and facilities for the pilgrims. And, the fifth was that Governor N.N. Vohra, who was already too well-known for his soft attitude towards the Kashmir-based protagonists of greater autonomy, self-rule and independence, acted like a faithful representative of New Delhi in Kashmir.


Excerpted from Chapter I of Conflicting Perceptions, by Prof. Hari Om, Yak Publishing Channel, Jammu, 2009 [Pages 417; Price: 975/-]

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