Baltal land controversy
by S K Sinha on 19 Sep 2008 0 Comment

The unfortunate controversy over the 100 acre plot of waste forest land at Baltal, which does not have a single tree and is unapproachable and uninhabitable for seven months a year on account of heavy snow, caused the fall of the State Government and posed a threat to national integrity.  It polarized the population of the two regions of the State, caused dozens of deaths, and the loss of thousands of crores of business and property in both regions. 


The facts connected with this controversy need to be recorded objectively, shorn of misinformation and bias. Traditionally, this plot of land was being used as a camping site for pilgrims going to the Holy Cave, along the northern route, for many years before the Amarnath Shrine Board came into existence in 2002. The 12-km difficult mountain track to the 13,500 feet high Holy Cave, halfway to Mount Everest, starts from Baltal. This route is much shorter than the previous south route from Pahalgam. The camping site at Baltal is not used for any purpose other than temporary camps for Amarnath pilgrims.


The transfer or diversion of forest land to different Government and even private agencies has been a routine affair in Jammu & Kashmir. Thousands of acres have been transferred or diverted to the PWD or BRO for construction of roads, to NHPC or State Power Corporation for hydel projects, to Reliance and Airtel for constructing communication towers, to the Education Department for educational institutions and so on. 


On 20 May 2008 six land transfers were approved by the State Cabinet; one was the diversion of the 100 acre plot at Baltal to Sri Amarnath Shrine Board. The Government Order specifically stated that ownership of the land remained with the Government. The Shrine Board could use this land only for putting up temporary prefabricated accommodation for pilgrims, and for this facility SASB was to make a one-time payment of Rs. 2.5 crores. 


Communal elements which had wrought the ethnic cleansing of over three lakh Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley had a pathological aversion to a Hindu pilgrimage in the Valley.  Whereas no objection had been raised to the transfer of some forest land to Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board in Jammu region some years previously, all hell broke out when the Baltal land was diverted to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board; Article 370 and other provisions of law apply equally to Jammu region and to the Valley.


Total falsehoods were propagated to mislead the people and arouse communal passions. A canard was spread that the Shrine Board was bringing Hindus to establish a Hindu township at Baltal, with a view to changing demography of the Valley, like Israel had done in Palestine. Baltal is unapproachable and uninhabitable for over seven months a year! 


When over three lakh Kashmiri Pandits forced out of the Valley have not been able to return, how can anyone imagine that people will come to settle at Baltal? Would any State Government allow them to settle in Kashmir, when for the last 60 years 30,000 West Pakistan non-Muslim refugees who came to Jammu and whose number has now swollen to more than 1 lakh, have so far been denied elementary democratic rights? They cannot vote in State elections, cannot acquire land or immovable property, and are not eligible for any State Government service. Their children are denied admission to technical educational institutions like Medical or Engineering Colleges. Their counterparts who settled elsewhere in India were given full citizenship rights, with two of them becoming Prime Minister and one Deputy Prime Minister.


A complete silence had always been maintained by communalists over blatant demographic aggression in another part of the State. Pakistan had been settling Pathans and Punjabis in Gilgit and Baltistan regions under its occupation. The local people have been agitating against this for some time. The communal and anti-national elements maintained thundering silence when Pakistan ceded 5000 square of Kashmir territory to China.


The Valley press and some senior journalists in the national media falsely propagated that as Governor, I, in the last week of my tenure issued the order transferring land. The diversion on recommendation of two PDP Ministers was unanimously approved by the State Cabinet. There are several other falsehoods and half-truths being propagated against the Shrine Board and yatra to arouse communal feelings.


The PDP joined the bandwagon to draw political mileage, in view of the coming elections. But they did not want to withdraw support and make the Government fall till they had a Governor of their choice at the helm, during the inevitable Governor’s rule that would follow.


The communal and anti-national forces realized that issuing of Fatwas may not yield much, so they chose a virtual non-issue of land diversion at Baltal to launch their vicious propaganda. The Valley press was totally behind the separatists. By the third week of June, people began to take to the streets to protest. On 24 June, Police had to open fire against a violent mob, resulting in one death. I left Srinagar on the morning of 25 June. Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad assured me at the airport that he would hold a press conference that afternoon to clarify matters. He did; but the agitation continued to snowball and became more violent.


The controversy was handled in a ham-handed manner. Instead of the Shrine Board writing that it no longer needed the Baltal land and the Government revoking the order, the Shrine Board could have expressed inability to pay Rs. 2.5 crores for the land or protested at needless restrictions in the order that prohibited even constructing bundhs to save prefabricated shelters and stores from avalanches; the Government could then have revoked the land diversion order while simultaneously allowing the Shrine Board use of the land as before. That would have taken the wind out of the sails of the agitation without arousing strong feelings in Jammu.


Why did the Shrine Board ask for the Baltal land in 2005, when it had the use of the land as per the verdict of the High Court? There were three reasons. First, in 2005 soon after the Yatra, the Shrine Board had dismantled the prefabricated shelters and made them available for earthquake victims at Uri and Tangdhar. Dismantling and re-erecting shelters caused damage and avoidable loss. If the land was made available to the Board this could be avoided and the temporary structures left standing. We suggested that during the non-Yatra period, the Tourist Department could use that accommodation for normal tourists and for organising winter sports. 


Second, Baltal is prone to avalanches in winter. If the land was available to us, small three to four feet high guide bundhs could be constructed to deflect the snow and protect the prefabricated shelters and stores.  Third, as part of the plan for black topping rural roads, the State Government had included the 15-km dirt track from the National Highway to the Baltal camp in this scheme. PWD Minister (Congress) Gulchain Singh Charak got work started; a few days later, then Forest Minister Tariq Hameed Qarra had the work stopped saying his approval had not been obtained. He even had the equipment impounded. Three years have elapsed and this deadlock has not been resolved, a sad commentary on the functioning of the then coalition government. Of course, Qarra could get away with a lot of things, such as his absurd proposal to introduce Pakistan currency in Kashmir.


The manner in which the problem was handled after 25 June compounded matters. The illegal revoking of land diversion, contrary to a judicial verdict was bad enough; the State Government went on an overdrive in its policy of appeasement, agreeing to much more than even the demands of the agitators. The Sri Amarnath Shrine Board was virtually dismantled and its functions proposed to be taken over by the State Government, with the Board’s role confined to religious rituals at the Holy Cave. The Board members were made to resign and the Chief Executive Officer removed, charge-sheeted and kept without posting. A senior IAS officer, he had been doing sterling work in managing the Yatra.


There was much jubilation in the Valley over this great victory, and it was proposed that the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board should also be reorganized. It had on its own put up a modern Rs. 200-crore technical University at Katra without any government assistance and was similarly completing a Rs. 100-crore state-of-the-art 250-bed Cancer hospital. Some people were not too happy with these achievements.


No one anticipated the storm that broke out in Jammu against the Government’s blatant appeasement policy over the Amarnath controversy. Pent up feelings found spontaneous expression in an unprecedented people’s movement, which was sustained at a very high pitch for over two months. Despite my long association with the State, I could never imagine there would be such a strong public outburst in Jammu. The people found it difficult to accept that when hundreds of crores were being spent on Haj subsidy and infrastructure for Haj pilgrims, the use of a mere 100 acres of wasteland was being denied for temporary accommodation of Amarnath pilgrims. The Delhi Government has only recently announced the construction of a Rs. 22-crore infrastructure for Haj pilgrims.


For long, the people of Jammu had been nursing many grievances, against the several discriminations meted out to them. It was not only issues like delimitation, reorganization of districts, employment opportunities or allocation of development funds, but also the many double standards adopted by the Government. The Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board bought land at Katra for Rs. 13-crores for Mata Vaishno Devi University, but the Baba Ghulam Shah University was given land free at Rajauri. 


Much hue and cry was raised regarding damage to ecology due to Amarnath Yatra, where not a single tree was cut, no wildlife disturbed, no permanent accommodation put up and due precautions taken to prevent pollution. The Mughal Road under construction led to cutting over 10,000 trees, shifting a 25 km long wildlife sanctuary, construction of permanent accommodation and building of a highway over which thousands of vehicles would ply every year, polluting the atmosphere with carbon emissions. Yet only the Yatra was targetted for ecological reasons.


An Islamic University was put up at Awantipura for which Government gave land free and helped with infrastructure. I got the Army as part of Sadbhavna to level the ground, do landscaping and put up a structure. I visited the University, interacted with the students, and gave a handsome donation from my discretionary grant to the University Library. The Government gave land free to the Trans-World Islamic University at Badgam. Secretary General of Al Hadees, Shri Abdur Rahman, who runs nearly 500 madarsas in the State, contacted me for help in putting up the Trans-World Islamic University; I readily agreed.


But my proposal to put up Shardapeeth University was stoutly opposed and ultimately scuttled, despite the Chief Minister being fully supportive. Shardapeeth was an ancient seat of learning whose extensive remains are near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.  Like the ancient Nalanda University being revived in Bihar, I had proposed we could establish a Shardapeeth technical university in Srinagar on the lines of Mata Vaisno Devi University at Katra in Jammu region. We had identified temple land which the Amarnath Shrine Board would purchase, although Dr. Farooq Abdullah, who liked the idea, promised to help us get land for the proposed University. 


Amarnath Shrine Board had arranged for funds for Shardapeeth University and had not sought any financial assistance from the Government.  I had proposed that it being a minority institution, we could reserve fifty percent seats in this University. Forty percent seats were to be reserved for Kashmiri Pandits, as a first step towards their return to the Valley and rehabilitation. Ten percent were to be reserved for Kashmiri Muslims to preserve the Yatra’s secular ethos and the remaining fifty percent for others on the basis of merit. Communalists viewed the setting up of this University as a Hindu cultural invasion; due to their opposition and agitation over the Baltal land, this project had to be given up.


Apart from being a sustained and prolonged mass movement, the Jammu agitation had certain unique features. The movement was spontaneous and was led by leaders unknown earlier, and not organised by any political party. Although the Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti had taken up a basically religious issue, the movement was not communal like the agitation in the Valley. Several Muslim leaders and organizations supported it. Communal violence erupted in Poonch and Kishtwar, but elsewhere in Jammu region communal amity prevailed, barring a few stray incidents.


Some Muslim organisations from outside J & K also expressed support for the movement, in sharp contrast to the prevailing mood in the Valley. Omar Abdullah’s speech in the Lok Sabha during the nuclear debate unfortunately included an unnecessarily belligerent remark about the Baltal land. This greatly fueled the agitation in Jammu. The manner in which the police tried to dispose off the body of Kuldeep Dogra further complicated matters.


There was a very adverse effect of the Jammu movement in Kashmir. During such agitations, the movement of vehicles on the highways gets disrupted; hence the resultant interruption of supplies to the Valley caused hardship to people there. However, it was not a deliberate economic blockade as such, though the separatists quickly dubbed it as such and tried to exploit the situation by demanding opening of the road to Muzaffarabad. Here again, the government failed to take timely action and allowed the situation to worsen.


Even when the Army cleared the national highway and normal traffic to the Valley resumed by 4 August, not enough publicity was given to this. The PDP tried to exploit the situation with Mehbooba Mufti trying to be in the vanguard of Muzaffarabad Chalo march on 7 August. Curfew was not imposed to prevent the march and the situation was mishandled; this further inflamed anti-India feelings in the Valley. Pakistan’s aim of grabbing Kashmir has remained constant but the manner of doing so has been changing from military (war) to militancy (terrorism) and now it appears to be a mass movement. 


Separatists in Kashmir have been trying all possible means to break Kashmir’s connection with India. Whatever the cost, India cannot allow the boundaries to be changed in Kashmir.  Abraham Lincoln did not allow this to happen in the USA in the 19th century nor has Putin allowed this to happen in Russia, despite the Chechnya militancy.


During the recent disturbances, the Army performed a very difficult task. It faced mobs holding the national tricolour shouting slogans praising the Army, while in Kashmir mobs were holding the Pakistan flag and denouncing the Army. In a remarkable display of impartiality, the Army carried out its duties commendably. The conflict in the State was not between Hindus and Muslims but between national and anti-national forces.


At long last, an agreement has been reached between the Government and the Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti. The agitation has been suspended in Jammu; a welcome development. So far as Baltal land is concerned, it is virtually a reversion to status quo ante, before the Government chose to revoke the land allotment order. The land is to be made available to the Shrine Board for three months every year as against in practical terms four months, due to weather conditions. The Shrine Board has been relieved of the liability to pay Rs. 2.5 crores for the use of the land, but the stipulation for dismantling and re-erecting fabricated structures every year will cause unnecessary and avoidable financial loss.


The chain of events in the wake of the unnecessary Baltal land controversy has caused much harm and loss. Hopefully, the settlement reached at Jammu may prove to be a stepping stone for winning the war for Kashmiriyat. The struggle between moderate and tolerant Islam and radical and intolerant Islam was hijacked by the separatists. Fortunately, the Jammu movement eschewed the communal line. During the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits, the attacks on the Raghunath Temple and Vaishno Devi pilgrims, and also during the recent agitation, Jammu has shown a pluralistic ethos.


Lt Gen (retd) S K Sinha is former Governor, Jammu & Kashmir

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