The battle for Kashmiriyat
by S K Sinha on 20 Sep 2008 1 Comment

The unfortunate controversy over the 100 acre plot of waste forest land at Baltal, which does not have a single tree and which snow makes unapproachable and uninhabitable for seven months a year, led to the fall of a State Government and threatened our national integrity. It polarized the population of two regions of the State, caused many deaths and the loss of thousands of crores of business and property. Yet the plot has long been the camping site for pilgrims to the Holy Cave. 


In October/November 1948, Baltal was the base from which we launched our offensive with tanks across Zoji La, liberating Kargil and linking up with Leh. I had stayed at the site for sometime during that operation. I could not in my wildest dreams visualize that one day this very site would be the subject of a national controversy, and I would be associated with it.      


I took over as Governor of Jammu & Kashmir on 4 June 2003. I felt the root cause of militancy in the State was religious fundamentalism, and that this could best be countered by Kashmiriyat which stood for amity and brotherhood across religious divides. During my five year tenure as Governor, I went all out to promote Kashmiriyat. Fundamentalists criticized me saying they did not have to learn Kashmiriyat from a non-Kashmiri, and were critical of my concept of Kashmiriyat. The more I succeeded in my endeavour, the more critical they were; they called me a Hindu communalist. 


As Governor, I was ex-officio Chairman of both Mata Vaishno Devi and Sri Amarnath Shrine Boards, as per the Act passed by the State Legislature. I did my best to promote pilgrimage to both shrines and improve pilgrim facilities. Vaishno Devi pilgrims rose from 50 lakhs to nearly 80 lakhs a year, and Amarnath pilgrims increased from 1 lakh to 5 lakhs. With improved facilities pilgrims with higher incomes started visiting the shrines and combining the pilgrimage with visits to tourist spots. This helped the cause of tourism, which is the main industry of the Valley. 


Communal forces behind the ethnic cleansing of over three lakh Kashmiri Pandits had a pathological aversion to the Amarnath Yatra. Though they would say they had nothing against the Yatra, they would raise every possible hurdle in its conduct. Not a single tree was cut, nor any permanent structure put up by the Board, and every possible step taken to control pollution. On the other hand, over 10,000 trees were cut and a 25-km-long wildlife sanctuary shifted to construct the Mughal road. Permanent structures were being constructed and carbon emissions from vehicles would cause much environmental degradation. Yet no mention was made of the ecological balance getting disturbed by the Mughal Road, but the Amarnath Yatra was constantly criticized on this account. There were several other spurious and false allegations made against the Shrine Board.


After inaugurating the Amarnath Yatra by offering prayers at the Holy Cave, I would fly to Charar-e-Shareef the same day and place a chadar at the grave of Sheikh Nooruddin, the patron saint of Kashmir, called Nund Rishi by Hindus. I got the Army to build a large shelter with jute carpets for pilgrims at this shrine. The Army renovated numerous Ziarats for a few years at the request of the local people. After the very well executed renovation of the Ziarat at Badgam in 2007, a large public meeting was held and people expressed gratitude to the Army and thanked me. The Chief Cleric issued a Fatwa against the Army for interfering in religious matters!


To mark the inauguration of Amarnath Yatra, we used to organise a three-day Sufi music festival. In 2004, for the first time Sufi musicians from Pakistan participated. In June 2008, Sufi musicians came from Egypt, Syria, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.


I also set up a Centre for Kashmir Studies in Kashmir University. It held a successful seminar on Kashmiriyat which was attended by scholars from Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics. In 2008, we expanded the activities of the Centre (now re-designated as Institute), in co-operation with the South Asian Foundation. The well-attended function of 25 May 2008 was inaugurated by the President of India. Delegates came from all eight South Asian countries, including Chandrika Kumartunga (Sri Lanka), Dr Ghaznafar (senior Cabinet Minister, Afghanistan), Begum Talma Hashmi (daughter of legendary Urdu poet Faiz Mohammad Faiz, Pakistan).


The next day the world famous Junoon Band from Pakistan played Sufi pop music at the Dal Lake. The fundamentalists gave a boycott call, but thousands attended and were enthralled by the music. The leader of the Band said he had come to Srinagar to launch a musical Jehad for peace! Pakistan’s leading English daily extolled the event, saying music knows no barriers. The people of Kashmir thus expressed anger against religious militants and violence.


The fundamentalists were rattled by these successful functions promoting Kashmiriyat in the last week of May 2008. They now took refuge behind a non-issue like the diversion of land at Baltal and whipped up communal passion. A canard was spread that like Israel in Palestine, the Shrine Board was planning to change the demography of Kashmir by setting up a Hindu township at Baltal. Seeing the gathering storm, the PDP shamelessly jumped on to the bandwagon of the agitation. 


As the State Government and political parties fumbled, the thinking of most people in the Valley got Talibanised. Those who had remained silent when Pakistan transferred 5000 square kilometers of Kashmir territory to China, who mutely watched Pakistan's blatant demographic aggression in Gilgit and Baltistan regions of Kashmir, now  beat their chests over the diversion of barren land and mythical fears of demographic change in Kashmir.


I left Kashmir on 25 June and the situation continued to get worse by the day. Suddenly the regime not only revoked the land diversion order, but virtually dismantled Amarnath Shrine Board, which was not even a demand of the agitators! This policy of appeasement sparked off a very sharp reaction in Jammu, leading to a chain of unforeseen events.


The contest between moderate and tolerant Islam and fanatic and intolerant Islam was hijacked and converted to a communal divide. The battle for Kashiriyat was lost, but I still feel that the war for Kashmiriyat can be won if we act with vision. Where necessary, hard decisions must be taken in the national interest.  Justice must be done for all, and must also be seen to be done. Therein lies the hope for the future.


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

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