Kounsarnag yatra may be yet another chapter in furthering designs of extending influence of Hindutva ideology

Playing politics with pilgrimages

The conflicting versions and lack of information about the conduct of the Kounsarnag yatra has added to the politicization of this otherwise unknown pilgrimage, with all key players hesitating to spell out clearly their role in it. While many in Kashmir Valley have opposed the yatra, it is still unclear who is organizing the event. A right wing Kashmiri Pandit group that talks of taking a group of people to perform religious rituals there, however, has distanced itself from organizing the yatra. While the Kulgam administration dismisses the fears, maintaining that only a group of 20-25 people are embarking on the journey, the Reasi administration has maintained that the pilgrimage comprised 1000 pilgrims. Whatever be the reality, the 6 day pilgrimage is already underway and has caused much anxiety in Valley with statements pouring in and protests also being staged. Adding to the chorus is the vehement opposition of Mustafa Kamal, senior leader and additional general secretary of the ruling National Conference.

The historical importance of the yatra is not quite clear and even though some ancient references have been given by those supporting the pilgrimage to the religious importance of the spring, there has been no tradition of this pilgrimage being undertaken in recent decades. In view of lack of evidence of tradition of this pilgrimage, it has generated concerns of ecological impact as well as aroused suspicions of a deliberate policy to increase the footprints of Hindutva through increase in the number of Hindu pilgrimages, their duration and number of pilgrims in Kashmir region. While it may be argued that all kinds of developmental activities with adverse ecological impact have not generated so much of opposition in the Valley or created the kind of apprehensions that this obsessive tendency with pilgrimages is assuming, the fact remains that though ecology remains a vital area of concern that deserves attention of both the government and the civil society, these activities are not politicised in the way the pilgrimages are becoming off late. 

The apprehensions aroused in Kashmir need to be analysed in the backdrop of the recent years of over-politicisation of several traditional pilgrimages and introduction of new ones and its offshoot of visible influence of Hindutva, howsoever seasonal that has turned out to be. RSS with its Hindutva agenda made inroads into Ladakh in the 90s with Advani’s Sindhu darshan yatra which is once again being re-invented. The 15 day annual pilgrimage of Amarnath has been massively enlarged in terms of duration and size beyond the capacity of the place. It has already become an obsession with not just the saffron parties but also jittery governments as over-politicisation of the yatra has made the affairs of the pilgrimage a sentimental issue across the country, and consequently a matter of vote bank politics, as part of what seems to be a deliberate strategy.

The low key affair of the Buddha Amarnath yatra in Poonch is also following a similar pattern and many other pilgrimages in Muslim majority areas are being excessively hyped up. Such a background and the confusion over the otherwise unheard of Kaunsarnag pilgrimage is naturally causing apprehensions in the minds of the Kashmiris, who already feel intimidated with RSS idea of resolving Jammu and Kashmir political dispute by changing the demography of the state. The issue cannot be ignored because it may have the dangerous potential of vitiating the atmosphere and enhancing communal polarization which must be avoided at all costs in this complex state. While one expects little from the Centre, which is maintaining cryptic silence over instances of communal conflagrations of all sorts across the country, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir requires state government to step in and clear the mist and come out with a clear answer about the genesis of this fresh yatra and the official involvement in a pilgrimage that has already snowballed into a major controversy and has the potential of creating regional and communal tensions. It must respond to the serious questions of both the ecological impact of these pilgrimages and the political insecurity these arouse.