State and Religion
Hindu legend has it that Shiva recounted to Parvati the secret of creation in a cave in Amarnath, located 145 kilometers east of Srinagar. It has thus become an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and holds an ice lingam (the phallic symbol of Shiva) that changes size with the seasons and the stages of the moon. By its side are two more ice-lingams, that of Parvati and of their son, Ganesh.
This Hindu religious site has led to many controversies in the past with the major one taking place in 2008 when outsiders were allowed to purchase land in the area, which is otherwise constitutionally not permitted.
The latest one relates to a December 13, 2012 Division Bench ruling by the Indian Supreme Court in a suo moto writ petition after it took cognizance of a number of deaths during the Amarnath yatra in 2012. The SC appointed a committee that visited the spot and interacted with the Jammu & Kashmir government and the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB).
The Court had taken notice of the matter on July 13, following the deaths of 67 pilgrims in just 17 days during a 45day pilgrimage. In 2011, 105 persons had died. The Court noted that the pilgrims have a constitutional right under Articles 21 and 19(1)(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India; free of fear, with dignity and safety and to ensure enforcement of such a right is the primary obligation of the J&K and the Indian Government. The SC justified its judicial notice on the grounds of lack of necessary facilities and essential amenities en route and around the Holy Cave.
Local Muslim Kashmiris say that a few hundred yatris used to visit this site some years ago but the number has suddenly risen to hundreds of thousands. Many Kashmiris view this trend as a Hindutva conspiracy to change the demography of their State.
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, despite India being a secular state, took special interest in this matter. It stated that Amarnath generates huge revenues not only by way of offerings but also from the charges and fees that the Amarnath Board takes from the pony-owners, palkiwallahs as well as the helicopter services.
The Supreme Court made a number of directives in its December Judgment. However, the most controversial one related to widening the walking track and passages, with no passage to be less than 12 feet. It also enjoined for the provision of railings and retaining walls on both sides. The judges, however, made it clear that “neither have we directed nor should we be understood to have implicitly directed that there should be a metalled motorable road in place of the walking tracks/passages.”
Kashmiri leaders, including moderates like Maulvi Umer Farooq and radicals like Syed Ali Shah Gilani, unanimously condemned the Supreme Court verdict and its interference. The latter called for a state-wide strike on September 4 which successfully shut the Valley. The opposition is justified on the grounds that the Court recommendations will harm the environment, like trees and wildlife, in the area.
One of the reasons for opposing the recommendations is the fear that the suggested improvements will result in making the Amarnath yatra feasible throughout the year. Syed Gilani sees it as a Hindutva conspiracy to harm Muslim interests. He has therefore called for the State not to interfere in matters of religious shrines, for both the Hindu and Muslim community.