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Amarnath land controversy: Analysis

By: Vivek Gumaste
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Conclusions that do not conform to the litmus test of objective logic can at best be termed as bigoted or classified under one of its sub categories: communal, racist or sexist. The stubborn attitude of the Kashmiri Muslims vis-à-vis the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board land transfer controversy and the obsequious kowtowing by the Indian news media in support of this naked exhibition of communal fervor is a classic example of prejudice and warped journalism. Further when one tallies the land involved and its purported aim with the magnitude of the outcry, one can truly appreciate the plebian nature of this protest.

At the crux of the controversy is or was 40 hectares (800 kanals) of forest land initially transferred (now taken back by the government) to the SASB to facilitate amenities for pilgrims on their way upto the mountain shrine. The outlandish premise that this meager chunk of forest land could be instrumental in juggling the demography of the valley fails to correspond to any mathematical possibility or comply with even plain common sense.

The Kashmir Valley spans an area of 15,948 square kilometers and houses a population of 5.4 million with Muslims accounting for 99%. Forty hectares amount to half of one square kilometer (0.40 to be exact) and translates to less than one hundredth of one percent of the valley"s land area. I repeat less than one hundredth of one percent (0.01%). Calculate how many Hindus this area would be able to sustain at a density of 341 per square kilometer (current distribution in the Valley)and then factor in the 99 to 1 ratio of Muslims to Hindus to extrapolate the probability of a demographic reversal at any point in the future; an inane assumption by any stretch of imagination.

It is all the more ironical that this charge of demographic supersession should emanate from a community that stood placidly on the sidelines as militants systematically cleansed the valley of 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits.

Coming to the polemics of environmental preservation, one again sees double standards. The Kashmiri"s concern for natural sanctity strangely seems to be selective with a predilection for Hindu projects whether it be Amarnath or the Sharda Peeth University. In contrast, the felling of 10,000 trees and the encroachment upon the habitat of the Markhor goat (an endangered species) to make way for the Moghul road linking two Muslim districts fails to register any protest of ecological infraction. Neither is a murmur of dissension heard when the recipients of the government"s largesse happen to be the Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University at Rajouri (5000 kanals) or the Islamic University at Awantipora. Incidentally both projects were cleared under the stewardship of the then chief Minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, one of the main protagonists of the present controversy.

The inference is crystal clear: there was and is no rationale behind the Islamic protest, but merely a communal agenda.

While politicians can be conniving and the common folk gullible, what is intriguing is that the national media which is supposed to be objective and analytical chose to bolster this unprincipled stand without uttering a syllable of criticism against this wayward behavior.

Mired in an ideological trap that revels in preconceived notions, the Indian media has toed a preset line that is at times oblivious to rationality and consistently relegates facts and moral principles to second place to fit this mould.

Typical is an editorial in the Indian Express (Identity Crises. Jun 30) .The editorial accepts the absurdity of the demographic charge by stating that "Forty hectares of forest land. A hundred acre wood. Anywhere else in India, unfortunately, transfer of such land at an official"s whim would hardly be a problem of national proportions."

The logical corollary of such assessment would then be to apportion blame where it rightly belongs: with the separatist politicians and the Muslim majority of Kashmir for this avoidable brouhaha. Instead the leader article throws a curved ball to make a scapegoat of retired Governor, Lt. General S. K Sinha: "However, short-sighted as the local political leadership has been, the central responsibility rests with the outgoing governor, S.K. Sinha," In addition, the editorial condemns his "lack of vision and lack of ability" and charges him with "communalizing the state machinery."

Another article in the same newspaper (The Yatra"s Wrong Turn. Muzamil Jaleel. IE. June 29) reiterates the accusation: "The first signs of trouble surfaced soon after Lt Gen S.K. Sinha took over as the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir in 2003, succeeding Girish Chandra Saxena, an apolitical and non-controversial governor."

Similarly Barkha Dutt (A Stitch in Time.HT June 27) lacks the courage to call a spade a spade or identify the true villains in this drama. Apart from naming the favorite whipping boy, S. K. Sinha, she indulges in shadow boxing throwing punches in the air and speculates on every other cause but the true one: "It also doesn"t help that the former Governor (he retired a few days ago) enjoyed displaying his authority and made sure his offices sent a press release on his new plans for the yatra - hardly the sort of sledgehammer publicity-seeking manner you would want in a sensitive, conflict-ridden state.

Among the allegations made by protestors is the suggestion that the transfer of land and construction of facilities on it for Hindu pilgrims is an attempt by "outsiders" to alter the religious demographics of the Valley. The fact that a charge like this is still able to draw a flood of people onto the streets is a statement on how battered and damaged the relationship between Delhi and Srinagar continues to be."

Ascribing the present imbroglio to the unhealthy relationship between the state and the center is hardly justifiable. Is Ms. Dutt implying that the Kashmiris are expressing their displeasure at the Indian nation by handicapping the Amarnath yatra, a quintessential Kashmiri tradition but of Hindu origin? If so, then is it not the Kashmiri Muslim who is communalizing the problem (rather than S.K Sinha) in an act that clearly violates the spirit of his/her much touted Kashmiriyaat?

To dock Lt. General S.K Sinha, alone, without taking into account the guileful shenanigans of his bete-noir, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, one of the key figures behind the present agitation and an avowed Pakistani sympathizer, would be grossly unfair. As chief Minister, instead of encouraging the yatra, the Mufti attempted to curb its duration to 15 days; a move that was overturned by the court. One must also bear in mind his recent advocation of Pakistani currency in Kashmir. On the flip side, it was S.K. Sinha who established operation Sadbhavna to rebuild mosques and Sufi shrines with army aid.

To put things in perspective, let us recapitulate the exact nature of Sinha"s liability. Simply put, all that he did was to acquire a negligible tract of land to shelter pilgrims on their way to a holy shrine: a commendable good Samaritan deed at the outset but one that assumes culpability only because of its Hindu adjective.

Finally, the kernel of truth that demolishes the very basis of this agitation. In an interview with Suman K Jha (IE. Jul2), S.K. Sinha avers: "No permanent constructions were to come up in the camps. The ownership of the land was not transferred to the Board. And it was only a diversion of land for two months in a year."

Summing up the General adds: "Our point of view, however, was always blacked out in the separatist din in the Valley"

That goes for the Hindu voice in Kashmir as well.

Vivek Gumaste

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