The faith of (Amarnath) pilgrims is being "instrumentalised to further India's political interests", says a report prepared by EQUATIONS, a Bengaluru-based research, campaign and advocacy organization and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.
The report, "Amarnath Yatra: A Militarised Pilgrimage", is based on the data accessed through the Right to Information Act, and interviews conducted in J&K, Delhi and Ludhiana.
It states that a prolonged yatra (about two-month-long) in presence of a huge number of armed forces on the pilgrimage route is detrimental to Kashmir and its ecology. The report also "observes that the yatra is being used for political means". "Based on interviews with key personnel of the armed forces, it appears that about 30,000 personnel were deployed in 2015 for the purpose of the Yatra. This is in addition to the camps of the armed forces located on the route, who are additionally activated for the duration of the Yatra. The Report also looks at the history of conflicts related to the Yatra, particularly the Amarnath land row of 2008, and the role of militarization in such conflicts," the report said.
The report was released on the occasion of the 13th death anniversary of rights activist, Asiya Jeelani, and in memory of her life, work and struggle for justice. Asiya was killed in an IED explosion in Kupwara while monitoring elections.
Swathi Seshadri, who is a part of the research and editing team of the report, told reporters at the release function that "we urge devotee groups to resist this use of their faith".
She said the interference of various socio-religious organizations in the affairs of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, which regulates the pilgrimage to the cave shrine, was "nothing short of blackmail".
"The threat (by these organizations) that there will be communal tension if their opinions are not considered should be punished as per the provisions of Indian Constitution and law…the state government cannot take cues from socio-religious organisations on its conduct while setting aside the people it claims to have concern for," the executive summary of the report reads.
While underlining the cordial and supportive nature of Kashmiris towards the yatra, Seshadri said demilitarizing the yatra is the need of the hour.
"The military has no place in a space of divinity. If the terrain renders the yatra dangerous then disaster management institutions need to be involved, not the armed forces…. This compassion by the Kashmiris must be responded to by removal of the armed forces from the yatra route," the report reads.
The report has said the Shrine Board has attained the stature of a "state within the state" and therefore calls upon the JK government to bat for more powers over the conduct of yatra.
"The government of India needs to restore the Constitution vis-a-vis the conduct of the yatra. The democratic fabric which has been run threadbare needs to be reestablished," the report said.
"NGOs set up langars or community kitchens along the Yatra route. 75% of the langar organisers come from Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. While langars are accountable to follow rules and regulations vis-a-vis menu, waste disposal practices and services that they are allowed / disallowed to provide, it was found that they violate most of them especially linked to the menu and waste disposal practices, leading to visible ecological degradation along the route. The share of Kashmiri tour and travel operators and hotel owners is minuscule since tour operators used are mostly from Jammu or outside the state and very few people stay in hotels due to the presence of the SASB camps along the route. Kashmiris who comprise unorganised service providers including tentwalas, ponywalas, dandiwalas, loadbearers and taxi drivers, have little bargaining power to negotiate fair wages and rates. The report contests claims of socio-religious organisations that people of Kashmir gain the most from the Yatra because of economic benefits.
"Since the 1980s, there has been an increasing trend of State encouragement and facilitation of newer Yatra pilgrimages in the region. Some of these, like the Amarnath Yatra, are coloured with religious-nationalist hues like the Buddha Amarnath, Kauser Nag and Sindhu Darshan Yatras. While some others like the Machail Yatra and Kailash Kund Yatra are the attempt to escalate a localised Yatra into a pan-Jammu/pan-India Yatra with economic motivations at their helm and often patronised by the tourism industry. The history of the Yatra is ridden with conflicts over resource allocation and land use, which are likely to be further exacerbated by this communalised State policy.
The report suggests that attempts to start Kausar Nag and other yatras "should be nipped in the bud".
"The Buddha Amarnath yatra is already growing by leaps and bounds and before it becomes another site of active conflict, the state needs to put an end to the way it is conducted, if it is interested in the peace that it so often claims to desire," the report says.