CHURUMURI POLL: Land for the Amarnath shrine?

The decision of the Congress-led Jammu & Kashmir government of Ghulam Nabi Azad to assign 39.88 hectares (approximately 100 acres) of degraded forest land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) for construction of facilities at base camps leading up to the Amarnath shrine for pilgrims, threatens to snowball into a full-blown Muslim-Hindu communal conflict.

Critics say the move is a mischievous attempt to alter the demographic character of the Muslim-majority State; a “conspiracy to settle non-local Hindus in the valley with a view to reducing the Muslims to a minority“. They say giving away forest land, despite the objections of forest authorities, is illegal and will adversely impact the ecology of the adjacent Thwajas wildlife sanctuary. They say there is no need for land for structures for a shrine which attracts devotees only two months a year. And they say the SASB has been functioning as a parallel government, collecting taxes, not answerable to the legislature.

Supporters claim the land has only been assigned, not transferred. They say the proprietary status of the land will remain unchanged even when the shrine board complex comes up on the land. They say there will be no permanent buildings, only prefabricated huts and toilets. They say the valley’s politicians are playing politics on the eve of assembly elections slated for later this year.

The outgoing governor S.K. Sinha (the board is chaired by the governor of the State) has been accused of making inflammatory speeches. One person has been killed in clashes with the police. The BJP has threatened to cut off food and other essential supplies to the Kashmir valley if the land is not allotted. And the sangh parivar has been accused of seeking to “destroy Kashmiri ethos” while the SASB has been accused of trying to create “a state within a state“.

Questions: Is the move to transfer land right or wrong? Is it wrong to create facilities for pilgrims? Are Kashmiris wrong in fearing a threat to their land? Is the Congress playing electoral games by raking up this issue at this juncture? Is the BJP playing with fire? If the “BJP rails against subsidies to Muslim religious institutions, is it right to support public land being committed to facilitate a Hindu pilgrimage“? Does the Amarnath issue have the potential to take Kashmir back to the past?