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Every year tens of thousands of Hindus from the mainland India set off for an arduous pilgrimage to Amarnath Yatra in South Kashmir.  The yatra invented during the Dogra period would witness a limited number of pilgrims and would last for a couple of weeks. It would be a low key affair bereft of political overtones. However, in the course of time, the ascendance of Hindutva in the public realm and the reassertion of Indian nationalism maliciously intertwined with cultural ingredients of Hindu faith, the yatra witnessed sudden significance in religious circles. For the Indian state, it got an instrumental value to socialize its population in the spirit of imperialism. It started pushing it as more of a national and patriotic tour than merely a religious affair. Indira Gandhi once famously suggested her father-Prime Minister Nehru- to facilitate more inflow of tourists from Gujarat and Bombay to Kashmir, only to arrest despondency in the valley. Sangh Parivar, on more than one occasion, suggested to Indianize the Kashmiri Muslims through pilgrimage tourism. Yatra also worked as a tool to give a sense of normalcy in the region. Successful conduct of yatra means everything is perfectly in order. The constant cycle of killing and brutalizing the local population is just hogwash, a non-issue.  It is exactly as normal as it was when the British royal family visited the colony of ‘India’in 1911 just a few years after the death of a million souls in Indian famine of 1899-1900 or for that matter the partition of Bengal in 1905. Some say history repeats itself; so does imperialism.  No one has learnt the nitty-gritties of imperialism better than India- thanks to the British imperial legacy.

Back to the topic, the large-scale inflow of yatris was vigorously pursued as a state-policy when Farooq Abdullah was installed as Chief Minister by New Delhi in 1996 and the subsequent formation of Shri Amarnath Shrine Board(SASB) in 2000 (where Abdullah was very much instrumental in its formation). This actually paved the way for the extension of its time period and increased the number of annual yatris.The yatra was further incentivized by extensive publicity, political patronage and subsidized travel packages.During the course of this whole yatra period, the state government along with the nationalist media seemingly comes to a kind of standstill in which the Amarnath yatra remains the only business.The yatra instills among the Indian masses a strong sense that Kashmir is India’s integral part and yatra alludes to Kashmir’s Hindu past. Imperialism sustains on the same social psychology.

In the making of Kashmir, an atootang (inseparable organ) in its nationalist discourse the populist Indian leadership- secular and right wing, alike- the yatra to Amarnath has served to make any realistic solution of political dispute increasingly difficult. Since the lower middle-class Indians who can’t afford to visit tourist destinations in other parts of the world that match Kashmir valley in its beauty & climate prefer to undertake subsidized and cheap pilgrimage journey to the valley, and in the process visit other tourist destinations without the requirement to buy an expensive travel package. The state deploys heavy paramilitary personnel and imposes a false sense of insecurity accruing from the indigenous population while transporting these tens of thousands of Indians in the breathtaking places of Kashmir. Instantly, these middle class and lower-middle-class Indians who had no clue of Kashmir – its culture, politics, conflict, geography, history, Pandit displacement etc- till yesterday instantly become its experts, ambassadors and self-appointed guardians. They start tracing their ancestry in the valley and look at the majority Muslim population as treacherous converts to Islam.

Ignoring the human tragedy that the local population faces, these tourists turn covetous for the land and feel proud about their armed force (it is an extra advantage for the Indian state that they return with the impression that this religious duty would have remained unfulfilled without the brave Indian armed forces). The pilgrimage journey prepares them to assume that ‘their’ Kashmir is brutally populated by the ungrateful, unsavoury agents of Pakistan (Kashmiri is the ‘other’ who they never talk to and about whom they build views after watching emotionally charged TV debates). In the course of the journey, they assume self-appointed roles of ambassadors and stake-holders of Kashmir; they become ‘political’ and help build opinions for greater integration of Kashmir with the Indian mainland.

Since they aren’t allowed to undertake the pious journey without a security blanket and aren’t allowed to mix up with the local population- drivers, shopkeepers and caterers, students – they fail to comprehend the true essence of Kashmir and its people. It is dangerous for the state-discourse to survive if they are allowed to travel with ease and mix up with the local population because it would bust the myths about Kashmir carved out by the political elite and the mainstream nationalist media. Every year these lacs of visitors make it difficult for the Indian public to view Kashmir as a political dispute that needs redressal: rather, they prefer to view it through the narrow jingoistic prism. They view it through the eyes of a privileged population living in the Empire.  For it gives them a sense of control and ownership of the territory.

Mohammad Ashraf Khwaja  is a Doctoral Fellow at Centre of Advanced Study in History at Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached at makhaja@myamu.ac.in

 

2 Comments

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The ‘ yatris ‘ are treated as elites with full security. They are not given the chance to undergo the troubles ordinary kashmiris face in daily life. They do not interact with common kashmir public to know about their problems and repression they encounter from State and its armed forces