Amarnath Yatra in Kashmir: A View From the Other Side

Every year, tens of thousands of Hindus from mainland India set off on an arduous pilgrimage to Amarnath Yatra in South Kashmir. The yatra, initiated 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, with the ascendance of Hindutva in the public realm and the reassertion of Indian nationalism — intertwined with cultural elements of Hinduism — the yatra assumed a sudden political significance.

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Political Overtones to Amarnath Yatra

The Amarnath yatra has been advocated as more of a national and patriotic tour than merely a religious affair. Indira Gandhi once famously suggested to her father, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that more tourists from Gujarat and Bombay should be drawn in, to Kashmir, only to arrest despondency in the Valley.

Large-scale inflow of yatris (pilgrims) was vigorously pursued as a state-policy when Farooq Abdullah was installed as chief minister in 1996, and there was the subsequent formation of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) in 2000 (in whose formation Abdullah was instrumental). This increased the number of annual yatris.

The yatra was further incentivized by extensive publicity, political patronage and subsidised travel packages. The yatra instills among the Indian masses a strong sense that Kashmir is integral to India, while alluding to Kashmir’s Hindu past. In the making of Kashmir, an atoot ang (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.

Many lower middle-class Indians are inclined undertake subsidised pilgrimages to the Valley, and in the process, get to visit other tourist destinations without having 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 across Kashmir. Instantly, these pilgrims who may not have much knowledge of Kashmir — its culture, politics, conflict, geography, history — 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 daily human tragedy (by way of encounters etc) that the local population faces, these tourists show pride in our armed forces.

True Spirit of Kashmir Buried Under State Narrative

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 in favour of the integration of Kashmir into mainland India. Since they aren’t allowed to undertake the pious journey without a security blanket, and aren’t allowed to mix with the local population, the Amarnath yatris fail to comprehend the true essence of Kashmir and its people.

It is dangerous for the state discourse’s survival, if they are allowed to travel with ease, and mix 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 pilgrims 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 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 territory.

(The author is a Doctoral Fellow at Centre of Advanced Study in History at Aligarh Muslim University, India. He can be reached at makhaja@myamu.ac.in. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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