Over the past several weeks, dozens of Muslim protesters have been killed and injured in violence which has rocked the Kashmir Valley.
Kashmir's forgotten collective past
- Publish date:27/08/2008
The problem which sparked the most recent violent protests in Kashmir centers on the issue of land allocation for Hindu pilgrims who were planning to visit the cave Shrine of Amarnath.
In late May, S. K. Sinha, the former governor of Kashmir, and the Indian government allocated some 100 acres of land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) for the purpose of building shelters and other facilities for the pilgrims along the route to the cave.
Violence broke out when Kashmiri Muslims protested at the decision.
But the volatility of the current imbroglio in Kashmir belies much graver concerns.
The land transfer to the SASB which manages the Hindu Shrine of Amarnath has not been just another outlet for the discontent, chaos and rampant instability that ails the valley.
It has also become the boiling pot of a lethal combination of political opportunism, communalism and separatism.
The current crisis in Kashmir is borne of a typical divide, which exists because of geographical and historical events, fuelled by communal passion and political opportunism.
It is perpetuated by short-term policies of denial and appeasement, compounded by a lack of faith and will to resolve the crisis.
It is also hindered by international interference.
On July 1, the state government of Kashmir withdrew its decision to allocate the forest land to the SASB.
This triggered counter-protests from the Hindus.
But central to the crisis is the mistaken perceptions held by both Muslims and Hindus.
A large section of Muslims in the valley believe that the land allocation to the Hindu shrine board was done to alter the demography of the region – something which is unacceptable to them.
They also believed the proposed pilgrim shelter would attract permanent settlement of a substantial segment of Hindus.
Similarly, Hindus in the Jammu region believed that the cancellation of allocation was done under pressure from the "Muslim lobby".
It is noteworthy to mention, however, that Muslims have been helping conduct the pilgrimage for many years and have nothing against the ritual but are definitely against any attempt to change the demography of the region.
The genesis of the social and political anomie in Kashmir has pivoted about the struggle concerning its demography and self-autonomy.
In an opportune swipe, passions are being incited in the valley, invoking analogies to Palestine and the usurping of the Holy Land - a prelude for altering the demographic composition of the valley.
Even as the SASB intensified its agitation demanding restoration of the land for the Amarnath pilgrimage, Kashmiri separatists staged a march for 'azadi' (freedom) while Hindu protesters in Jammu embarked on a 'jail bharo' (court arrest) stir to press for their respective, conflicting demands.
The co-ordination committee of the separatist group in the valley, the Hurriyat, led by Mirwaiz Omar Farook, submitted a memorandum to the UN office in which they asked Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir.
They also called on India to grant the people of the state the right to self-determination.
Meanwhile, they also demanded restoration of trade with Pakistan and the reopening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road.
Part of their three-step process to restoring peace in the Valley also called on a withdrawal of India's military from the area.
Responding to the demands, Manish Tewari, a spokesperson for the Congress Party, the leading party in India's ruling coalition, told Al Jazeera that the opening of the Muzaffarabad road was seen as acceptable by New Delhi.
But he stressed that it was not acceptable for such a solution to be reached by "holding a gun to our heads".
Symbol of unity
As incongruity would have it, the Hindu Amarnath shrine has been a symbol of unity between the two communities of Hindus and Muslims over the years.
The shrine is located in the Muslim-dominated area in the Kashmir Valley.
Ironically, the Hindu deity was discovered by a Muslim in the 1850s. It was a Muslim shepherd who accidentally stumbled upon the site of the deity and informed the Hindu residents of the area about it.
Over the years the temple started attracting pilgrims from all over the country.
The shepherd's descendants were involved in the organization and logistics of the pilgrimage until 2001.
The pilgrimage was conducted peacefully every year (for about 150 years) even at the height of militancy in Kashmir, and has never been the cause of any acrimony between the two communities.
But since the land allocation was considered illegal and the people's trust in the government was already at bare minimum, the issue was seized upon by the various parties hoping to make political gains in an election year.
They projected the land allocation as an attempt to change the demography of the valley.
Realistically, however, permanent settlement at an altitude of 4,000m above sea level is close to inconceivable.
Elections battle lines
This reminds us once again of how contemporary state and politically motivated efforts to influence the populace are shaped by institutional legacies overturning the exegesis of cultural and historical meaning.
What Hindus are fighting to "protect", as some politicians have put it, had in fact been discovered by Muslims.
Political motivations - and agitation - in Jammu and the Kashmir Valley must also be seen through the prism of the forthcoming assembly elections in October and the general elections in 2009.
The recent agitation has drawn battle lines between Jammu and Kashmir, and between the Dogras, Hindu and Muslim ethnic groups in ways once believed to be unlikely.
The twin agitations threaten the unity and the plural, multi-cultural, and multi-religious fabric of Jammu and Kashmir.
The state government's decision to establish the SASB and interfere gratuitously with spontaneous grassroots Hindu-Muslim cooperation in organizing the pilgrimage, has only fuelled the fire.
But economic factors may also be at play here.
The construction of shelters for Hindu pilgrims near Amarnath is viewed with suspicion in the town of Batkal, which lies along the route to the cave shrine.
Residents of Batkal fear that self-sufficient shelters could adversely impact the economics of the region and draw pilgrims away from their markets.
Prior to this, the pilgrims were completely dependent on locals - from putting up tents to ferrying weight and luggage; they provided almost all the services.
The valley is likely to witness the turmoil for some time to come as elections are due in November this year and all political parties involved are trying to do the requisite posturing.
Stranded trucks stand on a blocked road by demonstrators during a protest over a land row in Jammu August 26, 2008.