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A-yatra-a-day raises Valley hackles

- Ecology, ‘saffronisation’ fears as Pandit outfit tries to revive pilgrimages

Srinagar, July 27: A Jammu-based Pandit group’s bid to revive what it says are traditional yatras in Kashmir has evoked opposition from several Valley-based groups, with a protest held in Srinagar on Saturday.

According to the Pandit group, these pilgrimages are centuries old but stopped with the advent of militancy a quarter century ago. The opponents of the revival plan see it as a government ploy to “saffronise” Kashmir and fear its impact on these places’ fragile ecology.

The controversy began last week after the All Parties Migrants Coordination Committee announced a yatra to the picturesque Kausarnaag lake in the upper reaches of Kulgam district on July 31.

Deemed holy by the Pandits, the glacier-fed fresh water lake gives rise to the Veshu, a tributary of the Jhelum that waters swathes of south Kashmir and forms the Aharbal falls, known as Kashmir’s Niagara.

Snow-capped mountains, green pastures, alpine flowers and the spectacular lake mark the 10km trek to Kausarnaag from Aharbal, which is 75km from Srinagar.

A yatra to the lake was started from Jammu’s Reasi district four years ago but the trek is dangerous and takes at least two days. From Shopian in Kashmir, though, the lake is just an eight-hour walk.

“Around 45 men and women will undertake the yatra this year,” migrant committee chief Vinod Pandit said. “The lake is very holy for us: we call it Vishnupad.”

Reasi additional deputy commissioner Rajinder Singh Tara said 500 to 1,000 pilgrims would join the yatra from the Jammu side.

“Local people are organising this yatra but the district administration is facilitating it by providing security, tents and other things,” Tara said.

“We had plans to start a chopper service to the area this year but couldn’t get army clearance. We hope the pilgrim rush to the spot will keep improving in future.”

The migrant committee has in recent years “revived” three other yatras — to high-altitude Gangabal lake in Ganderbal, to the Dnyaneshwar cave of Shiva in Bandipore, and to Mata Katyayani Ji shrine in Kulgam.

Several Valley-based groups have smelt a conspiracy behind the move to “churn out new pilgrimage sites every year”.

Separatists and ordinary Kashmiris have been suspicious of such pilgrimages since the 2008 agitation against the allotment of government land to the Amarnath yatra board, when firing by security forces killed dozens.

At that time, many had claimed the land allotment was a move to settle outsiders and change the region’s demography.

Omar Bhat, an engineer, and his friends are mobilising people against the yatra and organised Saturday’s protest here.

“I live in a village close to Kausarnaag. We never saw or heard of any yatras there. I’m disturbed that the government is facilitating one. It will ruin this place the way Pahalgam and other lakes (on the way to Amarnath) have been,” Bhat said.

“Besides, why attach this lake to any particular religion? You will not find any religious symbols around the lake, unlike Amarnath where there is a Shivalinga.”

Hurriyat leader Nayeem Khan, the first to oppose the yatra, said he had no problems with Kashmiri Pandits visiting the place for spiritual reasons.

“A few hundred Pandit pilgrims would go to Amarnath before militancy but you now have lakhs from across India going there. The same thing will happen with these (newer) yatras because the government will push lakhs of pilgrims to these places,” he said.

“Through such measures, the government wants to Hindu-ise Kashmir and create an imaginary bond in Indian minds with Kashmir by projecting it as the abode of a particular religion. This will also destroy the ecology of that place.”

Islamic Students League leader Shakeel Bakshi said these yatras had “no tradition or history”.

“These places have no temples but natural lakes, caves and rivers. The tragedy is that Kashmiri Pandits are unwilling to return to Kashmir but you have a migrant Pandit group keen on starting these yatras,” he said.

“This shows there is some politics behind it. There are forces in India who want to make these yatras a big show of strength and convey to us that we don’t exist.”

Vinod Pandit denied the charges and said his efforts were a purely local initiative.

“Some people are unnecessarily politicising the issue. The fact is, these are my sacred places and I should not be denied the right to visit them.”