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My neighbour, the environmentalist

RIGHT TO PRAY: The exiled Kashmiri Pandits have been trying to retain their connection with their homeland by visiting their shrines. Picture shows them offering prayers at the Kheer Bhawani temple in Kashmir Valley.

RIGHT TO PRAY: The exiled Kashmiri Pandits have been trying to retain their connection with their homeland by visiting their shrines. Picture shows them offering prayers at the Kheer Bhawani temple in Kashmir Valley.   | Photo Credit: Channi Anand

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What does the Kashmiri separatist machinery achieve by preventing 40 persons from undertaking an ancient pilgrimage?

If you ever happen to drive towards Srinagar airport in Kashmir Valley, and if you have a little time to spare, take a little detour towards your left. Go to the posh Hyderpora colony off the airport road, and ask any passer-by for directions to the house of the pro-Pakistan separatist leader, Syed Ali Geelani.

Chances are that he will meet you. He is an extremely polite person — he never raises his voice and the expression on his face hardly changes. If he likes you, he will, after instructing his staff to get you tea, hold your hand and ask you to be the ambassador of Kashmir in “Hindustan.” As you leave, he will gift you a few books on Islam and tell you that it is not a religion but a “way of life” of which politics is an essential part.

You will love him.

Mr. Geelani often visits Delhi, mostly to seek medical treatment from some of India’s best doctors, including a Kashmiri Pandit. When he speaks to journalists, he refers to exiled Kashmiri Pandits as “brothers.” Without batting an eyelid, he says Kashmir is incomplete without them.

But besides his false avowal, Mr. Geelani, in practice, is opposed to the idea of sharing Kashmir with non-Muslims, especially the Pandits. A few days ago, owing to his strong opposition, the State government withdrew permission to a small group of Pandits to undertake the historical Konsar Nag yatra in south Kashmir. The group comprising 40 people, including women, had to halt its journey midway after Mr. Geelani’s supporters resorted to stone pelting and blocked the road leading to the pilgrim site. The pilgrims took shelter in a temple and were then forced to return to Srinagar.

A journalist friend in Kashmir calls Mr. Geelani’s strategy to thwart Hindu pilgrimages such as Konsar Nag as a “multistage rocket.” The first stage involves terming such yatras as a “threat to [the] environment.” Then, very systematically, they are termed as “conspiracies to change Kashmir’s demography.” Then, as it happened in the case of Konsar Nag, Mr. Geelani fires his last salvo by denying the Valley’s Hindu past. “The Hindus had no stake over Konsar Nag,” he claimed.

The historical past

In Nilmat Puran, the 6th century text on Kashmir, Konsar Nag is referred to as Kramasara (Kram: footstep, Sar: lake), and has been worshipped as Vishnupad (Vishnu’s footstep). According to the renowned Kashmir scholar, Shashi Shekhar Toshkhani, the Puran refers to it as a “sacred place” where “even evil-minded people are freed from their sins.” In Kathasaritsagara, a well-known 11th century collection of stories in Sanskrit by Kashmiri Brahmin scholar, Somadeva, Konsar Nag is referred to as the spot where Lord Vishnu put one of his three steps as Vaaman avatar. In a paper written by another Kashmir scholar, Ramesh Tamiri, Konsar Nag is identified as the site of the Naubandhana tirtha where, according to Kashmiri religious tradition, Goddess Parvati converted herself into a nauka (boat) to save the human seed from the deluge of destruction. The waterfall at Aharbal, whose traditional source is placed in the lake, has been described by Abul Fazl in the 16th century Ain-e-Akbari as the spot from where “Hindu devotees throw themselves down... and with utmost fortitude sacrifice their lives in the belief that it is a means of securing their spiritual welfare.” From time immemorial, Kashmiri Pandits used to visit the lake in small groups, till this chain was broken in 1989 due to militancy.  

But what Mr. Geelani and his supporters are trying to achieve in Kashmir should not come as a surprise to anyone. In the last few years, Kashmir’s Hindu and Buddhist past have been subjected to large-scale effacement at the hands of radical elements in the Valley. Even Sufi dargahs have not been spared. One would think that Mr. Geelani is really concerned about environmental degradation in Kashmir. But how is it possible that a small group of 40 pilgrims could cause more pollution than tourists and local residents who are free to visit the lake, or than large groups of school children who are taken there for excursion?

The fact is that Mr. Geelani uses “environment” as a metonym for “you are not welcome here.”

Reality check on environment

In the last two-and-a-half decades of insurgency, environmental laws have been rampantly violated in Kashmir, often with the connivance of the State administration. Unauthorised construction and illegal encroachments have pushed lakes such as the Dal, the Anchar, the Nigeen, and the Wular to the brink of extinction. Hyderpora, from where Mr. Geelani issues his diktats, is in Badgam district where at least 200 unauthorised brick kilns operate in brazen violation of over 12 environmental and other laws of the land. These kilns have wreaked havoc with the land and local water bodies, causing major ruin of agriculture. A friend who owns an orchard in Badgam says it is no longer possible to grow anything there. “Some fruit trees still survive, but the fruit has been rendered tasteless,” he says.

As The Hindu has reported in the past, over a dozen cement plants of big business houses are operating close to the Dachigam National Park, which is home to, among other animal species, the endangered Kashmir stag, Hangul. Some of these plants are owned by a prominent business family from north Kashmir’s Sopore — Geelani’s home town.

An investigative report in a local daily, Kashmir Monitor, on August 4 pointed out the “unabated timber smuggling” in several parts of south Kashmir. The report says “felling of green Deodar and Pine trees goes on unabated in Compartment no. 66-67 of Gudhar forest range of Kachwar area of Kulgam and picturesque Kalihar of Daksum, (Compartment no. 27-28) as well.” Konsar Nag, ironically, falls in Kulgam district. While the district’s deputy commissioner was quick to withdraw permission to the yatra, one wonders what steps he has taken so far to check reckless tree felling that has led to man-animal conflicts in south Kashmir. Last year alone, 150 people were attacked by wild animals, out of which 16 lost their lives.

To add to the controversy, a few local journalists wrongly reported that 4,000 Pandits wanted to undertake the yatra, whereas only 40 of them had applied for permission. As expected, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has not uttered a word on why Kashmiri Pandits were not allowed to undertake the yatra. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Jammu and Kashmir’s People’s Democratic Party, who are cosying up to each other in the wake of the coming Assembly elections, have also kept mum. The conditioned stimulus of India’s intellectuals and other flag bearers of secularism and religious freedom has prevented them as well from raising this issue.

It is 25 years since Kashmiri Pandits were forced into exile. In what the political theoretician Hannah Arendt called “the infinitely complex red-tape existence of stateless persons,” their last hope is to keep intact their connection with their Gods and their ancient rituals and tradition. By denying them their right to pray at Konsar Nag, the Indian state is only pushing them further into ontological despair.

rahul.p@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 24, 2018 7:22:07 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/my-neighbour-the-environmentalist/article6292468.ece