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Amarnath land issue ignited pent up anger: J&K hotelier

Krishnakumar P and Mukhtar Ahmad in Srinagar | August 13, 2008 00:27 IST

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There are four police pickets within the one kilometre stretch of the boulevard framing Srinagar's [Images] famed Dal Lake.

At the point which says 'Shikara Taxi Service' on the promenade, Bashir Ahmad, unmindful of the light drizzle is all concentration fishing with a makeshift line.

The tiny fish visible through the shallow borders of the lake tell you he is not very serious about what he is doing.

Ahmad is a shikarawala, a boatman for whom tourists are the only source of living. Why is he fishing? "Can't you see the situation here? See how deserted it is. There are no tourists and I am a boatman. What am I supposed to do?" he says.

What seemed to be a very promising year for Kashmir was marred from June, when the government first passed an order diverting 40 hectares of land to be used to erect temporary shelters for the pilgrims taking the Amarnath Yatra [Images].

The guns had fallen silent and the tourists came in droves, the locals say. Hotels were booked till the end of November.

"Though I can't give you figures off hand, I can tell you this was a landmark year for Kashmir tourism. If we project the number of tourists we had till June for the rest of the year, we would have gone past the figures for 1988: 8 lakh people," said Tourism Secretary Naeem Akhtar.

That was not to be. "And then this incident happened," Akhtar said, about the agitation and violence over the Amarnath land row.

The land row has hit Kashmir hard. The Valley has two main sources of income: the fruit business and tourism, both of which have been affected due to the ongoing agitation.

Add to it the alleged economic blockade, which has choked the Valley of essential supplies from outside.

"If you are looking at tourism as an industry and are trying to see how it has affected the Kashmiri, then yours will be a wrong diagnosis. Whoever tells you Kashmir is better off because of the tourism industry is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. That is not the issue at all. It is all political," said Gowhar Mir, an hotelier who owns a resort on the boulevard.

Kashmiris have seen many ups and downs in the past few decades, and though this might have been a very promising year that gave hopes of lasting peace, this is not the first time the average Kashmiri has seen it all squandered because of the dirty politics played by the leaders of both the state and Centre.

"The problem is political. Till the time one realises that, nothing will change. Such periods of calm as the one we had will keep being shattered," Mir said.

According to Mir, the land issue was just a flashpoint that ignited the pent up anger of the Kashmiri, just as it was the case with the people of Jammu, for whom this has been the place where they collectively said enough is enough to what they saw as discrimination of the past 60 years.

"The people of Kashmir had their hopes raised when (former prime minister Atal Bihari) Vajpayee and (Pakistan President Pervez) Musharraf came up with the confidence building measures. Here was an Indian leader who seemed to understand the issues of the Kashmiris and wanted to address them in all sincerity. And there was a Pakistani leader who came up with the unprecedented stand of saying that there can't be any redrawing of the borders, but these borders can be made irrelevant. There was real hope," he said.

This also contributed to the marignalisation of the pro-Pakistan elements in the Valley. When the United Progressive Alliance took over, the skids were applied on the confidence building measures and the peace process as a whole.

"The people here saw that as an injustice against them and the anti-India feelings rose immediately. Added to it was the fact that the Kashmiris thought that by slowing down the process India was using them as a leverage against a Pakistan that was facing internal problems. So, there was this anger in the Valley and the land issue was just the kind of issue that could easily spark these feelings," he said, explaining the phenomenon of so many people defying curfew and the security forces to come out on the streets and protest.

Ashok Behuria, a research fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, who specialises on the Kashmir issue, disagrees with criticism of the UPA government's policy. "There is nothing that the UPA government could have done to expedite the peace process that it hasn't done. The dynamics of the Vajpayee-Musharraf era were so good, that the people thought this entire issue would be resolved in a year or so. That was never the case. But, it is true that there is a slump in the peace process, due to whatever reasons, had hurt the people of Kashmir."

He also said that the Valley had a unique habit of blaming Delhi [Images] for all its woes. "It exists from a long time ago. When there were allegations that the elections were rigged in 1987, there was a huge hue and cry that it was Delhi's fault.

In a Tamil Nadu or a Orissa it is the state politicians who face the flak for these things. But in Kashmir, due to the long history of mistrust towards Delhi, the Centre gets blamed for everything that happens there. The inability of the Centre to take up issues of the Valley and the inability of the state leaders to handle the situation there has led to this environment," he said.

For the present situation in the state, Behuria blamed the collective failure of the political class. "The Congress had a tough time and all its focus was on the N-deal and winning the trust vote. They never paid heed to the situation in Kashmir though it was deteriorating from June. The Bharatiya Janata Party for its part tried to make an electoral issue out of this," he said.

He also said the taking over of the Amarnath Shrine Board by the state is in some ways responsible for the situation.

"Till the time the government took over, the Kashmiri Muslim had a huge stake in the yatra. The cave was discovered by a Muslim, there was an industry around the pilgrimage by which the Muslims benefited and there were Muslims on the administrative board. When the state took over, the Muslims were booted out. Starting from here, a chain reaction was set off, which was perceived as a Hindu agenda to take control of the entire process," he said.

Thus, it is a mix of anti-India feelings fueled by the slowdown of the peace process and the perceived loss of control over the pilgrimage that led to the current stand-off, people argue.

"True. For the common Kashmiri, it is what he perceives and what he believes that is important. These may not be necessarily true, but if that is how he has been pushed to think, then that needs to be addressed accordingly," Mir said.





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