Pilgrims headed to the divided region of Kashmir get armed guards and national encouragement — if they’re Hindu.
Every July, thousands of buses, trucks, cars, mules, and palanquin bearers crawl up 12, 768 treacherous feet of mountainous terrain to reach the Amarnath cave, where a smooth ice stalagmite dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva reaches up from the cave floor. The devotees heading for this linga (a Hindu term for venerated, somewhat phallic objects) are making one of the most dangerous pilgrimages in India — not just because of the height and harsh weather, but because the cave is slap-bang in the middle of the divided, and violent, border state of Jammu and Kashmir.
But the Indian state has been encouraging, protecting, and controlling the flow of funds to these dangerous journeys. Kashmir has its fair share of traditional yatra (pilgrimage) sites. But India’s current Hindu nationalist government is now backing efforts to turn it into an Indian Jerusalem, mixing religious and national sentiment to turn the disputed territory into sacred ground that can never be surrendered.
A busload of pilgrims on July 10 were the latest victims. Like most devotees, they traveled as part of an army-shielded convoy. The 200,000 yatris (pilgrims) who head to the cave every year are protected by 700,000 soldiers stationed in the province — 40,000 of them mobilized to protect this route alone. But a flat tire left them isolated and vulnerable. Four militants, allegedly from the Pakistan-based jihadi group Lashkar-e-Taiba, shot up the bus, killing seven people.
The attack on the Hindu pilgrims created a huge uproar in India, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeting that he was “pained beyond words [by] the dastardly attack on peaceful Amarnath Yatris.” But the killings should have been no surprise. Indian intelligence organizations have gone on record saying they had information of an impending attack, and threats against pilgrims are made every year. This was the first successful attack since 2000, however, when 89 pilgrims were killed.
A dangerous pattern is emerging. New Delhi provides state patronage to religious pilgrimages in Kashmir, indirectly encouraging the Hindu claim over Kashmiri land. The organization of these pilgrimages sidelines the elected government of Jammu and Kashmir and emphasizes the jurisdiction of the national government over the state.And the pilgrimages in Kashmir are increasingly linked to rigid ideas of Indian nationalism.
The roots of this lie in Kashmir’s torn status. In colonial times, it was a princely state, with a Muslim-majority population. When the subcontinent was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947, Kashmir (now the state of Jammu and Kashmir) was ceded to India — but under certain conditions and with much of the populace clamoring to join Pakistan.
The U.N. recognizes Kashmir as disputed territory between India and Pakistan, and many Kashmiris seek independence or union with Pakistan. But Hindu nationalists, increasingly vocal and powerful throughout India, insist that it’s an integral part of the country — and the fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now controls both the national and the Jammu and Kashmir state government.
School textbooks already drill the notion of Kashmir as India’s northernmost territory into children’s heads, a viewpoint reinforced by angry TV pundits. The money being poured into pilgrimages reinforces this, mixing the national and the sacred to powerful effect. “Once you create sacred places in the valley, these lands cannot be easily alienated from mainland India,” said Peer GN Suhail, the director of the Centre for Research and Development Policy (CRDP) in Srinagar.
“The use of religious tourism, a seemingly secular activity, as a tool to control conflict areas is not unknown, and one of the best documented is the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the case of the Amarnath Yatra, the cave itself is not contested. What is similar between the two situations is the use of religious tourism to stake claim to a region,” said Swathi Seshadri, a researcher for the Bangalore-based advocacy organization Equations.
There are plenty of harsh mountain pilgrimages in the rest of India, such as Badrinath or Kedarnath. But they lack the nationalistic tinge that comes with the Amarnath pilgrimage, where devotees chant “Bharat me rehna hai, bam bam bhole kehna hai” — “If you want to live in India, you have to chant Shiva’s name” — a direct challenge to India’s huge Muslim minority.
Incidents of Hindu and Muslim extremism have fed on each other in the province; brutal declarations by each side stir the other. In 1995, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a Kashmiri militant outfit, announced that locals were forbidden from helping with the pilgrimage and threatened those who did. In turn, the Bajrang Dal, the militant arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, itself the ideological parent of the ruling BJP, called for all Indians to head to Amarnath, mobilizing more than 50,000 pilgrims.