It is agonising to note that owing to the complete negligence on the part of the Jammu & Kashmir government as well as the Central government, 95 pilgrims have died on the way to Amarnath Yatra. Every year the pilgrims are dying on their way to the holy cave and it is a matter of great regret that because of the lack of proper aid and amenities, the death toll is rising. Men women and children have been trekking without medical and other cares. Medical camps on the trek route lack basic amenities. No wonder the pilgrims’s death count on the mountain trail looks set to cross last year’s toll of 105—which marked a spike over the 68 deaths in 2010 and 45 in 2009. The trip to the venerated Himalayan shrine involves an arduous trek in extreme cold conditions along a narrow path to reach an altitude of about 12,755 feet. It is a matter of common knowledge that the path leading to the holy cave is not only very narrow but is even unprotected. The media pictures also show that hardly any amenity is available for yatris in and around the holy cave, though thousands of people, who throng the holy cave, have to wait for hours and days for having the darshan. Even against this backdrop, the J&K Health Director said that it was not practical to provide camps every two kilometres. And Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who linked the rising incidents of deaths to issues of age, poor fitness levels and lack of acclimatisation, may have to eat crow, as it is the responsibility of the state to provide a fool-proof system involving multi-stage health screening, ensuring that those who have not registered through the proper process are not allowed to risk their lives. Although there are medical aid posts set up by the state government, their efficacy in handling life-threatening situations remain to be assessed. But coming to the rescue of the pilgrimages, the Supreme Court of India cracked a whip on the Central and state governments. Taking a suo motu note of media reports of pilgrims’ deaths, a bench of justices BS Chauhan and Swatanter Kumar directed the two governments to explain the causes for the growing fatalities and the facilities being provided to them.
It is comforting to note that the Supreme Court has decided to appoint a high-power committee to look into the deaths, which reflects concerns that have been immensely felt. Of course, it is the Centre in collaboration with the Jammu & Kashmir government which should have taken the initiative to work out remedial steps. But then—like in so many other cases— the UPA regime has been apathetic in its response to this crisis that has been consuming human lives. One of the major factors behind such a high increase in mortality this year is that the yatra duration has been squeezed drastically from the usual 60 days (earlier it was for 120 days) to just 39 days. The seeds of negligence on the part of the state government to the Amarnath Yatra are rooted in the controversy with Mufti Mohd. Sayeed’s assuming office in a PDP-Congress alliance in the state. Mufti wanted to curtail the Yatra while Shri Amarnath Shrine Board sought to expand the scope and span of the Yatra. Mufti’s initial argument of security concerns could not be sustained as his government was in the same breath seeking to promote domestic and international tourism on the premise of improving security scenario in the state. It was only a matter of time before separatist and fundamentalist quarters took the cue from PDP and joined the fray. The pitch of the propaganda to present Yatra as a deadly monster against Muslims was built during the rule of Congress-PDP alliance in the state. And recently when the land transfer to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board created uproar in Valley it was not a sudden eruption. It was a carefully crafted eruption. Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq articulated the political horizons of this campaign by describing it as an attempt to engineer a change in the demography of the Kashmir Valley on the pattern of Israeli policy in Palestine. In the public realm environmental issues were also raked up to camouflage the communal campaign on the ground. Even the ecological concerns were replete with communal hatred. Scores of pilgrimages and congregations involving lakhs of devotees take place at the Shrines of Hazratbal, Chrar-i-Sharief, and dozens of other places in the Valley. Why did the civil society in the Valley never rake the issues of environmental damage in such cases? Despite this communal campaign, this Yatra occupies an outstanding position on the national and international pilgrimage map and the pilgrimage now registers an exponential growth in terms of participation of pilgrims and that’s the reason the Hon’ble High Court also gave unambiguous suggestion in 2004 that the period of this Yatra should be at least for two months. So, the government must respect the beliefs of the yatris, as the state cannot be impervious to the pilgrims’ distress. The pilgrimage to Amarnath should be seen beyond sectarianism.