Kashmir Pilgrimage Offers Hope For Hindu-Muslim Unity

9 December 2008
Wall Street Journal
Sameer Mohindru

Amarnath: The annual pilgrimage to Amarnath cave in the southern Himalayas has been a rare example of Hindu-Muslim unity in India for centuries. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Hindus trek through snow-clad peaks to the sacred cave of Amarnath, 3,888 meters above sea level, during a two-month period between June and August.This year, the pilgrimage drew a record 550,000 travelers to India's only Muslim-majority state. Yet it also sparked unprecedented religious violence and led to the fall of the Jammu and Kashmir state government. Elections are under way in the province, with results due at the end of this month. Thousands of soldiers have been deployed to provide protection during the campaign. At least two anti-election protesters were shot after attempting to prevent citizens from voting. The annual Amarnath journey is believed to be one of the world's oldest religious pilgrimages; historical references date back at least 2,000 years. Each winter, a natural stalagmite forms in the sacred grotto in a shape that many Hindus associate with the Hindu god Shiva. Thanks to the high altitude and cold temperatures, the formation is still there in early summer when religious trekkers first arrive; it melts gradually during the summer months. The pilgrimage is a crucial source of income for local Muslims who have long welcomed the travelers - housing and feeding them, selling religious memorabilia and even sheltering trekkers during deadly storms in the scenic but sometimes harsh environment. A Kashmiri hiring out a pack pony to Amarnath cave visitors stands to earn more than 3,000 rupees ($61) a trip, and can make at least 30 such trips during the two-month pilgrimage season. This adds up to a large amount in an area where the average annual income is about 16,000 rupees. Tourism has traditionally been a mainstay of Kashmir's economy. The industry was badly damaged when separatist violence and deadly terror attacks peaked in the 1990s. But the immensely popular pilgrimage has helped sustain the sector. 'Most pilgrims spend a couple of days visiting other places in Kashmir, which has added to the number of tourists,' said Mohammad Ashraf, a Srinagar-based cab driver. The Kashmir region is divided between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan. The nations have fought two wars over Kashmir since their independence from the U.K. in 1947. Muslim separatists have been battling the Jammu and Kashmir government since 1989; more than 68,000 people have died in related violence. In the mid-1990s, militants tried to ban the Amarnath pilgrimage, but locals defied the decree. This year, violence erupted after the state government announced it would transfer a 40-hectare piece of land to a Hindu trust to provide shelter for Amarnath pilgrims during the summertime trek. The plan angered scores of Kashmiri Muslims, who reacted with waves of protests. Counterprotests broke out in the adjacent Hindu-dominated Jammu region. The police response left 39 Muslims and three Hindus dead. The Jammu and Kashmir state government lost its legislative majority in June over the land transfer issue and the region came under temporary federal control. 'Amarnath became the rallying point' but there were other longstanding social and political grievances, said Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst with electoral research firm Voters Mood. Separatists are continuing to urge a boycott in the final weeks of the current election. Voting, they say, only reinforces and legitimizes India's control of Kashmir and its mainly Muslim population. So far, voter turnout has been a robust 65%. 'The large voter turnout doesn't mean Kashmiris have given up their demand for independence, but it shows their interest in good local governance,' said Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy of the School of International Studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. In coming months, as workers and security forces clear the pilgrimage route and Hindus plan their 2009 treks, Amarnath will once more serve as a yardstick for religious tolerance in the world's largest democracy. This time, it will do so in the shadow of November's Mumbai terror attacks and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims.