An ugly controversy on diversion of land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) has led to the ouster of Ghulam Nabi Azad government in Jammu & Kashmir. On 7 July, Azad made an emotional speech in the state assembly, while moving the motion for a trust vote. He listed his achievements, praised the generosity of the central government in liberally funding various projects to the state, and decried separatists. But instead of asking for a division of votes to prove his majority he opted out and tendered his resignation to governor Narendra Nath Vohra.

Azad sought to redeem some moral ground by claiming that he did not want to stick to his position amid an ugly Jammu versus Kashmir battle. Nevertheless, Azad was faced with a very real threat of losing the trust vote in the assembly in a highly surcharged atmosphere. Events leading to Azad's dramatic exit were triggered by the flip-flop of the state government on the diversion of 800 kanals of land to SASB.

The SASB is entrusted with the responsibility of conducting the annual Amarnath yatra. Broadly, its mandate is to provide facilities to the pilgrims who visit the holy cave of Shri Amarnath in south Kashmir. In fact, it would be more appropriate to say that it creates and regulates facilities for the pilgrims. The cave is located in a snowfall area far beyond the tree line on higher reaches and can be accessed only for about three months in a year. For the rest of the year it remains under heavy snow and, thus, is difficult to reach.

The facilities created for the pilgrims are temporary in nature and comprise mainly pre-fabricated huts, mostly toilets, since it does not make sense to try to create any permanent or even semi-permanent structures on glaciers. So the land was diverted, temporarily, for the duration of the pilgrimage, to the SASB by the state government led by the Azad. Incidentally, the allotment was made by the government on the recommendations of the forest ministry headed by Qazi Mohammed Afzal, his cabinet colleague Tariq Hamid Qarra and Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussein Beigh. All the three gentlemen belong to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a coalition partner in Azad-led government. The three PDP ministers headed the forest, law and the tourism ministry, respectively. Besides, Mr Beigh was the number two in the state cabinet.

Azad took the rather unusual step of addressing a press conference and going on record in public that the inputs of the trio formed the very basis of land allotment. Speaking to reporters in the summer capital Srinagar on 25 June, he categorically said that his cabinet colleagues from PDP were involved in the process of land allotment, from the very beginning! His statement came in the wake of PDP leader Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's demand for cancellation of allotment of land.

Treacherous yatra route and inclement weather should not leave room for petty politics

Twelve years ago, a raging snowstorm claimed lives of 250 pilgrims. When the calamity struck, hundreds of them were stranded without shelter amid inclement weather on way to the cave shrine. Fewer people used to undertake the yatra then, in the year 1996 to be precise, as the total number of pilgrims seldom touched one lakh.

Stung by all-round criticism, the central government set up the Nitish Sengupta committee to suggest remedial measures to prevent recurrence of similar tragedy. The committee suggested regulation of the pilgrimage, registration of the pilgrims and creation of robust temporary shelters for pilgrims during the yatra.

In 2000, the state government headed by Farooq Abdullah created the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board (SASB), mainly to look after the Amarnath pilgrims. The board became functional from the next year, beginning February 2001.

It was to follow the pattern of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB). The SMVDSB was created in 1986 when 14 lakh pilgrims used to visit Vaishno Devi. By 2007, this figure had crossed 70 lakh and in the near future it is likely to touch one crore per annum. The similarities between the two boards end here.

The SMVDSB inherited land, buildings and other assets from Dharmarth Trust and Vaishno Devi is the second richest Hindu shrine in India after Shri Tirupati. In contrast, the SASB does not own land anywhere on Amarnath yatra route or elsewhere. Yet, it is supposed to provide facilities matching with those provided by the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board.

Thus, the SASB was forced to request the government to identify and allocate land for creation of temporary facilities for the Amarnath pilgrims. The need for this can be imagined if one is to consider 51 deaths of pilgrims – 48 of natural causes and three in accidents -- until July 15 after this season’s Yatra commenced on June 17.

A case is also pending before a Division Bench of the Jammu & Kashmir High Court regarding allocation of land for pilgrim facilities and other matters related to Amarnath yatra.

Earlier, Azad had offered to convene an all-party meeting to thrash out the issue. This olive branch mainly meant for Mufti was torn to shreds rather unceremoniously. Mufti first threatened to part ways with the Congress over what PDP termed as an 'anti-Kashmiri move' and then actually did this.

Part of the diverted land falls under Ganderbal, the electoral constituency and virtual fief of the Abdullahs for decades till Qazi Afzal trounced Omar in the 2002 assembly elections. Farooq sensed an opportunity of nailing down his bete noire and thus threw the proverbial first stone by questioning the wisdom of the land allotment to SASB though initially there had been no reaction in the valley against the move. Farooq Abdullah's reaction to the land allotment was not strident or tough. Yet it made news. And then all hell broke loose after the then chief executive officer of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board Arun Kumar made a statement which communalised the whole situation.

Kumar has ever since been attached to the general administration department, as punishment for alleged violation of civil services rules. In his defence, Kumar says that he stepped in only when rumours about Hindu colonisation of Kashmir valley by the SASB became rather vicious. He also pointed out that it was his duty as CEO of the SASB to try to set the records straight. In fact, the timing of the whole episode also made it very peculiar. It happened when Lt Gen (retd) S K Sinha, the then governor, was about to demit office (he did so on 25 June) and as chairman of the SASB, he left it to Kumar to speak.

At that time, rumours were floating in Kashmir that the SASB was hatching a sinister conspiracy to change the essentially Muslim demography of the Kashmir valley. Several local newspapers had written, either directly or insinuated that large numbers of Hindus would be brought in from outside and settled on the land diverted to the SASB. Never mind the fact that it is not possible for anyone to settle on such heights where not a blade of grass grows. The newspapers also conveniently glossed over the fact that under Article 370, no outsider can become a permanent resident of Jammu & Kashmir. Separatists fanned these rumours and mobilised large crowds for protest. This led to death of five persons across the valley.

The two mainstream political opponents fighting for the Kashmiri Muslim votes, the NC led by father-son duo of Farooq and Omar Abdullah, and the PDP led by father-daughter combine of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti, are largely to blame for what happened. They made no effort whatsoever to counter the bogey of Hinduisation of Kashmir. Of the two, the PDP will have to take a large share of the blame as it was a part of the ruling coalition when it all started.

When contacted for their comments, most of the NC leaders explained why they kept quiet and looked the other way: As opposition party, it was not their responsibility to help the government. Going a step further, they also accused the government of failing to solicit its support for normalising the situation. Not that the Congress party, which was leading the government, did not contribute to vitiate situation by failing to scotch rumours of Hindu colonisation of Muslim Kashmir.