Right to Vandalize

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With people trying to shadow environmental concerns by invoking religion the controversy surrounding Kousar Nag yatra refuses to die down. Shah Abbas tries to understand the perils of fiddling with nature by analysis recent statements made by separatists  

A scenic view of  Kousar Nag lake cuddled among snowcapped mountains. Pic: Umar Asif

A scenic view of Kousar Nag lake cuddled among snowcapped mountains.
Pic: Umar Asif

Peacenik cleric and head of Hurriyat’s moderate faction Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s recent statement regarding controversial Kousar Nag Yatra has raised many eyebrows, as he chose to differ from the masses.

Mirwaiz stated that Kashmiris are not against the Kousar Nag Yatra as long as it is carried out by Kashmiri Pandits (KP’s) exclusively. He has reservation only about non-state subjects making the pilgrimage!

Interestingly, Mirwaiz’s statement provoked environmentalist to react in unison and say, “our concern is the environment. How does it matter if a local or a non-local visits Kousar Nag? It’s the human intervention that will ruin the place.”

“Pir Panjal range has lost all its glaciers except in the Kousar Nag area. I am sure that when you put people in Kousar Nag it will get damaged and hence effect the very fragile environment,” feels Professor Shakil Romshoo, Head of the Department of Earth Science, University of Kashmir, who has worked extensively on glaciers in the region.

But ironically, the opposition to the controversial six-day yatra which passes through some of the eco-sensitive and virgin locations in south Kashmir is presented in such a way that it is the religion that dominates the discourse.

“Kousar Nag is plainly an environmental issue however it is being raised in such a way as if Kashmiris are opposed to it on the religious and regional bases,” feels Mushtaq Ahmad, a local activist who has visited the place once with his friends some two decades back. “We (Kashmiris) are not opposed to Kausar Nag Yatra because non-state subjects are part of it as Mirwaiz thinks. Our concern is the protection of water resources in the region,” says Mushtaq.

Kausar Nag is a natural water body situated in the lap of Pir Panchal mountain range at the height of more than 1200 feet above the sea level. It is the source of the famed Aharbal waterfall and two rivulets: Veshaw and Toungri.

The controversial statement was made during a seminar held at Hurriyat headquarters in Rajbagh, Srinagar recently commemorating sixth death anniversary of late Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz. “Communal elements are hell bent to create 2008 like situation in Jammu and Kashmir for the political benefits,” said Mirwaiz. “Regarding Kausar Nag Yatra issue, our only concern was that Reasi district administration had decided to divert the Vaishno Devi pilgrims to the destination.”

Mirwaiz advocated the Pandit pilgrimage as if it was going on since long. “Kashmiri Pandits are stake holders of this land like we are, so we were never against their pilgrimage to Kausar Nag. Pandits must come back and  should carry out their pilgrimage like they were doing in the past,” Mirwaiz told the gathering.

But contrary to Mirwaiz’s claims, environmentalists, natives, activists of The Kausar Nag Bachao Front (KNBF), and Pandits from Shopian district negate claims that Kausar Nag was ever a yatra destination.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq  addressing party members in Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq addressing party members in Srinagar.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

KNBF was formed by the locals of Kulgam district when government started arrangements for the controversial yatra.

Terming the government’s claims as ‘baseless’, Sajjad Noorabadi, General Secretary of the KNBF said that there is no historical background of the Kausar Nag Yatra. “It was never a place for Yatra. People used to go there just to travel with no religious intention.”

“In entire Kashmir, only two belts i.e. Shopian and Kulgam have adequate freshwater reserves as rivulets in these places are sourced from pristine Kousar Nag. You know the water is so clean that it needs no treatment and is fit for drinking as it is. The lake lacks any biotic intervention because it is too distant,” Noorabadi claimed.

“If the Kausar Nag Yatra is allowed it will destroy the ecology and natural recourses of the area especially water in the South Kashmir,” feels Romshoo. “You need to put in arrangements and facilities for such events which adversely affect the environment.”

Interestingly  even the Pandits living in the South Kashmir have never ever heard about any religious yatra to Kausar Nag.

Recently, Kashmiri Pandits had gathered at Devgam, Nagbal area of the Shopian district to participate in an annual puja.

The puja at Devgam, Nagbal is a traditional one and takes place at the local Temple situated at the bank of Ranbiara since decades.

Kashmir Life correspondent Sheikh Hilal met a number of Pandits who had reached Nagbal, to know their opinion about the controversial Kausar Nag Yatra. The people whom the correspondent talked included the representatives of local Pandit organisations as well.

“As per our knowledge Kausar Nag was never a religious pilgrimage destination although it is holy for us. But being residents of nearby Shopian town I have never heard of any religious yatra going to that place even none of our elders have told us about any kind of yatra before our migration,” said Vijay Shankar Lahori.

Lahori heads ‘The Teerath Raj Kripal Mouchan Temples and Shrines district Shopian’, an organisation representing Pandits of the South Kashmir district.

However, he added, that there were people from both the communities who would go to Kausar Nag for excursions and picnics.

Another Pandit and a known academician from district Shopian, Jawahar Lal who is in his 70s said, “In Nilmath Puraan it is mentioned that Kausar Nag is a Vishnu Paad (mark of holy foot of Vishnu) and people at individual level were visiting this place without publicizing the religion, but I have never ever heard about any annual yatra to this natural water body.” “People used to go for excursions there. I too have visited Kausar Nag thrice, once as a student and twice as a teacher with students before migration. Even my father never told me that there was any Yatra for a specific time,” Jawahar said.

Jawahar elaborated and said, “As our Muslim brothers can offer Nimaaz at any clean place so can we do puja. We should not make it a point of prestige between the two communities who want to live in communal harmony. It will never happen that a common Kashmiri Muslim will stop us from any religious activity but to give a religious colour to any controversial issue is not good.”

Chand ji Khar, another pandit from Kulgam who had come to Devgam, Nagbal, in Shopian termed the whole issue as ‘political’. “Some people for their personal as well as political gains use both communities. If someone wants to go to Kausar Nag what is the need to publicize it? This is merely to gain political mileage. These people have nothing to do with religion and it hardly matters to them whether the yatra would take place or not. They have their objectives and I think they achieved that.”

But Mirwaiz seems to be “impressed” and “influenced” by the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Kausar Nag issue. Singh claimed that before the onset of militancy in 1989, traditionally the devotees used to visit the Kausar Nag Lake situated at an altitude of about 12,000 feet in Pir Panjal range. Singh had said the devotees used to visit Kausar Nag in an unorganized manner to perform puja on the day of Naag Panchami in the Shravan month of Hindu calendar.

Pertinently, the separatist leaders including hardliner Syed Ali Geelani are opposed to any annual religious yatra to Kausar Nag whether it is of non-local Hindus or Kashmiri Pandits.

Even environmental experts believe that any such yatra would damage the fragile ecology of the area. “We do not oppose the yatra because outsiders would come to Kausar Nag, this is utter racism, we are opposed to it only to protect the environment,” an environmentalist who teaches at University level told Kashmir Life. He added, “how does it matter whether yatri’s are locals or non-locals, the issue is that such places should not be used in the name of religion.”

The state legislative committee on environment is also opposed to any religious Yatra to Kausar Nag. The committee according to an official statement maintained in its last meeting that any pilgrimage to Kausar Nag and other such places with sensitive environment can prove disastrous and affect Kashmir’s climate.

Pertinently, Jammu & Kashmir has a vast Yatra network which has created controversies in the past as well. Experts are of the opinion that most of these religious Yatras have emerged quite recently and damaged the water resource very badly.

Some of the recently introduced Hindu Yatras are Shiv Khori in Reasi, Vaishno Devi, Buda Amarnath Yatra, Machail Yatra, Kailash Kund Yatra, Sindu Darshan, Guphbal Yatra and now the Kausar Nag Yatra.

“Since I belong to South Kashmir and remember that during my childhood there were not more than 200 Yatris going annually to Amarnath. But what happened later. I apprehend that same will happen to Kausar Nag,” says Romshoo.

Many socio-political parties including separatists allege that making Kashmir a Hindu pilgrimage destination is a “well planned and designed political decision” taken at the highest level of policy making in New Delhi. “The aim of such policy is to attract more and more people from India towards Kashmir,” Geelani said alleging “The plan is to hold these Indian Nationals in Kashmir after a certain period of time so that the demography of Muslim majority J&K is disturbed.”

Citing the example of non local labourers Geelani added, “In the beginning these labourers would stay here for summers only but you see now they remain in Kashmir even in the harsh winters and they have erected temporary tented residencies in every part of the valley.” The old and ailing separatist leader who alleges India for “cultural aggression” on Kashmir apprehended, “who knows what will happen in future if these non-local labourers would refuse to leave and ask for citizenship rights?” Geelani also alleges that the presence of non-local labourers which according to him is being encouraged at state level has also made the locals Kam Choor (lethargic).

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