While the issue of land for the Amarnath Yatra has been contentious since 2004, it was the declaration on 3 June 2008 stating that 800 kanals had been transferred to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) that triggered protests in the Kashmir Valley. Under pressure of protests the state government rescinded the order of the transfer on 1 July 2008. This in turn set-off a chain of protests in Jammu demanding the reinstatement of the land transfer order. Predictably local media in the valley as well as in Jammu were exercised about the issue and covered it extensively. While reportage tended to be polarized and polarizing, it is interesting to note the stress on traditions of communal harmony and pluralism and the anxiety that the protests were undermining this heritage in editorials and opinion articles.
The Kashmir Times, Jammu, editorialized: 'Potential implications of this polarization go far and wide; beyond politics and administration. Its ominous projections threaten to endanger communal peace and regional harmony. In short, we are face to face with a delicate problem which has exposed the fragility of the basis of our polity and put the spotlight on latent sectarian divisions between communities and regions.' (June 24, 2008) Another editorial on July 2 blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the regional and communal divide: 'Clearly, the Amarnath controversy exposes the double standards of the BJP leadership [the BJP government in Uttarakhand had limited the number of pilgrims to Gangotri and Gomukh to 150 a day from 2,000 on environmental grounds]. The entire politics should now come to an end with BJP stopping its hate soaked propaganda and the state government revoking the land transfer so that pilgrims can proceed for the cave without the unnecessary harassment due to the perpetual and prolonged strikes.' (KT) By highlighting the difference in BJP policy and attitude the editorial seemed to stress the dubious nature of the BJP support for the SASB reflecting a deeper anxiety about land acquisition by non-Kashmiris.
Shiv Nandan attempted to contextualize this 'vote bank politics' reminding readers of communal histories: 'Stop to speak to any mob of Shiv Sena/RSS 'protestors' and you will find that most of them are unemployed young men. The rubble of demolished mosques serves as a useful distraction from privatization of education, unemployment, price rise and large scale displacement of people in the name of development. ['] The Hindu right, by now, has learnt that breaking mosques, building temples and threatening minorities (particularly Muslims) ensures a good number of easy votes. ['] Faith is being appropriated for easy votes.' ('Jammu bandh, Bharat bandh: And all for votes,' KT, July 9, 2008) Nandan's analysis is not new but it is important in that he places the Jammu protests within the larger ambit of right wing Hindu mobilization in the rest of India.
Kashmir Times presented a strong, consistent anti-communal angle in its editorial and opinion pages. While Nandan and some other commentators blamed the Sangh Parivar for fomenting unrest in Jammu, there were others who positively contrasted Jammu & Kashmir with the rest of India in terms of pluralism and communal amity. Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal's piece was typical of the argument that the agitation in the Kashmir Valley was not motivated by religion or communal hatred: 'The basic issue was not religion but ownership and possession of land by SASB, which is not headed by a state citizen. Even as over a lakh people came out on the streets during the protests, something which no law and order agency could have contained, there was not a single incident of attacking the pilgrims and tourists physically or verbally. Religious and azadi slogans, which have become an expression of anti-State and anti-India sentiment in the last two decades, may have been raised. But no communal ones.' ('The Unholy Divide and Myths,' KT, July 6, 2008)
An editorial in Greater Kashmir, 'Land Transfer is different from Yatra,' made the same differentiation, stressing possibly dire consequences if the distinction was not maintained: 'The agony and its natural expression has nothing to do with yatra; it is solely concerned with land transfer. This distinction needs to be borne in mind in order to save the hapless region of Jammu and Kashmir from further traumas. Vested interests mischievously link the land transfer with yatra and some of them have gone to the extent of threatening that they will stop Kashmiri Muslims from performing Hajj. Why? Has anybody ever stopped a Hindu from performing his yatra; a Kashmiri Muslim cannot even think of that.' (June 27, 2008)
While highlighting the 'freedom' attained by Kashmiris protesting the SASB land acquisition, Arundhati Roy's article, reprinted from Outlook in Rising Kashmir, gave the lie to the idea of Jammu & Kashmir as a paradigm of communal harmony. Roy highlighted the plight of the Kashmiri Pundits: 'This one [freedom movement in Kashmir] cannot by any means call itself pristine, and will always be stigmatized by, and will some day, I hope, have to account for, among other things, the brutal killings of Kashmiri Pandits in the early years of the uprising, culminating in the exodus of almost the entire Hindu community from the Kashmir valley.' ('Land and Freedom,' RK, 24 August, 2008) Other articles and commentaries in Rising Kashmir tended to avoid the Kashmiri Pundit issue but they did make clear distinctions between a tolerant Jammu & Kashmir and a communal India.
An editorial stated: 'However, in Jammu and Kashmir their [BJP, Sangh Parivar] nefarious and criminal designs will never materialize. For the people of Kashmir have been practically observing the tolerance of highest order even in the present situation of turmoil. Even after losing four young boys and a girl besides more than 700 people getting injured in the violence perpetrated by the forces during the last week, not a single yatri visiting Amarnath cave has been manhandled or threatened on [sic] this land of Sufis.' ('Communal Cards,' RK, 1 July, 2008) The Sangh Parivar agenda was seen by one commentator as a 'means to defeat Kashmiri nationalism', and many pieces referred to the SASB as a body created to alter demographic patterns in the Valley.
Shuhab Hashmi declared that the land transfer controversy 'has taken the lid off an underlining fact that Jammu and Kashmir is a state divided on communal lines. ['] This is not for the first time that division between Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh has been exhibited in such a manner but it has, as per the cabinet memos shown to press by Mr [Muzaffar Hussain] Baig [Deputy Chief Minister] on Thursday, become official.' ('Divide J&K on communal lines; it's now official?' RK, June 21, 2008) Hashmi's was also a lament at the ways in which Kashmiri Muslims had been 'squeezed out' of positions of power and influence. He saw this as part of a larger pattern of discrimination which was a betrayal of Kashmir's pluralist history. 'In this backdrop the rich cultural ethos of Kashmir which comprises tolerance and compassion is shining, but there are forces who are hell bent on dividing the nation on communal and regional lines vindicating the forces who challenge state's accession with India and making a point that a Muslim cannot be safe in India.'
In contrast to articles harping on tolerance, there was a degree of paranoia and the circulation of conspiracy theories evident in some of the commentary especially ones which noted 'collaboration' between the Indian government and Israeli intelligence. These commentators tended to make absolute Hindu-Muslim distinctions. Ghulam Nabi Khayal wrote: 'The people of Kashmir have never expected any good from Jammu, but the most deplorable part of the story is that a section of runaway Kashmiri Pandits, now better known as Indian Hindus, have joined the bandwagon of hooligans more vehemently than others throwing all norms of decency to winds [sic] and acting against Muslims like barbarians.' ('The terror unabated,' Greater Kashmir, August 10, 2008) In another article, 'The real face of Delhi', Khayal referred to Gulab Singh's (the first Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir) 'atrocities' and presented Muslims as broadly secular. Commentary that used intemperate language and was overly biased was evident during the survey period.
These extreme articles were balanced by ones that reiterated the need for communal amity, even while emphasizing the brutality of Indian armed forces: 'A small baby Tawseef Ahmad has been brutally tortured in Sopur. Unarmed Imam at Bemina has been summoned and shot after having been beaten black and blue (Aug 13, 2008). On the contrary not a single yatri was hurt in the valley.' (Naila Neelofer, 'And a sentiment finds voice,' GK, August 21, 2008) The emphasis on tolerance here and elsewhere was to contrast it with the intolerance of the BJP, VHP, and Sangharsh Samiti agitating in Jammu.
This contrast was repeated in an editorial. 'Notwithstanding highly provocative statements made by some extremist and communal Hindu leaders and organizations about preventing people of the State from performing Haj or creating an economic blockade to [sic] Kashmir and starving people to death, people did not lose their calm and poise.' ('Respect Sensibilities,' GK, July 1, 2008) The purpose of these contrasts was to focus not only on political differences but introduce a moral hierarchy whereby Hindu leaders and their followers in Jammu were demeaned by their communal agendas.
In keeping with the moral high ground some commentaries dealt in broader issues. Professor Muhammad Aslam posited the need for a clearer separation of religion and state: 'It is unfortunate whenever the Government meddles with religious places here, it has created more problems both for the shrines and for the devotees. The state should wash its hands off these shrines and evolve a mechanism like the Ajmer Shrine so that our religious places do not become controversial and thereby lose their sanctity.' ('Professing secularism, practicing bigotry,' GK, July 1, 2008)
In a similar vein a Kashmir Times editorial asked for calm deliberation: 'It is absolutely clear that any decision that would suit just one side may only end up shifting the problem from one region to another. Therefore, a consensus, taking into account sensibilities of both sides, after hearing each other out patiently, must be taken.' ('Shun violence, debate', August 7, 2008) This sort of even-handed advice may have been necessary but given the rhetoric on both sides it seems a bit optimistic. However, it does summarize a continuing thread in the articles under survey: a desire for communal harmony, a need for calm deliberation rather than rabble rousing, and the need to pull back from a communal polarizing of the entire state.