The unfortunate events in Jammu & Kashmir regarding the transfer of land by the government to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board call for each one’s urgent attention and involvement.
What began as a simple effort to facilitate Amarnath pilgrims has suddenly developed communal and political overtones. This is appalling when compared to the facilities offered to the Haj and the Vaishno Devi pilgrims.
In an attempt to bring this to the attention of every responsible citizen of India, we would like you to have the benefit of some facts stated below.
In keeping with public policy statements, the Government of India makes elaborate arrangements for the welfare of Haj pilgrims and strives to improve the facilities provided to them every year. That is how it should be. The Government of India, and the ministry of external affairs in particular, deserves credit for providing perhaps the best arrangements that any government makes for their Haj pilgrims.
For eg: As reported in a newspaper article, here are the facts about the facilities provided to Haj pilgrims.
1. To begin with, the government provides an airfare subsidy to about 100,000 pilgrims selected by the Haj Committee of India who go for Haj annually. Pilgrims pay only Rs 12,000 for their air travel. This figure has remained unchanged for at least a decade or more. According to official figures, this subsidy was Rs 280 crores in 2006, or about Rs 28,000 per pilgrim. Today, with rising fuel prices, this figure would have gone up to Rs 350-400 crore. There is also a seperate Haj Terminal at Delhi International Airport.
2. There is a separate Haj cell in the ministry of external affairs. The Haj Committee of India has its own premises in Mumbai. Similarly the State Haj Committees have their own premises in various other Indian cities. These facilities have been built on land provided by the state governments.
3. Accommodation in Mecca and Medina is decided keeping in mind the need to provide maximum convenience and comfort to the pilgrims. Typically, all accommodation has lifts, telephones, running water, electricity and telephone at the minimum. There is total computerisation of pilgrim location and movement.
4. For Haj 2007, a contingent of 115 doctors (including 63 specialists with post-graduate degrees) and 141 nurses and other para-medical staff, 3 coordinators, 46 assistant Haj officers, 165 Haj assistants and 186 Khadimul Hujjaj were sent from India on short-term deputation to Saudi Arabia. Special attention is given to medical facilities for the pilgrims.
5. Some of the facilities provided by the government are: arrangements for polio, meningitis and influenza vaccinations for pilgrims before departure; a 75-bed hospital and 12 branch offices-cum-dispensaries in Mecca; a 15-bed hospital and 6 branch offices-cum-dispensaries in Medina; three medical teams at Jeddah airport to provide medical care round the clock to Haj pilgrims; 17 ambulances in Mecca and Medina; supply of medicines, medical supplies and critical medical equipment from India. All this adds up to the total money spent by the government to facilitate a hassle-free Haj pilgrimage each year for tens of thousands of Muslims from India.
What is due to one community by logic and fair practice is due to another. And yet in a discriminatory treatment lakhs of pilgrims who have been going to Amarnath for years have been denied basic human facilities. The question is what took them so long to consider these facilities and not whether or not they should be provided.
There isn’t any adequate medical and sanitary facilities for the pilgrims of Amarnath Shrine. As the agitation continues, it has been reported that a water bottle costing Rs 14 was sold at Rs 70. And a khacchar or a pony that took pilgrims at the cost of Rs 1,500 charged an abominable Rs 10,000. Compare this with the subsidies for Haj Pilgrims. Buses of pilgrims were also stoned by unruly elements.
The whole agitation was started by the Peoples Democratic Party on the absurd presumption that providing these basic facilities to the travelling pilgrims will result in a changed “eco-cultural character” of the state. Does this imply that Kashmir only has a “Muslim” character?
Kashmir originally and lawfully belongs to both Hindus and Muslims. Nevertheless, 4,00,000 Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of Kashmir and are living as refugees and now even the very thought of Hindus settling in Kashmir is creating such violent repercussions. Is this a sign of a secular, healthy, fair society?
Even if we were to presume that it has a Muslim character, how can travelling pilgrims possibly change eco-cultural character of a place. Can there be a likelihood of someone settling down at the height of 13,500 ft? There can not be any possibility of Hindus settling down in the proposed land.
It is ironical that though the Hindus are being denied basic hospitable facilities to enable their pilgrimage, the temporary, pre-fabricated shelters built by the Amarnath Shrine Board were dismantled and sent for emergency relief operations during the earthquake in Kashmir in October 2005. “About 60-70 pre-fab shelters were sent to Uri and Tangdhar, where they housed thousands,” a senior Government official is reported to have said. “The Amarnath Board also sent pre-fab toilets. There was no objection from any political party at that point.”
For centuries pilgrims have been making the arduous trip to Amarnath cave without any benefit from the state. They have to depend to private philanthropy for food, accommodation and other facilities. It is shameful that people have lived in torn taurpaulin tents. But a caring State in independent India can and should do more.