How some faith-based land claims are more equal than others
Nothing infuriates people more than double standards and indeed, this is something the BJP constantly plays upon with its accusations of "Muslim appeasement". Yet, in at least two recent instances involving religious sites in different corners of the continent – Amarnath in Kashmir and the 'Ram setu' – the appeasement of Hindutva forces at the expense of everything else, including actual Hindu sentiment, is glaring. The mainstream media does it, the political parties do it, and sad to say, the security forces are doing it, with one army officer allegedly saying they could not fire upon protestors chanting 'pro-India' slogans, even as they uprooted rail tracks and smashed public property. Alas, no such qualms were displayed when it came to Kashmiri fruit sellers defying an illegitimate blockade or even wounded people in ambulances. Evidently, all one has to do while abusing the law is wave the tiranga, never mind that in doing so one is cheapening the flag itself.
Curiously, none of the television channels covering the Amarnath issue have interviewed the yatris themselves, many of whom have disowned the agitation in Jammu being waged in their name. Instead, they give space to rabid 'citizen-bloggers' with little knowledge of or connection to the shrine, who falsify its history and location in the Kashmiri emotional and economic landscape. Ignoring the inconvenient truth that the shrine was discovered in the 18th century by a Muslim Gujjar, one of these activists claimed the pilgrimage was 2000 years old. There are exaggerators among the valley people too: Clearly, the claim that the land transfer will lead to demographic change is one such. But the issue is more complex. Even as the locals are dependent on the yatra for income, they also suffer from the environmental impact of the increased numbers. As Gautam Navlakha writes in the Economic and Political Weekly, the increase in pilgrims from 12,000 in 1989 to over 4 lakh today, has nearly killed the Lidder river, with some 55,000 kg of waste being generated every year. On the other hand, even as more pilgrims flock to the site, the extension of the yatra from 2 weeks to 10 with the shivaling buttressed by artificial ice, is a mockery of their faith, since it is the very naturalness of such formations that are signs of wonder. In other words, both pilgrims and locals would gain from some balance. Ironically, however, the very party that shouts the loudest about the safety of pilgrims, or the sadhus and saints trying to act as mediators, are silent about the inadequate arrangements leading to the recent death of pilgrims at the shrines of Naina Devi in Himachal and Kota in Rajasthan.
It is also instructive to compare Amarnath with the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa, where a faith-based land claim – this time by adivasis and not caste Hindus – has been casually brushed aside by everyone from politicians, to the courts and the media.
What the two areas share in common is the worship of nature and the traditional entwinement of such sacred groves and hill shrines with biodiversity. Whether one should emphasise the sacredness or the importance for conservation can be debated. But either way, this intuitive traditional connection is being rapidly brushed aside by a commodified, market-driven, aggressive Hindutva, where faith is identified with portable prayer cassettes, video discourses, religious blogs and credit card offerings.
The courts have often declared in the context of personal law cases -- and the constitution's reservation clauses reinforce this -- that adivasis are not Hindus. In which case, their religious sites deserve as much protection as Hindu sites, if not more, since they are irreplaceable. While Hindus can visit Amarnath or Vaishno Devi or any one of a number of teerths, all that the Dongria Kondhs have is their Niyamgiri hills, the sacred home of the Niyam Raja, their law giver. Destroy the hill and you have destroyed an entire religion. Yet when the lawyer for the Kondhs tried to represent this point in the court in the face of government efforts to hand the land over to a private company for mining, he was not allowed to speak. Compare this to the patient hearing the Courts gave the Ram Setu petitioners, or the discussion in the Australian courts of aboriginal faith in the Hindmarsh bridge affair. While the courts may feel they have done their bit for tribal welfare, and indeed, insisting on special provisions for tribal development is important, it is clear that the Kondhs feel otherwise. What is a special fund of Rs 10 crore against the loss of an entire way of life and religious system? Yet if the Kondhs were to rebel in the name of their faith or their livelihood, we know they would not be treated with the kid gloves being used for the Jammu agitators. There would be no dialogue here, only the charge of Naxalism.
Even if faith was not at issue, there are very sound environmental reasons not to allow Vedanta to blast Niyamgiri. When experts predict water scarcity on a colossal scale, how wise is it to destroy a forested hill top which feeds 32 streams and two rivers?
When the faith of a small defenceless group can be ignored with impunity while agitators of one religion who don't even speak for their co-religionists get special treatment, the country is sending out a strong message. But whether that message is compatible with our constitution and our civilisational traditions is another question.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Hindustan Times on August 26, 2008)