As Jammu and Kashmir officials emphasise that religious places—closed since a national lockdown on 24 March—will not open soon, the government discusses logistics for the Amarnath Yatra. Governor does puja, telecast by national broadcaster for first time
Srinagar: Mosques and shrines stayed shut, as Covid-19 cases surged in Jammu & Kashmir, but the government prepared to allow a restricted edition of the Amarnath Yatra, an annual Hindu pilgrimage hundreds of years old.
Religious preachers said the government’s double standards were unfair.
By 8 July 2020, Kashmir had reported 7,048 cases and Jammu had logged 1,883 cases of the pandemic set off by a coronavirus. The same day, the government opened to the public all parks and gardens, shut since March.
As officials emphasised that religious places—closed since the national lockdown began on 24 March—would not open any time soon, a government committee met to discuss the logistics for the yatra.
“Religious places/places of worship shall continue to remain closed till further orders,” a government order issued on 4 July read.
The same day, the information department announced that chief secretary B V R Subrahmanyam chaired a meeting of a sub-committee constituted by the Supreme Court for the Amarnath Yatra.
“Keeping in view the present coronavirus pandemic situation, it was informed that adequate stock of drugs, consumable items, sleeping bags, besides PPE (personal protection equipment) kits and masks are being made available to the doctors and paramedical staff being deployed for yatra duty,” the release said.
On 22 June, the Supreme Court lifted its stay on the annual Rath Yatra at the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha, but said the annual ceremony should be conducted “in a limited way without public attendance”. A few days earlier, the court had said, “Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow this.”
A bench led by Chief Justice Sharad A Bodbe via teleconference ordered “strict curfew” in Puri for the duration of the festival, The Hindu reported. All entry points to the city remained closed during this period.
Delays But No Cancellation
In the 4 July meeting, the chief secretary said that the Baba Amarnath Aarti would be telecast live on Doordarshan this year, as only 500 yatris would be allowed to travel daily to the shrine in southern Anantnag district, 141 km south of Srinagar. The start of the yatra was delayed by a month to 21 July because of the pandemic. The 42-day yatra will likely be shorter this year and end on 3 August.
A day after the review meeting was held, Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu visited the shrine, located in a cave at an altitude of 3,888 m and performed the pratham aarti (first worship) of a holy ice stalagmite within. The event was telecast live by India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharti for the first time.
The health department, overburdened by the Covid-19 crisis, is preparing to send a team of doctors on Amarnath duty. “A list of some 160 doctors has been prepared who will go on yatra duty,” said a Kashmir health department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We will also be writing to the directorate of health services in Jammu and the central government to send a team of doctors.” Around 200-300 doctors are sent on yatra duty every year.
Religious preachers said if the yatra was allowed, other shrines should open.
“No one in Kashmir will ever be against the yatra,” said a religious preacher who did not wish to be named. “But the government should also realise that (restrictions in) the pandemic are not for a certain section of society it is for everyone. If the yatra is allowed, mosques and shrines should also be opened.”
Other preachers—all requested anonymity—concurred. In 2019, days before the abrogation of the special status of J&K, the police compiled records of mosques and priests in Kashmir, and they are now scared to speak to reporters.
Anup Kumar Soni, additional chief executive officer of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board said he couldn’t confirm that the yatra would go ahead. “It hasn’t been decided yet whether the yatra will take place this year or not,” said Soni. “There will be a board meeting, and then a decision will be taken.”
Asked how the chief secretary had already held a review meeting, Soni said, “It was just a meeting about preparedness, no decision on the yatra was taken.”
Shamim Shah, who runs Shah Travel Agency in Srinagar said that no tickets had been booked for the yatra yet. “This year the number of yatris who will be allowed to visit the shrine is 500 per day,” said Shah. “It is to be seen out of 500 how many will come because of the pandemic.”
Who Controls The Waqf?
On 24 March, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, religious gatherings were banned across the country.
Because of the closure of shrines and mosques, no religious gatherings were allowed in Kashmir. The annual Shab-e-Mehraj celebration—when thousands of Kashmiris throng shrines to participate in night-long prayers—was suspended.
Similarly, important commemorative days, such as Shab-e-Barat; Shab-e-Qadr; Eid-e-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan; and several important annual Urs prayers were cancelled this year because of the pandemic.
The closure of 133 mosques and shrines in Kashmir has hit the annual income of the Waqf Board, which is in charge of maintenance. The board usually earns between Rs 20-25 crore from donations to shrines and mosques every year.
Since 5 August 2019, when the special status of J&K was scrubbed, the former state was downgraded to a union territory and a curfew imposed for five months, the earnings of the board, one of Kashmir’s asset rich organisations, have plunged.
“The Board receives an annual amount of 20 crore as nazrana (donations) from shrines and mosques, but because of the first abrogation of the special status of J&K, and now the cancellation of religious festivals because of the pandemic, the board has lost about Rs 15 crore till date,” said an official at the board.
“It is not only the Waqf board that lost money, but the peer sahiban and other people associated with Waqf and work at shrines and mosques are solely dependent on people who would give them nazrana (bestowment),” said Mufti Fareed-ud-din, Chief Executive Officer of the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Waqf Board. “Since last year we haven’t been able to generate revenue.” The board employs 1,005 people.
Repealing The State Waqf Act
When the central government last year repealed over 100 state laws, the state Waqf Act was also repealed and India’s Waqf Act, 1995, was extended to the union territory of J&K. However, the acts that oversee Hindu and Sikh shrines remained unchanged.
The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act (2019) reads, “Jammu and Kashmir Muslim specified Waqf and Waqf properties (Management and Regulation) Act, 2004 will be repealed on 31 October, 2019 and the central Waqf Act, 1995 will be extended to the union territory of Jammu & Kashmir.”
The Act further states, “AmarnathJi shrine Act 2000, J&K Shri Mata Sukhrala Devi Ji Shrine and Shri Mata Bala Sundhari Shrine Act 2013, Shri Vaishno Devi Shrine Act 1998, Shri Shiv Khori Shrine Act 1999 and J&K Sikh Gurdwara and Religious Endowment Act 1998 will be kept intact.”
Days after the repeal, the vice-chairman of the Waqf Board wrote to the then Governor Satya Pal Malik and asked him to retain the State Act as they have done with the Acts of other religious bodies. The VC Act safeguards the properties of the board while the central Act makes them vulnerable. Nine months later, the government is yet to respond to the letter.
After the repeal of the state Waqf Act, the board has been left to fend for themselves. Since 31 October, when J&K was downgraded to a union territory, the board is neither under the control of the central government nor the administration of the governor.
“The Central Act has only been implemented on paper, in actuality the board at present is not functioning under any Act. It is headless,” said a former vice- chairman of the Waqf Board who did want to be named. “No new policies are being framed, the board meetings, where important policy matter decisions would be taken and then accordingly implemented, are not taking place. This has become a defunct board.”
“It is the central government that has to decide whether the central Waqf board will control the affairs of J&K Waqf Board or not,” said Achal Sethi, J&K’s law secretary
(Shafaq Shah is a freelance journalist based in Sringar.)