India Insight

More pilgrims mean more trouble for shrines in north India

Nestled in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand attracts increasing numbers of visitors every year. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of visitors to the state rose nearly 200 percent to 30.3 million. With major Hindu shrines located in the state, about 70 percent of the tourists who visit the state visit religious sites. That is a worrying sign for ecologically fragile areas such as Kedarnath – a small temple town located 3,583 metres (11,755 feet) above sea level and almost entirely washed out in recent flash floods.

The rush to the Himalayas has been accompanied by a haphazard pattern of growth that might not be sustainable. A study by infrastructure group IL&FS IDC Ltd showed that the carrying capacities – maximum number of persons an environment can support — of various tourist centres in Uttarakhand reached saturation levels in 2010.

It is in this context that some environmentalists have been calling the devastating floods a man-made catastrophe. “Ecological fragility sets limits. Today these limits are being violated … and the pilgrimage to the Char Dhams is being turned into crass consumerist mass tourism,” said activist Vandana Shiva in an email conversation with me. (To see pictures from the flood crisis, click here)

A booming economy, young population and better infrastructure led to about 900 million visits to various domestic destinations, including to another Himalayan shrine, the Amarnath cave, in 2012. Located in a narrow gauge in Kashmir, this snow-covered shrine attracted more than 600,000 Hindu pilgrims last year, up more than 30 percent from 2010.

This year, the tour operators in the state expect even more pilgrims, though the board overseeing the pilgrimage arrangements refuses to put a number to the expected rush. “Number (of pilgrims) is fixed – 7500 per day, per route (there are two routes to the cave),” NK Choudhary, CEO of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board told me in a telephone interview.

Finding harmony in music and Islam

The grand mufti whose words against music ended the short career of an all-girl teenage pop band in Kashmir last month made me wonder: is music really un-Islamic? He said that if women indulge in indecent, immoral acts such as singing, it would be a step toward their destruction. Is it really that simple in Islam? Of course it isn’t.

On one hand, you find words in the Qur’an such as “Zoor” – an Arabic word used for “falsehood” and musical expressions; “Laghv” – vain words and actions, useless entertainment;  ”Ghina” – prolonged sonic vibration, with pitch changes to such an extent that it might as well be “singing”, and of course, it’s sinful. According to another interpretation, singing, reciting poetry and playing instruments is allowed on occasions such as weddings and other festivals. Then there is debate going on all the while.

Music is also said to affect the body in a negative way – increasing blood pressure, impeding digestion, releasing adrenaline. All this could excite men’s lust and desire, and destroy their brotherhood and make them angry. If women do it, they should do it only around other women. And then there are videos like this, which clearly demonstrate another point of view.

‘Nobody can stop you if you engage in art with dignity’: Zila Khan on singing and Islam

The members of Praagaash, an all-girl band in Kashmir, split up this week after an influential cleric deemed their music un-Islamic. Zila Khan, one of India’s most popular sufi singers and daughter of sitar maestro Vilayat Khan, spoke to Reuters about how singing is closest to worship and meditation and how children should be allowed to sing.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Questions about Grand Mufti of Kashmir and Islam are best answered by experts in the field of religion. I am an expert in music, it will be no use pondering on subjects that I am not an authority on. There will be more experts to say better things on this issue. I can, however, talk about music, on my journey as a singer and the issue of women’s rights.

Obviously, I feel children should sing.

I feel the art of music and especially singing is the highest form of art in the world and in the cosmic cycle. To have the ilm (idea) and knowledge of this art is itself a blessing because it is much higher than any other form of art or work as such.

Firing on LoC: Blame game and spillovers continue

Firing between India and Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed region of Kashmir has left five soldiers dead (two Indians and three Pakistanis). In India, the issue became a front-page story with the media expressing outrage over reports that the body of one Indian soldier was allegedly mutilated by the Pakistanis.

The incident fuelled tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours and Indian political parties have minced no words in their calls for retribution.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday called the act “barbaric” and said it was no more “business as usual” with Islamabad.

LoC killings: Is a third-party probe the way ahead?

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Thomson Reuters)

The death toll on the Line of Control in Kashmir is four since Jan. 6: two from India’s military, two from Pakistan’s. One thing is sure: neither side started it, judging by what you hear from both countries’ armed forces and from media reports.

The killings threaten to muffle talk of a thaw in relations, something that would have been welcome after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and years of fighting and death in Kashmir before a 2003 ceasefire.

Kashmir: we love you, we don’t love your mini-skirt

Imagine this: some tourists, from India and abroad, fly to Jammu and Kashmir, and are eager to escape the confines of Srinagar airport and to get themselves a lungful of that pristine Himalayan air.

Upon arrival, they are advised to visit the official clothier’s outlet of the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department before they hit the
streets. They need to make a stop there so they can shed any “objectionable” attire and don a traditional pheran to respect the “local ethos and culture” of India’s northernmost state.

Don’t like it? Go home.

It’s an impossible scenario in most parts of the world, but this idea — already the norm in conservative Saudi Arabia — is something that the Kashmiri religious group Jamaat-e-Islami, would like to import to Jammu and Kashmir.

Did pro-India militias kill Western tourists in Kashmir?

A government human rights commission in Kashmir on Tuesday evening said it will review records from the 1995 abduction of Western tourists after a new book claimed that four of six foreign tourists were murdered by a pro-India militia to discredit India’s arch-rival Pakistan.

On July 4, 1995, Americans Donald Hutchings and John Childs, as well as Britons Paul Wells and Keith Mangan were kidnapped by the little known Al-Faran militant group while trekking in the Himalayas near Pahalgam, 97 km (60 miles) southeast of Srinagar.

Four days later, Childs escaped. On the same day, the captors abducted German Dirk Hasert and Norwegian Hans Christian Ostroe. Ostroe was found beheaded in August 1995. The others were never found.

Will Indian army’s charm offensive work in Kashmir?

File photo of a senior Indian army officer giving instructions to Kashmiri youths during a recruitment drive in Rangreth on the outskirts of Srinagar May 26, 2009. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli/FilesWhen thousands gathered in an Indian army camp in Kashmir recently, people started asking questions: Is this another protest against New Delhi’s rule?

The answer came as a surprise to many and as a shock to some.

Nearly 10,000 youth had gathered to try their luck in a recruitment drive by the Indian army in the disputed region and not to protest against alleged excesses by security forces.

A BBC report said that by taking part in the Indian army’s recruitment rally, Kashmiri youth have disregarded the region’s “struggle for independence which has been ongoing for the last 20 years.”

Kashmir seeks return of hanged separatist leader’s remains

A Kashmiri man puts his signature on a banner during a signature campaign by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) in Srinagar February 4, 2011. REUTERS/Fayaz KabliMohammad Maqbool Bhat, the pioneer of Kashmir’s separatist struggle, was hanged in New Delhi’s Tihar jail on February 11, 1984.

Bhat, also the founder of Kashmir’s influential separatist group Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), was executed on the charge of killing an Indian intelligence officer. His body was buried in the jail.

Five years after Bhat’s hanging, Kashmiri militants including JKLF launched an insurgency against Indian rule in the Muslim-majority region and the bloodshed has continued ever since.

Should forces responsible for over 100 killings be praised for restraint?

India’s Prime Minister praised the work of security forces in disputed Kashmir on Tuesday, in a show of support for troops that killed over 100 separatist protesters last year that risks angering those that resent India’s large military presence in the state.

Indian policemen stand guard during a curfew in Srinagar September 21, 2010. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

The remarks represent a seal of approval for security forces that are cited by many Kashmiris as an element of the violence, rather than the preventers of it, and come as a team of interlocutors enters its fifth month of talks in the troubled region, and almost two months after Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said that a political solution to the troubles was likely to emerge “in the next few months.”

But can Manmohan Singh’s praise for the “tremendous restraint” of Indian forces in Kashmir be applauded considering they have been responsible for the death of over 100 separatist protesters in months of violent clashes since last summer?

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