Sunday, August 31, 2008

Baltal - the land of contention

In September 1968, I happened to spend a few hours in Baltal. I was heading towards Ladakh for annual inspection of our departmental units along with a Major of the Army Signals in his jeep. I was then in charge of postal operations in Kashmir and Ladakh. Ahead of Sonmarg, instead of pushing on and up towards the Zoji-la, we got off the highway and gently descended for a few kilometres into a valley that, I was told, was Baltal. Luxuriously dressed in several shades of green, it was a valley of incredible beauty. The green carpet of grass, tall mountains all around clothed in thick tall conifers in a shade of dark-green, with white patches of snow at the very top below a lapis-lazuli sky in the balmy September sun of Kashmir took one’s breath away.

With no habitation, except a very small Army Signals tented unit, the place was nature’s own preserve. A small green hillock around the middle of the valley had what looked like an abandoned bungalow. The Signals men passed on to us the local folklore about it. It seems, Indira and Feroz Gandhi had honeymooned in the bungalow – an ideal place, in the lap of nature’s extravagant bounty with hardly a soul around.

While lunching on their substantial fare we were told the Amarnath Cave was only eight miles away, high above across the mountains. Only a few adventurous tough jawans had been able to make it to the shrine. The climb, though very picturesque, was stiff, and the going treacherous on ice-sheets that, at places, were thin enough to crumble, often into what could be deep crevices. The round trip of 16 miles had to be completed during daylight hours.
I could hear army trucks a few thousand feet above groaning while laboriously working their way up the tortuous road to Zoji-la at around 11,000 ft. To get to the Cave one had to go across mountains of the same, if not greater, elevation on the south-easterly side. According to some, this route to the Amarnath shrine has been used for centuries. If that was so, the Army men would have known. Maybe, some adventurers would occasionally take the route. The regular route has, however, always been via Pahalgam and that, in fact, is also the route of pilgrimage. The valley was in its pristine state as it had not till then become the alternate route to the Shrine.
Forty years ago the Yatra was managed by the J&K government. The Chief Minister used to be personally involved in the arrangements. A few thousand pilgrims would accompany the Chhari Mubarak, the Holy Mace, taking the well-trodden route via Pahalgam. The pilgrimage would be over in a fortnight or so. Of course, there were stragglers who would make it to the Shrine on their own. But they wouldn’t get the same facilities as those who accompanied the Chhari.

Tourism – whether wildlife, beach, religious or whatever – strives for unrestricted growth. In the process, it creates vested interests that treat the activity as mere commerce and try to make a killing. Even governments and public bodies succumb to the temptations, seldom displaying any concern for such niceties as ecology – whether fragile or otherwise.

Apparently, to accommodate the fast growing traffic – now in lakhs – for the Shrine the authorities, instead of regulating and restricting the numbers, opened the alternate route from Baltal. Worse, the Yatra was later made a two-month long affair. And the result is there for all to see. The pictures that come across through the electronic and print media are those of a once-beautiful valley utterly ravaged, with the green of the meadows stripped, trees felled, structures erected, huge gatherings of people, numerous buses and helicopters in flight.
Shorn of all religiosity and the politics over the transfer of the contentious land, one cannot but pity the loss of the once-idyllic valley that was a gift of nature for us to cherish and nurture. Alas, it was sacrificed at the altar of (religious) tourism that, from all evidences, appears to be increasingly becoming environmentally unsustainable.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The seditious allies of UPA

Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, President, Peoples’ Democratic Party of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), recently led in Srinagar a violent crowd of traders and others in a bid to breach the Line Of Control, the de facto international frontier, for crossing over to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-held Kashmir. Kashmir has been engulfed in agitations over an alleged economic blockade of the Valley by Jammu’s Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti. The Samiti is agitating against the reversal of order of allotment of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board in Baltal in Kashmir Valley. The violent demonstrations in the Valley resulted in police firing that claimed two innocent lives.

What is noteworthy in this regard is that there has been no economic blockade of Kashmir. This was proved by the aerial video footage of vehicular movements on Jammu-Srinagar highway telecast by an English language news channel. Even the Home Minister of the Government of India, who is generally considered more sympathetic to the Muslim minority, informed the Prime Minister after his return from the all-parties meet in the state that there was no economic blockade whatsoever.

Ms. Mehbooba is the daughter of a former Central home minister. She also heads a party that until recently jointly ran the government of Jammu and Kashmir and continues to be an ally of the government at the Centre. She, therefore, should have known that, whatever might be the provocation, the state could not have directly carried out trade and commerce with Pakistan without the approval of the national government. By her act, indiscreet as it was, she not only played into the hands of the Pakistani Intelligence-backed separatists, she also needlessly instigated the people of the Valley against their own country spreading calumny and disinformation.

That the father-daughter duo running the PDP is separatist at heart has been suspected for a long time. They have been making weird statements which, inter alia, included the one relating to making Pakistani currency legal tender in the Valley. They did so even when their political outfit was running the J&K government jointly with the Congress. The ongoing agitation fuelled by them about the alleged non-existent economic blockade fully exposes where their sympathies lie.

Strangely, however, PDP continues to be a constituent of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that runs the Central government. One recalls how before the confidence vote in the Parliament on 22nd July 2008, the UPA government had Ms. Mehbooba flown over to Delhi in a special Indian Air Force aircraft in the effort to muster every single vote in its favour. That the UPA has in its fold the corrupt and the criminal is well known. In its bid to be more inclusive, it seems, it now also includes the seditious and the secessionist.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tom, Jerry and Bofors

Are the CBI and Bofors like “Tom and Jerry” in the eponymous world-famous animated cartoon-show created by Hollywood? Shouldn’t be quite so, one reckons! But, that is precisely how the newly-appointed Director of the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI), Mr. Ashwini Kumar, has, reportedly, described the two recently. If that is what he thinks, it would seem to be indicative of the shape of things to come, at least, during his stewardship of the prime national investigative agency.

Evidently, the CBI, like Tom, will be eternally goofing up its chases of culprits in the Bofors pay-off case, who, like smart and agile Jerry, will always give it the slip. Jerry is always far smarter than Tom, who mostly ends up with eggs all over his face. Mr. Kumar, therefore, seems to be nursing a hope that is at best fond – that of nabbing the culprits one day.

Bofors culprits, including Ottavio Quattrochi, will be always ahead of the CBI – and, quite contrarily, not because they are far more nimble than the CBI. If Mr. Kumar, having spent decades in the Police, has failed to realise it all these years, he has inhabited some amorphous worldof his own making. The culprits in the Bofors pay-off case have been eluding the CBI because it has acted as the “poodle” that Tony Blair was likened to. It has always been obedient of the commands of its masters in the government and refrained from sinking its teeth in the flesh of the culprits, leave alone bite or bark at them.

If the CBI under Mr. Kumar continues to be the “poodle” it has been in respect of the Bofors case, and there is no reason to believe that it will not, criminals of the political variety will always elude it.

And, as far as the Bofors case is concerned, people of this country would much rather like Mr. Kumar to apply the closure instead of continuing to play, as indicated by him, the “cat and mouse” game with it, blowing up millions from the public exchequer in these days of double-digit inflation.

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...