By I. Ramamohan Rao
New Delhi, June 27 : General (Retired) Srinivas Kumar Sinha, the former Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, must be asking himself, where did I go wrong in succeeding to make the State Government agree to transfer 800 Kanals of forest land at Baltal to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board to set up prefabricated structures to see that pilgrims to the Holy Cave are made comfortable.
This is not the first time that General Sinha has been asking the question. I have had the opportunity of knowing him for over three decades now. He was the General Officer Commanding Western Command, a prestigious appointment in the early eighties, and was transferred to Delhi as the Vice Chief of Army Staff, with the expectation that he would succeed General K. V. Krishna Rao as the Army Chief.
He was supposed to familiarize himself with the office of the Army Chief. It was a surprise when he was superseded and Lt.-Gen. A. S. Vaidya, the GOC-in-C Eastern Command was appointed as the Chief of Army Staff. General S. K. Sinha submitted his resignation and elected to lead a retired life. As spokesman for the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces I had called on him when the announcement was made. I saw him with a few media person. General Sinha showed no bitterness.
He must have felt then, where did I go wrong?
Perhaps he did not. I did have the chance to meet him when he was appointed India's Ambassador to Nepal and later as Governor of Assam. He was given credit of establishing a smooth understanding between the State Government and the Security Forces which had helped in containing the activities of militant organizations like the United Liberation Front of Assam.
When the post of Governor of Jammu and Kashmir fell vacant following the retirement of G. C. Saxena, he was seen as the natural choice. Among his other responsibilities was to oversee the activities of the Vaishno Devi Trust and the Amarnath Trust.
While the Vaishno Devi Trust was an established organization, having been established in the 1980s, the Amarnath Trust was yet to find its feet. In 1996 following the death of many pilgrims, caused by blizzards, the Government had appointed a committed headed by Nitish Sengupta to suggest measures to ensure that the pilgrimage to the holy cave located deep inside the mountains was safe and comfortable.
The Nitish Sengupta Committee had suggested the creation of a Trust. Then in 1999 there were terrorist attacks on the Yatris which claim over 90 lives. A committee was appointed under Lt.Gen. Mukherjee who reiterated the need to create a Trust on the lines of the Vaishnodevi Trust.
Dr Farooq Abdullah, who was then the Chief Minister, decided to implement the recommendations and passed a bill in the year 2000. The Sri Amarnath Trust Board came into existence in the year 2003, when the Chief Minister was Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.
When General Sinha assumed the Govenorship of the State and the head of the Board of Trustees of the Amarnath Trust, he tried to ensure that the Security Forces were able to monitor the route and ensure safety of the pilgrims. Next, he sought the assistance of the Government in establishing prefabricated structures at camping grounds along the mountainous routes, which would provide shelters to the pilgrims.
The prefabricated structures were useful. Some of them were sent to shelter the victims of the October 2005 earthquake. Meanwhile, looking at the rush of pilgrims, he asked the State Government to extend the duration of the yatra to two months.
The proposal was not approved by Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. Ultimately, the Centre had to intervene and the period of the pilgrimage extended to a month and a half.
Two years ago, the Amarnath Yatra was in the limelight, as the Ice Shivling at the Holy Cave had melted and was very small in size. He had to face criticism that the Shrine Board, which he headed, had imported ice from the plains to create an artificial Shivling. The inquiry commission appointed to go into the controversy cleared the Shrine Board.
Meanwhile the request of the Amarnath Trust for the transfer of 800 kanals of land was lingering in the State Government for over two years. It was being examined by the State Government, which was Congress Peoples' Democratic Party coalitions. The Forest Ministry, headed by Forest Minister Qazi Mohammed Afzal, cleared it.
General Sinha was keen that the pilgrims should have the facilities of proper latrines instead of deep trench toilets, which had to be covered by mud after use by people, which emitted foul smell. He wanted modern scientific system that left zero scope for pollution.
The transfer of 800 kanals was made just a few days before General Sinha was to and over the office of Governor to his successor A.N. Vohra. Initially the All Party Hurriyat Conference made it an issue, saying that the construction of shelters were harm the environment, and transfer of land was illegal. The two factions of the Hurriyat, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, who had not met for met for many years, discussed the issue for over eight hours.
Yasin Malik, announced that he will fast unto death unless the order transferring land to the Amarnath Trust is not cancelled. The agitation was fanned by the People's Democratic Party. Even the National Conference, which had passed the Bill, said that the transfer of land should be cancelled.
The protest demonstrations have resulted in violence, and injury to many pilgrims and the death of an onlooker.
A perplexed Gulam Nabi Azad, who was confident that the proposal cleared by a PDP Minister in his coalition Government, has called for an all party conference to discuss the issue. .
General Sinha was all prepared to leave Jammu and Kashmir feeling that the hard work put in by him will be remembered by pilgrims to the Holy Amarnath Cave and the Vaishno Devi.
The political parties in the state should also be happy that the transfer of ownership of 800 kanals of land have given them an issue during the elections year. Will the controversy help Mufti Sayeed get more votes in the State. One has to wait for a few months more. Meanwhile, the Amarnth Yatra will be over. Hopefully, the efforts to communalise the issue will not succeed.
I. Ramamohan Rao. Former Principal Information Officer, Government of India E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.