Pilgrimage to the holy Amarnath cave in the Himalayas has a long history, one that could be called a model of tolerance and coexistence among the people of various faiths. Three years ago, the issue of pilgrimage to the holy cave was politicized by stakeholders taking recourse to very small and not too serious matters connected with the pilgrimage. The miscreants wanted to create a wedge between two communities by inducing them to adopt confrontational stances. However, fortunately, this did not happen, and after some intervention by saner elements in civil society and the government, the irritants were removed and normal course of pilgrimage was restored. An understanding of sorts was arrived at and stakeholders were happy that an atmosphere of peace and amity was restored. But perhaps this attitude of understanding and mutual respect did not suit the elements with vested interest and each year on the occasion of the beginning of the pilgrimage, some issues are stoked and over-exaggerated just to recreate the atmosphere of controversies and misunderstandings. This time, the controversy was raised about the duration of the pilgrimage and when should it commence. The government and the Shrine Board looked at the entire issue from security point of view and also the feasibility of the track leading to the holy cave, while the organizers of the pilgrimage (NIYAS) wanted that the pilgrimage begins on a date of their choosing and much in advance of the Shravana Purnima, the day on which the lingam in the cave comes of full size and the pilgrims want a darshan of the same. It appeared that postures were getting hardened on either side and the fear was of repetition of earlier stalemate.
But the good news has come in just when we were waiting in wings to advise both sides not to lose their cool. The state government on Monday, in its last-ditch effort, finally succeeded in settling the controversy over the duration of the annual Amarnath yatra. Three senior functionaries of the government flew into Jammu to facilitate talks between the Shrine Board and the contesting groups. During their meeting with the representatives of Baba Amarnath Yatri Niyas (BAYN)--- - an amalgam of several political, religious, social and trade organizations---the government functionaries successfully brought a consensus over the start of annual Amarnath pilgrimage. Talking to the media persons soon after the meeting, the Niyas president Surinder Mohan Aggarwal claimed, "We have reached an agreement with the government that two members of the NIYAS and as many from the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) will perform pratham (first) darshan pooja (pay obeisance) at cave shrine on Jyeshta Purnima that falls on June 15. We were in favour of start of Yatra from Jyeshta Purnima so that pratham darshan are performed. The government agreed to perform pooja on June 15, marking the start of the Yatra." As per the agreement, also approved by the Governor in his capacity as the Chairman of Shrine Board, two members of the NIYAS and as many from the Board would pay symbolic obeisance at cave shrine on June 15, marking the start of pilgrimage.
The news of an agreement on the controversy about the commencement and duration of the pilgrimage has come at proper time to the relief of everybody concerned. This shows that if handled properly and justifiably any ticklish issue can be resolved without causing irritation. It is also a matter of relief to know that the negotiating teams agreed to decide the date of commencement and duration of next year's pilgrimage also so that nothing is left to speculation.
Though an amicable resolution of the matter has been arrived at through the intervention of the government but the fact remains that in a secular democracy, governments normally avoid interfering in religious matters and their dispensation is left to the discretion of accredited religious leaders only. We hope that in future, the Shrine Board will exercise its powers and skills judiciously to resolve any issue relating to the Amarnath Pilgrimage or any other religious function. That is usually safe for the government. We do understand the inevitability of the state government intervening in the issue owing to the awkward history of the Amarnath yatra during past three summers and the disturbed conditions of the State. But as soon as normalcy returns to the valley, we hope the government will have no need to supervene in controversies of religious nature.