Land row fallout: Vaishno Devi pilgrim traffic declines

August 7th, 2008 - 3:45 pm ICT by IANS  


Jammu, Aug 7 (IANS) The Amarnath land row has caused a steep decline in pilgrimage traffic to a famous hill temple here - from 20,000 daily to a few hundreds now - following the violence over the issue that has led to Jammu and Kashmir’s worst ever communal crisis in six decades. With roads blocked, violence raging, indefinite curfew and incessant protests daily, pilgrims to the hilltop temple of Vaishno Devi are scared to visit the place otherwise believed to be an abode of spiritual peace.

There is not even a trickle of the rush that the shrine witnessed in the first half of this year, said an official of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board that manages the affairs of the temple.

“It is just a few hundred pilgrims who manage to reach Katra (the base camp of the shrine) braving the protesters and curfews,” said the official.

He said the total number of pilgrims who visited in July were less than half a million, almost half of the arrivals in June.

The first seven days of August were still worse with only few hundred having made it to the shrine - where everyday around 20,000 pilgrims would pay obeisance, said the official.

The shrine, located 60 km north of Jammu, overlooking the Chenab river, receives more than seven million visitors annually.

The state has been witnessing unrest since May 26 when the government allotted 40 hectares of land to the governing board of high altitude Amarnath cave shrine in Kashmir valley. The land was subsequently taken back in July.

Fifteen people have already died in both the regions of the state over the issue, leading to a divide between Muslim-majority Kashmir valley and Hindu-dominated Jammu.

Protesters in Jammu demanding the restoration of land to the Amarnath shrine board have been blocking the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway at Nagrota, 13 km north of here, that leads to Katra.

Although pilgrims are exempted from the restrictions imposed by the agitators, the violence that has left eight people dead and hundreds injured in Jammu has hit the visitors hard.

Many pilgrims returned from Jammu as they were unsure whether they would be able to make it to the shrine because of the trouble en route.

“There is no way out for us. The agitators say no harm will come to us but the atmosphere is such that we are scared to move out with the children,” said Harshvardhan, a pilgrim from Rajasthan.

His worries multiplied when he learnt that some protesters had damaged a railway track on the Jammu-Pathankot line. The track was repaired later and train services have resumed.

“I am waiting for the train to take me back to Jaipur,” said Harshvardhan.

Madhusudhan Sharma, a pilgrim of Amritsar, was also returning without visiting the shrine. “Everything is closed here. It is better to go home and come some other time,” Sharma said.

Pilgrims to the hill shrine were undeterred even after some terrorist attacks in Jammu temples few years ago. But this time the situation turned out to be different putting the region’s Rs.10 billion economy at risk.

“Of course, there is an economic angle to it,” said Subash Gupta, a hotelier here.

“But we cannot isolate ourselves from the protests. This is question of our prestige,” he said.

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