SRINAGAR, India -- The past three months of unabated violence in India's northernmost Jammu and Kashmir, the country's only Muslim-majority state, has claimed at least 22 lives and hit the poor most, Church people say.
As the violence spread, the government clamped curfew and other prohibitory orders, but "the situation here is very tense," UCA News was told on Aug. 16 by Jesuit Father Joseph Kalathil, coordinator of a Church-initiated interreligious peace forum in the state's Jammu region.
Despite government efforts to reduce the violence, Father Kalathil said the "strife has hit the poor badly because of the unavailability of essential goods. Poor people have nothing to eat and have no work."
The fighting erupted on May 26 following a state government decision to allot 100 acres (about 40 hectares) of land to a board that manages Amarnath temple, purportedly to provide more facilities at the Hindu pilgrim center.
Demonstrations, roadblocks and shutdowns by Hindus and Muslims often turn violent. During the past three months, mob violence and police counteractions have left at least 22 people dead. According to Arti Razdan, who lives in Hindu-dominated Jammu, Muslims protested the land transfer because they fear it would help the temple board bring Hindu settlers into Kashmir.
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The government responded by revoking the land allotment on June 29, but this so angered Hindus they began violent protests demanding land for their temple and cut off the state highway linking Jammu to the hilly Kashmir region.
The temple sits in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir region. An estimated 400,000 people go on pilgrimage annually to the Amarnath temple during the 45-day season in July-August. They trek for days through wild mountain slopes to reach the temple cave, which sits 3,962 meters above sea level. The state government provides facilities to the pilgrims.
Hamid Ullah Hamid, chairperson of the volunteer organization called Kashmir Institute of Peace and Spirituality, bemoans the fact that political parties have "communalized the issue" and the violence now is "politically motivated."
The Muslim social activist told UCA News that some political groups are trying to project Muslims as enemies of Hindus and of the temple, but such moves misrepresent the reality and are socially damaging.
Hamid said Kashmir Muslims are an "integral part" of the Amarnath pilgrimage and have been ever since a Muslim discovered the temple cave. Up to now, he added, Muslims along the route help Hindu pilgrims by providing food and shelter.
The controversy has divided political parties, according to Hamid and other observers. The regional Muslim-dominated People's Democratic Party opposed the land transfer and pulled out of the state's coalition government on June 28.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people's party), India's main opposition, has sided with the Hindus, while Congress, the party that led the state's coalition government, is now trying to placate both communities. At present, the state is directly ruled by India's President Pratibha Devisingh Patil.
Sister Marie Mathew, who works in the Kashmir region, says traffic on the highway still has not returned to normal. The prices of essential goods have shot up, and schools, colleges, banks and offices remain closed, the Presentation nun told UCA News on Aug. 14.
Kashmir depends heavily on other Indian states for food and other essentials that trucks which use the highway bring into the region. Due to the unabated violence, the nun said, "We have no eggs, meat or essential wheat products."
It is pathetic, she said, to see people running after essential things since "they do not know what the next day will bring." She added that she regrets people also are suffering due to the lack of essential medicines.
Jammu and Kashmir diocese covers the whole state but only some 14,000 of its 9 million people are Catholics. Muslims account for most of the population.
Father Shaiju Chacko, vice principal of St. Joseph Higher Secondary School, in Kashmir's Baramulla town, told UCA News the Church "does not support either side at present." However, he added, even if Christians are not a target of the violence, "when we are in public, we have to support one party or the other, and that can cause more problems."