In Kashmir, Many Views On Pilgrims’ Progress

In Kashmir, Many Views On Pilgrims’ Progress

21 June 2013
The Asian Age
Yusuf Jameel

Srinagar: The annual pilgrimage to one of the holiest shrines of Hindus nestled in Kashmir Himalayas and dedicated to Lord Shiva, which has been dogged by many controversies in the past, is once again at the centre of political hullabaloo. Earlier this week, a senior Army commander announced it has received inputs that militants might try to disrupt the Amarnath yatra. The nearly two-month long pilgrimage to the 3,888-metre-high cave shrine is scheduled to begin on June 28. The first batch of the pilgrims will be leaving Jammu a day earlier. “Intelligence inputs which we’re receiving suggest that they (militants) have intentions to disrupt the yatra,” General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Udhampur-based Northern Command, Lt. Gen. K.T. Parnaik, told reporters. He was, however, somewhat vague in his statement, not knowing where from the supposed threats were emanating and how the militants might try to target the pilgrimage. “These warnings are coming but who these persons are and where from they are coming, how will they strike, one doesn’t know,” he said. The word of warning from the Army commander was seen and dismissed by critics as another ploy to “keep the pot boiling” and a desperate attempt on its part to throw a spanner in the effort being made on political level to revoke the contentious Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act, at least from the areas of Jammu and Kashmir which are peaceful and where the Army has no physical presence. The Army is openly accused of misusing the AFSPA which gives it sweeping powers to shoot, arrest and even destroy properties for impunity. However, the Army has been insisting on maintaining status quo and maintains that even partial revocation will incapacitate its effort to uproot militancy fully from the state. Unmindful of criticism, the Army, a day after Lt. Gen. Parnaik talked about militant “threat”, announced it has launched Operation Shiva to ensure foolproof security to the pilgrims and ensure incident-free pilgrimage. It said that apart from putting in place multi-layered security arrangements, it is using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance of the yatra routes as well as the cave shrine and that the hills round the yatra routes have already been sanitised. The Army deployment is in addition to the requisition of 50 companies of CRPF and other paramilitary forces and local police for the event. Under Operation Shiva being carried out under the aegis of 1 Sector Rashtriya Rifles based in Khannabal area of Anantnag, the soldiers have after sanitising the hills and forest areas set up makeshift pillboxes, observatory towers and small encampments all along the traditional Pahalgam and shorter Baltal routes. Its commander will remain camped in Pahalgam Golf Course throughout the yatra period. The Army’s statement about the militant “threat” to the pilgrimage was not only corroborated by Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who said in New Delhi: “There is threat to Amarnath yatra... All efforts will be made to ensure security of every pilgrim,” the guidelines issued by the Jammu and Kashmir home department also declare the entire yatra area prone to terror strikes. In its order (No. 226, June 2013), the department says, “Considering the security scenario, topography of the yatra area, high potential of terrorist attacks on the yatris to create law and order situation throughout the state and the country, sensitive nature of the yatra, and the high publicity the yatra generates, the entire yatra area is highly prone to terrorist attacks.” It asked the police to ensure strict enforcement of access control measures (ACMs) at Domel along Baltal route and Chandanwari along Pahalgam route to ensure that only registered pilgrims carrying yatra permits for that day are allowed to cross the ACGs. It also asked the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board to explore the possibility of installing CCTVs at these ACGs and link these via Internet with control rooms at Srinagar for monitoring the movement of the pilgrims. Notwithstanding, chief minister Omar Abdullah sought to set aside the talk of any specific threat to the yatra and termed as “gross exaggeration” the assertions from the Union home minister as well as the Army. “While we will take all the regular precautions with a multi-layer security grid, ‘Yatra attack feared’ headlines are a gross exaggeration,” Mr Abdullah wrote on the micro-blogging site Twitter. Referring to the Unified Headquarters meeting he had chaired a day earlier, the chief minister said the security officials had told him that the threat perception to the annual pilgrimage has not increased this year. “In fact, I asked a pointed question about whether the threats this year were higher than the previous years and the answer was a categorical no,” he said. J&K police chief Ashok Prasad also said there was no specific threat to the pilgrimage. He said in a newspaper interview: “General threat is always there till militants are present in Kashmir. As long as a single militant is active the threat can’t be ruled out.” He also said: “I told the Unified Headquarters that there is no increase in threat perception to yatra. The threat perception to yatra has gone down as compared to previous years.” But why then has the Army sought to hit the panic button and why has the Union home minister openly corroborated its statement on the militant “threat” to this year’s pilgrimage? Most political parties and human rights groups asking for repeal of the AFSPA see these as part of a renewed “reprehensible” strategy adopted by the “hawks” within the security establishment and supporting political players to frustrate the effort being made by the chief minister and his supporters in ally Congress to ensure its partial revocation of the contentious law ahead of the state Assembly elections. Separatists see a “bigger design” in the talk of militant “threat” to the pilgrimage. The Operation Shiva “is part of a deep-rooted conspiracy to defame the ongoing freedom struggle of the Kashmiris at international level,” alleged Syed Ali Shah Geelani. “I won’t rule out attacks on Amarnath pilgrims by the Indian intelligence agencies as the Army and other so-called security and intelligence agencies have been behind incidents like the March 2000 killing of Sikhs in Chattisinghpora (Anantnag) and abduction and subsequent murder of foreign tourists in 1995.” Mr Geelani asserted the Amarnath yatra is being conducted with religious fervour for the past over 150 years and the Muslims of the Valley have wholeheartedly involved themselves in the smooth conduct of the pilgrims, making it a unique example of communal harmony and brotherhood in the world. “Even during economic blockade enforced by communal forces against Kashmiris in 2008, people of Kashmir organised langars for yatris when their own children were deprived of milk and food. So there is no question of any threat to the pilgrimage,” he said. Kashmir’s chief Muslim cleric and chairman of his faction of separatist Hurriyat Conference alliance Mirwaiz Umar Farooq also ridiculed the talk of militant “threat” to the yatra. “Claims of threat to yatra are nothing but state-backed propaganda to defame the ongoing freedom struggle,” he said, adding, “Since the Government of India is under pressure from international community to reduce the number of troops in view of its claim of improved situation, recent statements that Amarnath yatra is under threat is just an excuse to increase security forces in the state.” The CPI(M), on the other hand, has issued a word of warning that politicising the issue of security of Amarnath pilgrims adds element of uncertainty to the annual pilgrimage which is integral to Kashmiri ethos. Muhammad Yusuf Tarigami, the party state secretary, expressed dismay over the attempts being made by certain quarters, including the Union home ministry and the Army, to give “unnecessary hype to the security of pilgrims.” He said, “Such assumptions are doing no service either to the country or the smooth passage of the pilgrimage which is integral to Kashmiri ethos.” Mr Tarigami added, “The people of Kashmir don’t need to prove their credentials of religious tolerance as they have even during the critical times whole-heartedly cooperated to facilitate smooth passage of the pilgrimage and have always given their best in terms of hospitality and security of the pilgrims.” He offers a solution to end the controversy. “As for the security requirement, such matters should be left to security experts to take care of and not discussed in public.”