HOURS AFTER the militant attack on a bus of Amarnath pilgrims in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, 3,289 pilgrims left for the shrine — undeterred by the events of Monday night. As a fresh batch of pilgrims left the tourism department-run Yatri Niwas at Bhagwati Nagar in Jammu at 3 am on Tuesday, chants of “Bum Bum Bholey” and “Jai Shankar” rent the air. Hours later, at the Amarnath Yatri reception centre, there is little sign of fear, anxiety or uncertainty among pilgrims gathering for the next day’s journey to the cave shrine, where the faithful gather every year to worship a Shivling-shaped ice formation.
The predominant sentiment is the self-assurance of the believer and unshakeable faith in the government’s security umbrella. The pilgrimage passes through parts of south Kashmir where there is a high presence of militants. Monday’s attack took place in Anantnag. “From what I have heard, the yatris who were attacked were not registered as pilgrims, and they were not part of the convoy. When the government is providing security, why should we take the risk of going by ourselves,” asks Santosh Kumar, a goldsmith from Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh, looking up from a Hindi paper with the banner headline: “Terrorist attack on Amarnath Yatris, 7 dead”.
Neither he nor his friends — a dozen other goldsmiths, all from the same place — seem anxious. They have checked into a large hall in the reception centre and will leave for Amarnath with about 3,000 others, guarded by hundreds of securitymen in a convoy that departed at 2.30 am Wednesday morning. The hall is humming with accents from half of India — UP, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bengal, Chhattisgarh. Its concrete floor is covered with mattresses on which groups of yatris are bunched together, engaged in conversation or sleeping.
“Bhole baba bula rahein hain, toh hum jaa rahen hain. Unki ichcha hai (God is calling us, so we are going. It’s his wish). If he doesn’t want us to go, he will stop us,” said Santosh. “Last year, he did not want us to visit him. We landed here the day the militant Burhan Wani was killed. We undertook a darshan of Vaishno Mata and returned home,” he said. The group has been getting frantic calls from family members back home asking them if it is safe to proceed. “We have explained the situation to them, that the attacked bus had not registered, and it did not have security. There were many private taxis at the station that offered to take us, but we refused .We have assured our families that security arrangements here are good,” said Ramparkash, from the same group.
On the approach road leading to the gates of Yatri Niwas, pilgrims have to go through a metal frame detector, have their bags screened, and their bodies frisked before being allowed into the premises. The security is not more than it was in the days, before the attack, say officials. Inside, the centre is abuzz with activity. Devotional songs are playing from speakers, while over another public address system, the langar has just been announced. People in another long queue are waiting to get registered. Bedrolls are being offered at another window. Washed clothes have been hung out to dry from every railing.
On the third floor, in the AC hall for which users pay Rs 50 (Rs 10 for the non-AC halls downstairs), a group from Akola in Maharashtra is taking stock of their rations, spreading out packaged snacks, fruit, yoghurt and medicines on a grey, plastic sheet. “We read about the attack on our phones when were on the Delhi-Jammu train last night. After that, we had almost made up our minds to return home. We had booked a private cab to pick us up from the station and take us straight to Pahalgam. But when we arrived in Jammu this morning, we thought we would check at this base camp, and we found that this was a safer option, so we cancelled the private cab,” said Vijendra Warorkar, a government auditor.
From Chhattisgarh, a group of eight women have travelled all the way in a bus with 40 others, stopping en route at Allahabad, Mathura, Kurukshetra and Amritsar. “The arrangements are excellent. We are all finally dependent on Bhole Baba. If something bad has to happen, it could happen sitting at home also. There is nothing to fear at all,” said Durgesh Nandini Sahu. These pilgrims, who left from Jammu on Tuesday morning, reached Pahalgam and Baltal by noon under intensified security cover from the CRPF and state police. From Pahalgam, 18,838 pilgrims began the trek to the shrine and 5,556 pilgrims left from Baltal.