Monday’s attack in Anantnag district on pilgrims returning from the Amarnath shrine is the “crossing” of a new red line for militants in Kashmir. This is the second such strike on Amarnath pilgrims in the Valley since militancy first emerged in 1990. The reason why this pilgrimage has stayed conflict-neutral is because it is seen as an important aspect of the syncretic tradition of Kashmir, which had been severely hit by the circumstances leading to the migration of Kashmiri pandits in 1990.
One of the most revered Hindu shrines, Amarnath was discovered by a Muslim shepherd, Buta Malik, in 1850. Malik and his family became custodians of the cave-shrine along with Hindu priests who came from two religious organisations — Dashnami Akhara and Purohit Sabha Mattan.
This unique ensemble of faiths turned the pilgrimage spot into a symbol of Kashmir’s centuries-old composite culture and communal harmony.
The first attack on this pilgrimage took place in 1993, when Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Ansar announced a ban on the annual yatra. The militant outfit claimed that the attack was in protest against the demolition of Babri Masjid. The Harkat also demanded that the government remove security bunkers set up at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar.
However, the yatra passed of peacefully and the Harkat threat didn’t make a dent. There was also widespread condemnation of the Harkat diktat on the ground in Kashmir — local militant groups did not align with the Harkat, which had been formed by veterans of the Afghan war against USSR.
The resentment against Harkat’s ban translated into an atmosphere where the yatra continued unhindered during the peak years of the militancy.
In 1999, soon after the Kargil war, the Centre’s Press Information Bureau issued a statement, saying that the “yearning for moksha (salvation) can move devotees to the challenging heights of Kashmir and will be a fitting gesture of solidarity with our valiant soldiers who have been fighting the enemy to defend our borders”. But this, too, didn’t bring the yatra on the radar of separatists or militants, and it continued to be mostly insulated from political controversies.
However, on August 1, 2000, 17 pilgrims were among 25 people killed in a militant attack in Pahalgam, where one of the two base camps of the pilgrimage is situated. Two policemen and six villagers also died as two militants, who were killed in a subsequent encounter, lobbed grenades and resorted to indiscriminate firing.
The government blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba, and a high-level committee led by the then Corps Commander of 15 Corps in Srinagar was set up to investigate the attack. At the time, the J&K government claimed that the attack targeted security forces and was not exclusively aimed at pilgrims, but the killings generated public outrage. This is exactly why there was no attack on the yatra for the last 17 years, even when the situation was volatile in the Valley, especially during the mass protests of 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016.
Sensing that Monday’s attack had crossed that vital red line in their narrative on Kashmir, the separatists immediately condemned the killings.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said, “It (the attack) has deeply saddened everybody. The people and the leadership of Kashmir strongly condemn this attack on the yatris. For us, the pilgrims are and will always be respected guests.” The separatist leadership would meet to discuss the issue on Tuesday, he said.
Later, a joint statement from top separatist leaders — Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik — “expressed deep sorrow and grief over the killing of Amarnath Yatris in Anantnag today and strongly condemned it”. The statement said that “this incident goes against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos”.
Condemnation has also been pouring in from across the political divide in Kashmir. Shia leader and Minister in the PDP-BJP government Imran Ansari said “this barbaric attack on pilgrims goes against the very basic fibre of Islam and intolerance of this kind cannot be justified by any human”.
National Conference leader and former chief minister Omar Abdullah posted on Twitter that “every right thinking Kashmiri must today condemn the killing of the Amarnath yatris”.
As far as the pilgrimage’s administration is concerned, the first big change came in 2000 when the J&K government decided to step in and help improve facilities. Subsequently, the then ruling NC enacted a legislation to form a shrine board, with the state’s Governor as chairman.
As soon as the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board was formed, the government evicted the Malik family and the Hindu organisations that were traditionally involved with the pilgrimage. The board succeeded in substantially streamlining the pilgrimage but in the process, destroyed a unique aspect by removing the Muslim custodians of the shrine.
The only time when the Amarnath pilgrimage became a major political issue in J&K was in 2008 when the transfer of forest land to the shrine board divided the state along communal lines. The order was rescinded subsequently.
Incidentally, the biggest tragedy that has ever struck the pilgrimage was caused by the weather. In September 1996, thousands were stranded by snowfall and continuous rain for three days, which led to the death of more than 200 pilgrims.