Heera Lal Singh’s family in Dhanbad had asked him not to go on the Amarnath Yatra this year. There were heated discussions within the family over the tension around this year’s Amarnath Yatra, but in the end, Singh convinced his family and made it to the Bhagwati Nagar base camp in Jammu on Monday.
He was ahead of schedule. “I have undertaken five Amarnath Yatra trips. But this year’s trip will be a challenge for me,” Singh (61) says. “I guess I am the first person to arrive. I hope others will make it on time,” he says.
A day before the first batch of Amarnath Yatra pilgrims leaves, the streets Tuesday are largely deserted except for several companies of the CRPF and J&K Police, who patrol the area and conduct area domination exercises outside the periphery of the Bhagwati Nagar base camp. The Governor’s office said at least two lakh pilgrims have registered to go on the Yatra this year.
From the Bhagwati Nagar camp pilgrims with fitness certificates head to the transport department inside the camp for bus tickets effectively making them a part of the convoy headed towards the Pahalgam base camp 256 km away. The first convoy will be flagged off Wednesday morning at 4:30 am.
As trucks carrying Army soldiers rumble past the Nagrota Army base camp crossing bullet-proof bunkers, devotees trickle into the Bhagwati Nagar base camp, one question on their minds – safety.
This year’s Amarnath Yatra starts days after the BJP pulled out of the alliance with the PDP forcing Governor’s rule in the state. The BJP had cited the deteriorating security and law and order situation in Kashmir as one of the main reasons to end the alliance.
Following threat assessments, security agencies have also said that the Amarnath Yatra was a target for militants. Around 40,000 security personnel from the police, paramilitary forces, National Disaster Response Force and the Army have been being deployed this year. Security forces have also turned to technology including radio frequency ID (RFID) tags to track convoys, drones and CCTV cameras along the yatra route, specially designed motorcycles and ambulances during the 60-day Yatra to the South Kashmir Himalayas.
“Last year also the convoys were attacked and this year there is no government. I have come here only because of faith in God. But it makes good sense to go in the first convoy, the army will be on high alert and nobody will be foolish enough to attack,” says 45-year-old Raj Kumar.
Though drones were used for surveillance along the national highway and around base camps last year, this time their number has been increased after the heightened threat from militants. They will be used watch halting points of the yatra convoy, sources said, adding that they are capable of keeping an eye on areas within a radius of four km.
The security also includes jammers, bulletproof bunkers and dog squads, quick reaction teams and Doppler radars for weather forecasts every two hours along the yatra routes.
While civilians stay at the Bhagwati Nagar base camp, sadhus are housed at the Ram Temple in Purani Mandi, where several policemen are stationed outside the temple gates. They confiscate cigarettes and lighters before allowing visitors in. Inside, sadhus wait for their medical examination certificates – a prerequisite to undertaking the trek.
Five km away, at the Bhagwati Nagar base camp, civilians make their way through portable metal detectors. The area is under the watchful eye of five companies of the 38th battalion of the CRPF and the J&K Police. More than 70 officials from the state tourism department have worked overtime to set up the base camp with a capacity to hold more than 1,500 pilgrims.
“The Yatris have not come in huge numbers and it may be because of the heat. They may have opted to stay at hotels,” said Ashok, a nodal tourism officer.
Inside the base camp, the pilgrims have started to make their way into the eleven halls after producing their registration certificates. Inside one of the non-air-conditioned halls, around 50 pilgrims have found themselves a spot to sleep while a group of middle-aged women sit in the centre yawning, the creases of their skin betraying signs of exhaustion, the men sleep next to their mobile phones latched onto their chargers. At the far end of the hall, a group of youngsters from Ludhiana are busy playing cards.
“It’s just to pass the time and kill the tension. Our parents were a little worried about the trek considering the fall of the government. But we are not afraid as the security has been tight here. They did not even allow me to take my pen and deodorant,” says Sourav, who works at a private company in Ludhiana.
Soon, a squadron of the CRPF bikers with mounted cameras on their helmets reach the camp site. “This year, we will use various gadgets for the safety of the pilgrims. This squadron has two mounted ambulance units who are mobile enough to maneuver across the terrain and respond to injured civilians. The entire trek will also be monitored through drones and RFID chips have been embedded along the yatri convoys to track them,” says Karuna Rana, the second-in-command of the CRPF Jammu division.
Sources said that the decision to use RFID tags was taken after militants attacked a bus carrying Amarnath pilgrims in Anantnag district last year in which eight pilgrims were killed and 18 others injured. The bus was part of the yatra convoy returning to Jammu but was separated after it got a flat tyre.
RF tags use electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track object attached to it, sources said, adding that it will help security agencies find out whether the convoy was moving on the road as per schedule time or there had been any delay in it. Moreover, it will also help them identify vehicle having separated from the convoy and immediately rush help to it.
CRPF officers have slept little over the past month. Ranjit, who attended a month of training specially designed to secure the safety of the yatris, has been stationed inside the camp for several hours. “Two more months of this yatra and then I will have some peace,” he says.
Meanwhile, at the joint control room, security officials are alerted when Sanjeev Verma, Divisional Commissioner Jammu, makes a routine inspection of the base camp. He walks into the primary healthcare centre and asks the doctors, “Is there no AC in this room?” to which one of them replies, “We can manage.”
“I am not talking about ACs for you. The yatris will be anxious and get nervous before the trek. The cold air will help calm their nerves. I think this base camp is good but we “need to get have greenery, cold air and interaction with the yatris,” he says before leaving.
Pose Yatra pilgrims no threat: Hizbul
Srinagar: The Hizbul Mujahideen referring to Amarnath Yatra pilgrims as “guests” Tuesday said that militants posed them no threat and that pilgrims could even visit the Valley without security. Responding to government alerts that militants may attack the annual yatra, HM Operations Chief Riyaz Naikoo said they have “no plans” to target the pilgrimage.
“You are our guests. But you should not try to interfere in the Kashmir issue,” Naikoo said in a 14-minute audio message that was purportedly released Tuesday. — BASHAARAT MASOOD