Pilgrims tumble out as a convoy stops at a langar along the Jammu-Srinagar highway, where a man from Haryana and his team are serving rice and dal. But what catches the attention of the Amarnath-bound yatris is not the food. Across the road, a similar convoy is seen heading towards Jammu — the windscreens and windows of the vehicles shattered.
“Was there stone pelting in Kashmir today as well?” one pilgrim asks an Army personnel, who replies reassuringly: “No, these vehicles were damaged three days ago. These yatris got stuck in protests but they are returning now.”
After protests over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani forced a three-day suspension of the annual Amarnath yatra, the pilgrimage finally resumed on Tuesday.
A second convoy left Jammu for Amarnath on Wednesday, shortly after noon. It comprised 1,100 buses, each with 60-odd passengers, guarded by a large contingent of Army jawans. Two trucks full of security personnel led the way, followed by three security buses. Two trucks travelled between the passenger buses while one trailed the convoy.
The convoy set out earlier than scheduled as no fresh incidents of stone pelting were reported on Tuesday or Wednesday.
At Kud, 80 km from Jammu, an Armyman says he is amazed at the turnout of pilgrims.
“Apart from this convoy, I have seen countless others crossing Kud today,” he says.
Buoyed by the presence of a large number of soldiers deployed for their security, yatris seem unfazed by the turmoil in the Valley.
“I waited in Jammu for three days when the yatra was suspended,” says Babu Bhai, a 50-year-old farmer from Chotila in Gujarat. He left home a week ago and was supposed to have finished the pilgrimage by now. “Terrorism does not scare us. We don’t care what militants do. I have to visit the shrine.”
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Gurmeet Singh, 62, a retired Punjab government employee from Malerkotla, says, “We have seen so much trouble in Punjab during militancy. We have no fear.”
Baljinder Mohan of Mandi Ahmedgarh, making his sixteenth trip to Amarnath, echoes the sentiment: “It is routine to hear about stone pelting incidents in the Valley. I have visited here for 15 years. The violence has never bothered me.”
Haryana-resident Rakesh Dahiya, who set up the langar along the highway, says, “Lakhs go to pray at the shrine every year. Even the physically challenged ones face the difficult terrain. Why would they fear terrorists or stones?”
After a dinner break ahead of Banihal pass, the convoy is supposed to bifurcate — some vehicles proceed to Baltal, which offers a short but tough trek to the shrine, while others travel to Pahalgam.
Late on Wednesday, a part of the convoy was held back ahead of Banihal pass, and the pilgrims were told there had been a landslide ahead. A security official told The Indian Express a different story — that all 1,100 vehicles couldn’t go through the Banal tunnel at one go, so a decision had been taken to space them out. Yet another report from Srinagar suggested that there was trouble on the road in Anantnag, and the highway had been closed.