The white super deluxe Jammu and Kashmir Road Transport Corporation bus does not amount to much. The fans inside the bus do not work and most of the seats do not recline.
This matters little to Gurmeet Singh (34), who has ferried pilgrims from Jammu’s Bhagwati Nagar base camp to Pahalgam for the past fourteen years. All he is focussed on is getting the security clearance certificate and the green radio frequency (RFID) tag. He haggles with a sub-inspector, is briefly checked by the J&K Police and finally gets the clearance.
Now, he waits for the pilgrims and hopes it does not rain. “I will be driving every day for the next two months. I have a family to support and the Amarnath Yatra is the most important work I get in the entire year,” says Gurmeet.
Tourist buses like his are a top priority at the Amarnath Yatra this year particularly after a similar bus in July 2017, which got separated from the security convoy was attacked by militants on the Baltal-Jammu route. The attack left nine pilgrims dead and another 19 injured, but the bus driver, Salim Shaikh had saved the others on board by speeding away from the militants towards an Army camp. In another incident in May this year, a tourist from Chennai was killed after protesters stoned the bus he was in while on vacation in the Valley with his family.
This year, security forces are taking no chances. The convoy of 64 buses is protected by armoured mobile units, bulletproof vehicles and CRPF biker units. Security agencies have also issued advisories to Pilgrims to use buses registered with the shrine board and go with the multilayer security escort.
Gurmeet’s bus has been marked number nine and his list of 49 all passengers – all men – have finally arrived. Some crib about the non-functioning fans, which Gurmeet does not heed. Most of the pilgrims aboard Gurmeet’s bus have been on this journey at least six times and they all say this section was earlier fraught with delays. Bhisham Singh, (49), a shop owner from Haryana would spend the first day travelling about 110 km from the Jammu base camp to the first stop in Batote. “The rains were unrelenting in the previous years and this year thankfully it has not rained on the route,” he says.
Not just the rains, the convoys earlier were usually delayed by traffic congestion on the narrow roads, drivers refusing to follow traffic rules and trying to overtake each other and poor, pot-holed roads. This year, the J&K police have cleared the traffic snarls by coordinating with multiple teams, new roads and infrastructure have been built and the convoy reaches Batote in under two hours.
The new 10-km Chinani tunnel between Jammu and Udhampur alone helps bypass the Patni top route saving them two hours. Passengers also say that the road leading up to Ramban district after crossing the narrow gorges in Batot, once were broken and so narrow that traffic slowed to a crawl.
“But over the past two years, things have improved. The roads can now accommodate two-way traffic,” said Raj Bhai, a factory worker from Gujrat, who is on his fifth trip.
At Rambhan, Gurmeet’s bus surges forward when he sees that he is out of position in the convoy. The bus zips past several other private buses as the roads snake through the grey mountains crumbling at the foot at Ramban. Several bulldozers here have been chipping away at the foot of the mountain as a four-lane road is been constructed.
As the bus races towards the number-nine position, the biker units from the CRPF withdraw as the convoy is bolstered by additional armed vehicles from the paramilitary forces. Several men have been stationed along the entire stretch of the route with bulletproof armour and camouflage in formations of three as the J&K Police with the Indian Army and the CRPF have been mounting area domination exercises in the corridor areas far removed from the main yatra routes.
A former Captain with the Rashtriya Rifles, Vikram Chand has undertaken 10 trips to the cave shrine. “These days if you look at gadgetry in place and the coordination between several battalions it is mind-boggling. I took my first Amarnath Yatra trip in 1996 during the height of militancy and the army had a tough time securing the routes,” he says.
The convoy cuts through Banihal village and makes its way through the Johar tunnel where the vehicles used to be checked but this year the security agencies have only made a list of passengers in every bus.
Gurmeet waits for the security check and then speeds through the tunnel as he leaves behind a passenger. “There is no time to wait for him. We have to make it to Anantnag and reach Pahalgam in time. We have to keep moving with the Army convoy and not stray from our path,” he says.
Last month, security agencies said they had gunned down four militants in Khiram area of Sirigufwara (Anantnag), along the yatra route. So, every few metres there are paramilitary officers armed with a wooden stick and a rifle. The convoy zips past Anantnag and finally reached the Pahalgam base camp.
Passengers heave a sigh of relief as the bus makes it past the security check post and they finally take a look at the mountaintop far out in the distance with a sprinkle of snow on the top. The rains have started to lash as the temperatures have dropped to 13 degrees Celsius. All that remains is the climb up the mountain.