At 8.20 pm on the night of Monday July 10, as a bus chartered to carry pilgrims from Gujarat and Maharashtra, concluding a pilgrimage to Amarnath, returned down the national highway towards the Banihal pass, it was fired upon by three motorcycle-borne terrorists. The bus was carrying 56 Amarnath pilgrims to Jammu from Baltal, the base camp for vehicular transport to the pilgrimage centre, ensconced in a mountain cave enshrining Amarnath. It was passing Batengoo in Anantnag district, within a stone’s throw of the district headquarters and 65 km south of Srinagar, whence it had departed at 5.30 pm.
The bus was part of the pilgrimage convoy, which is provided meticulous security, perfected over years of practice, but it had fallen behind the rest with a burst tyre, which took an hour to replace. Although the highway to Jammu was closed to the convoy after 7.00 pm, this bus had passed 18 check-posts without being stopped. The terrorists tracking the convoy would have had the time to identify their victim and deploy.
At 8:15 pm, these very motorcyclists had fired on a check post manned by the Special Task Force, Special Operations Group & Central Reserve Police personnel in Khannabal, a suburb of the district headquarter Anantnag, with no casualties. But then the bus was fired upon repeatedly, first at a petrol pump in Batengoo, then again as it sped away with the driver, Sheikh Salim Gafoor, swinging his vehicle to block the attackers, and fleeing for several kilometres with the bus receiving up to 60 bullets, as terrified passengers desperately rolled on the bus floor. Seven pilgrims were killed, six of them women and 18 injured in the attack — the death toll has since risen to eight. The Deputy Commissioner Anantnag, Syed Abid Rasheed Shah, who hastened to the victims in the hospital found them all benumbed, unable to speak.
But so vulnerable was the chartered bus that had it not been for the presence of mind displayed by the driver, Gafoor Bhai, the casualties could have been much higher. To his gritty determination must go the credit for having saved over 50 lives.
As would be expected, this terrorist assaut on an unarmed, peaceful group of citizens pursuing a religious mission shocked the country and triggered a burst of outrage across the world. There was media discussion and debate, demonstration and protest, criticism of the government and expressions of indignation. The narrative of the event exposes fatal lapses, which will require accountability. But if the terrorists had sought to promote a cause through this execrable act, they had succeeded in doing the exact opposite. Most importantly, the Kashmiri public, itself in a state of disaffection for the past year, was swift in voicing and expressing its outrage.
At the dawn of Independence, as Northwest India was engulfed in unprecedented communal carnage, Mahatma Gandhi had seen a ray of hope in Kashmir. Despite a bloody communal eruption in neighbouring Jammu and the murder of some Kashmiris in Jammu, there had been not a flicker of communal frenzy. This was part of the Kashmiri heritage, evolved since the advent of Islam in Kashmir through a vibrant Sufi movement, and conceptualised in the early 20th century by its intellectual elite, mostly Kashmiri Pandit, as “Kashmiriyat”. This was the theme of Kashmir’s freedom movement, culminating in its accession to India. Kashmir has for centuries been characterised by non-violence, dismissed as faint heartedness by its more masculine critics. Its characteristic religious harmony, epitomised by the teachings of Sheikh Nooruddin — Nund Reshi to his Hindu devotees — was himself inspired by the Saivite ascetic Lal Ded, or Lalla Arifa to her Muslim followers.
This heritage goes well beyond mere tolerance, converging on confluence. Kashmiris have an unmatched reputation for hospitality, an asset to their centuries-old tourist industry. The onset of violence since the late ‘80s, the rise of terrorism and consequent disorder leading to severe restriction in the exercise of civil liberties, has resulted in a whole post-’90 generation of Kashmiris being nurtured on pure violence.
Early in this period, in a deliberate effort by Pakistan’s ISI to unleash communal sentiment, the cultural sinews binding Kashmiri society came undone and under Governor Jagmohan’s rule in 1989-90, the vast majority of the miniscule Kashmiri Pandit community fled the Valley. Today a scattering of Kashmiri Pandits numbering a mere three thousand are all that remain. Does the terrorist attack of July 10 mark the eclipse of Kashmiriyat?
India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh boldly applauded those that have kept Kashmiriyat alive, for which he has been bitterly trolled. But facts indicate that the attack was masterminded by two Punjabis infiltrating from Pakistan. Although there is no doubt that they had garnered local support, the revulsion of Kashmiris, expressed in Facebook and street demonstration, which includes youth otherwise sympathetic to separatists and the very leadership of the Hurriyat, has been near universal in its condemnation, looking together on this tragedy as an assault on their civilisation. Syed Sehrish Asghar, a young Kashmiri IAS officer of the 2013 batch of the Punjab cadre and wife of the Deputy Commissioner, Anantnag, lamented (‘The night Amarnath Yatra was attacked’, IE, July 14): “The perpetrators of this heinous crime are not Kashmiris or Muslims or perhaps even human.”
Yet Kashmir’s civilisation is but a manifestation of the magnificent tapestry of India’s own civilisation. Let us not forget that it is through Kashmir that Buddhism with the teachings of Ramanujam travelled to Tibet, where it has flourished despite grave vicissitudes. Kashmir’s capital city still carries the name given to it by the Emperor Asoka. Srinagar was also the place where Adi Shankaracharya, meditating on a mountain that still carries his name, found enlightenment in Advaita, itself the font of Sufi thought. Perhaps then, in the enveloping gloom with the terror attacks in Kashmir and the lynching across India, the people of India, including Kashmir, can unite once more under the aegis of a timeless heritage.
The writer is a former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities