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Amarnath Yatra: The pilgrimage and the politics

On Tuesday, the Centre held three high-level meetings on Jammu and Kashmir, two of them on the Yatra's security. The government announced that every pilgrim would be insured for Rs 5 lakh and given Radio Frequency Identification tags for security.

Written by Bashaarat Masood | Srinagar |
Updated: May 19, 2022 7:36:35 am
This time, the Centre has approved deployment of over 40,000 personnel of the CRPF and other Central forces, apart from police and Army presence along the Yatra routes. (File)

In April this year, Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Secretary Apurva Chand said that the Amarnath Yatra this year would be “historic”, with six to eight lakh pilgrims visiting the shrine in the Himalayas. “It will be twice the size than ever before.”

On Tuesday, the Centre held three high-level meetings on Jammu and Kashmir, two of them on the Yatra’s security. The government announced that every pilgrim would be insured for Rs 5 lakh and given Radio Frequency Identification tags for security.

Like most things about Kashmir, the Amarnath Yatra is tied up in the politics of the Valley. But this year’s Yatra, that begins on June 30 and concludes on August 11, holds special significance – for being the first since the abrogation of Article 370, and the first since the two-year Covid gap.

If the government clearly wants to ensure that things go smoothly and are better and bigger than before, even size comes with a price at the Yatra. The BJP has long called for extending the Yatra duration, and from 15 days in the 1990s, it now varies between 45 days and 60.

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Kashmir parties are wary of the “agenda” behind this, a suspicion that has only strengthened in the discord created by the scrapping of special status.

Initially, the annual Amarnath pilgrimage was organised by the Purohit Sabha Mattan, Anantnag, and Dashnami Akhara, Srinagar, and was a 15-day affair. In 2000, the then state Assembly, by an Act, constituted the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB). In 2005, the SASB extended the yatra to two months.

Before the onset of militancy in the Valley, the annual Amarnath pilgrimage was a low-key affair, with the number of visitors less than 30,000. In the late 1990s, these numbers saw a sudden jump, and in 2011, went as high as 6.3 lakh.

Incidentally, a committee set up by the government after a tragedy in 1996 when over 240 pilgrims had died following the weather taking a turn for the worse had recommended that the total number be capped at 1 lakh over 30 days, with no more than 3,400 people a day.

The separatists see in the focus on the Yatra by the BJP dispensation an “assertion of Hindu identity” and of the government’s claim on Kashmir. Many of them cite environmental concerns to oppose increasing pilgrim numbers in the delicate ecosystem of the Himalayas.

In 2008, the transfer of 99 acres of forest land by then J&K government headed by Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress (in a coalition with the PDP) to the SASB, for shelters and facilities for pilgrims, had triggered massive protests in the Valley, spearheaded by separatists. After over 50 civilians were killed in action by security personnel, the government was forced to backtrack on the transfer of land.

This, in turn, had led to protests in the Jammu region, which was cashed in by the BJP. From two Assembly seats in 2008, the party numbers had risen to 10 in 2009 and 25 in 2014. The Jammu protests had also propelled Jitendera Singh to political limelight, securing for him eventually a berth at the Centre when Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014.

Security aspect

Kashmir’s fragile political situation did not have much impact on the Amarnath Yatra during the militancy years, and even during the 2008, 2010 and 2016 street protests. However, the security for the Yatra is a monumental exercise, especially after militant threats and attacks in the past.

In 1994, the Harkat-ul-Ansar threatened not to allow the Yatra till the government removed security bunkers from the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar. After the bunkers were removed, it put up a fresh slew of demands. The Yatra, however, went off peacefully.

In 2000, the first-ever militant attack on the Yatra led to the killing of 25 people, including 17 pilgrims. Both the attackers were also killed.

In July 2001, two hand grenades were hurled at pilgrims at Sheshnag, on the road to the cave shrine, killing 12 pilgrims and wounding 13.

After almost 15 years, in 2017, militants struck again, targeting a bus with pilgrims in South Kashmir, killing seven and leaving 18 injured.

This time, the Centre has approved deployment of over 40,000 personnel of the CRPF and other Central forces, apart from police and Army presence along the Yatra routes. UAVs will keep a watch while a counter-drone system will be in place to ward off any drone attacks.

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