Amarnath Yatra: A history of faith and death

Last Updated: Tue, Jul 11, 2017 20:06 hrs
A photo taken in 2009 shows pilgrims beginning their journey from Baltal Base Camp to the Amarnath cave shrine

Photo taken in 2009 shows pilgrims beginning their journey from Baltal Base Camp to the Amarnath cave shrine - AFP

On Monday, seven Amarnath pilgrims were killed and several more injured in a terrorist attack after militants opened fire on a bus carrying pilgrims and earlier on an armored police car along the Jammu-Srinagar Highway in south Kashmir. The bus was from Gujarat and carrying pilgrims who were returning from the shrine.

The highway where the attack took place has since been closed. Internet services have been blocked after the attack. As India Today reports, three to five Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists were involved in the attack, with a Lashkar operative from Pakistan who was heading the militant group.

The attack was swiftly condemned by political leaders. The Prime Minister offered his condolences:

The bus was not a part of the main yatra convoy which is usually escorted by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Following the attack, the government appealed to all pilgrims to follow existing safety protocols and to cooperate with security officials.

Weeks ago, intelligence agencies warned that militants were planning to target the Amarnath Yatra. The 40 day Amarnath Yatra began on 28th June and thousands of personnel from the army, BSF, CRPF and state police are deployed to the area to ensure the safety of the pilgrims.

The Amarnath shrine is located in a narrow gorge at the end of the Lidder Valley and the shrine stands 3888 metres. Security is always high for the yatra; this year, apart from the existing CRPF in the state, the central government has given over 250 additional companies of paramilitary forces to the state government, the BSF has deployed over 200 troops as over 2.3 lakh pilgrims have registered for the yatra this year.

The Amarnath Yatra is a holy pilgrimage for Hindus to the holy cave of Amarnath. The main attraction is the Shiva-lingam, which is the prime object of spiritual offerings at Amarnath. With the terrain being mountainous, snow-bound and treacherous, pilgrims from across the country are taken in vans, cars and buses to and from the shrine. On average, 2,000-3,500 tourists visit the shrine per year.

Up until 1990, as the Indian economy grew, the number of pilgrims who visited the shrine ranged from 10-15,000 annually. The pilgrimage was always a challenge to the government due to the location being the place that saw the rise of secessionist militancy. The geographic location of the site makes it very vulnerable to militant attacks from the Pakistan side.

Over the years, the number of pilgrims who took the journey has increased by a great extent. This isn’t the first time the Yatra has been a target for terrorists. The incident on Monday isn’t the first terrorist attack to take place where the target has been yatra pilgrims. There have been a number of similar incidents resulting in the loss of life and many injuries as the result of terrorists attacking tourist groups and security personnel.

The very first attack on the pilgrimage was in 1993 when Pakistan based Harkat-ul-Ansar announced a ban on the annual yatra, claiming the attack was a response to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The threat did not materialize and the yatra passed of peacefully.

Other more serious incidents took place in the 90’s. In 1994, two pilgrims were killed in an attack by Harkat ul-Ansar terrorists. The next year, the same terror outfit carried out at least three attacks but no casualties were reported. The following year, in 1996, there were also several attacks against pilgrims with no casualties.

On August 2nd 2000, militants attacked five locations in Jammu & Kashmir killing 89 people including 21 Amarnath yatra pilgrims. The terrorists attacked the pilgrims’ base at Pahalgam which lies on the main route to the shrine. Immediately after the curfew, authorities imposed a curfew. As there were signs of a peace initiative at the time, the attack on ‘soft targets’ i.e. Hindu pilgrims was aimed at disrupting the peace process in the area.

On 20th July 2001, at least 13 people including two police officials were killed and 15 injured when a militant threw two grenades at a camp and then fired near the holy cave. The Hindu reported at the time that the yatra was suspended and an operation launched to flush out the militants. Many of those who died and got injured were a result of being caught up in a firefight when militants took shelter in a camp.

Another incident took place the very next year; making it the third consecutive year that militants targeted the Amarnath Yatra. On 30th July 2002, two pilgrims were killed and three injured when terrorists threw a grenade at a taxi which was travelling to the Amarnath cave base camp. A week later, three LeT militants opened fire inside a base camp killing 8 people and injuring 30. Frontline reported that the attack took place despite 15,000 troops and police personnel who were deployed specifically to protect pilgrims.

The attack was not unexpected. At the time, the Inspector-General of Police of Jammu warned there were terror cells specifically tasked to carry out attacks on the Amarnath Yatra. The concern at the time was also overall security for the state which was about to undergo elections.

In June of 2006, separatist militants hurled a grenade at a bus carrying Amarnath pilgrims from a base camp to Srinagar. The attack came just days after the J&K police busted a terrorist module which was responsible for attacks on tourists; an attack on Gujarati tourists left 4 people killed and injured 6 others the previous month. At the time, two militants belonging to the Al-Bader Mujhadeen were arrested for the attack.

The latest attack was different from the previous ones because this deliberately targeted pilgrims. As the Indian Express reports, this latest attack is the crossing of a new red line for militants in the region. There is an unwritten rule in place wherein the militants will not attack the pilgrims. The attacks also demonstrate how much ground has been lost to militants in south Kashmir and raises questions on the security arrangements that are in place for the pilgrimage and what will be done next year.



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