The decision of the government to restrict the movement of civilian traffic on Kashmir highway for hassle-free passage of Amarnath Yatra convoys has left people fuming in Kashmir

By Ajaz Rashid

In her mid-30s, a woman struggled to calm down her child in the scorching heat inside a passenger vehicle as security forces brought public traffic to grinding halt on KP Road in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district. “Yei gou zulum (this is tyranny),” an elderly man sighed, seeing the helplessness of the mother.

With each passing minutes, the serpentine queue of passengers’ vehicles grew longer. And, as the sun shone brightly over Kashmir sky the patience of passengers – young and elderly, students and patients – started to wear thin. “They (forces) can’t keep us hostage like this,” a young man shouted from inside a vehicle, in chaste Urdu, at a security force personnel, standing guard on the road. But his words had hardly an impact on the man-in-uniform, who was dressed in riot gear and totting gun. More than 20 minutes later a convoy of buses escorted by security vehicles whizzed past the passengers’ vehicles, and on way to Nunwan base camp in picturesque Pahalgam. This was the first convoy of pilgrims on way to Amarnath shrine. “Don’t come out of the vehicles till the convoy passes by. No (passenger) vehicle will be either allowed to ply till we signal so,” the paramilitary trooper shouted.

Restriction on civilian traffic during Amarnath Yatra convoy. Pic Credit: Javed Dar

The Amarnath pilgrimage is an annual religious affair during which lakhs of people from different states visit the valley for holy pilgrimage to the cave shrine in south Kashmir, which is situated at an altitude of 3888 meters above the sea level in Himalayan mountains. This year however the government of India has put in place the strictest measures for the “smooth conduct” of the Yatra which began on July 1 and will conclude on August 15.

An order issued by the Governor Satya Pal Malik’s administration – J&K is under the direct rule of the Centre after the fall of PDP-BJP government in June last year – last month banned both civilian traffic on the highway, and train services in Kashmir till the completion of the Yatra. No civilian traffic is being allowed to ply on the highway for five hours a day, from 10 am to 3:30 pm, to allow unrestricted access to vehicles carrying Amarnath Yatra pilgrims. The movement of civilian vehicles has been banned from Nashri and Qazigund in Ramban district. No vehicle movement, except for emergency vehicles, is allowed in the same or opposite direction as the Yatra convoy on the stretch and non-Yatra vehicles are allowed to use the stretch only after the convoy is cleared. Also, the train services between Banihal in Jammu and Baramulla in south Kashmir have been suspended till completion of the Yatra. The Yatris take two routes to reach the cave shrine – Pahalgam, and Sonmarg in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district which is the shortest one. It is not only the main highways which are witnessing the strict restrictions, but almost all major roads have also been declared as no-go zones. This has immensely added to the peoples’ sufferings. Feeling helpless, people now prefer link roads and other routes, some of them dangerous to avoid getting stuck in traffic jams for a long period of time to try and reach their destinations.

Pic Credit: Javed Dar

On July 7, amid criticism for politicians, business class, separatists, the governor who is also chairman of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), asked people to bear with the highway restriction, saying the restrictions have been reduced to two hours. “People know what has happened on this highway,” the governor said, in an apparent reference to February 15 fidayeen attack by a Jaish-e-Mohammad militant on CRPF convoy which left 40 paramilitary troopers dead. “There are (now) just two hours of restrictions… This much (people) should bear. The restriction time has been reduced to just two hours now,” Malik told media during his visit to one of the transit camp for Yatris at Pantha Chowk in the summer capital Srinagar to review the facilities made available for the pilgrims.

The decision to impose restrictions has however created resentment in the valley as it has led to hardships to common people and businessmen. Traders have said that the tourism sector was also bearing the brunt while daily commuters between south Kashmir and other parts of the Valley see it as a traumatic experience. Farhana, a government employee from Srinagar, posted in Kulgam shared her “bitter experience”. “It has become nightmarish to travel on the highway ever since the restrictions were imposed. Each day we got stuck in a traffic jam for more than an hour. At times it becomes such a frustrating experience that you literally want to get down the vehicle and walk to office or back,” said Farhana, an engineer. “Now I’m being called late comer both at home and office. This is hell like experience to travel on the highway these days,” she sighed.  The restrictions are seen as part of the plan by the union home ministry under the new minister Amit Shah to ensure peaceful conduct of the Yatra. Shah was on a two-day visit to Kashmir in June to take stock of the security situation and review preparedness for the annual pilgrimage. During his meeting with the top brass of the intelligence grid, he issued a direction for the violence-free Yatra this year.

“We have never been against Yatra. In fact, Kashmir has been nourishing tradition of welcoming pilgrims year after year. We are also for the security of the Yatris but that shouldn’t be at the cost of right to movement and our dignity. Each time a convoys passes we are been caged like animals. Do we deserve this?” asked a visibly angry, Showkat Ahmad, who lives on KP road in Anantnag. Expressing surprise at the “extreme security measures” put in place in south Kashmir for the pilgrimage he said it has led to fear among residents including schoolchildren and the business community. Along the Jammu-Srinagar highway and the road leading to Pahalgam, many new sandbag bunkers have been built, several checkpoints set up and patrols deployed as a security measure. According to media reports thousands of security personnel have been deployed for the Yatra. In the past two weeks, more than 1.5 lakh pilgrims have already paid obeisance at the cave shrine.  “I have never ever witnessed such concentration of security forces for the yatra in my entire life,” Rashid Ahmad of Pahalgam. “It looks like we are living in a war zone.”

Amid criticism the divisional commissioner, Kashmir Baseer Khan told media on July 10 that there was no ban on civilian traffic, but the government was only “regulating” flow of traffic on the highway to allow hassle-free movement of Yatra vehicles. The next day National Conference President Farooq Abdullah hit out at Khan for “lying” to people. “The divisional commissioner is lying that there is no ban. I travelled on the highway and saw how they are stopping people. I ask divisional commissioner that whenever you give any statement present truth to the people,” Abdullah said.           

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