The attack on Amarnath pilgrims is an attack on the idea of Kashmir itself. Nevertheless, the unequivocal condemnation by Kashmiris cutting across political divides reflects the culture of pluralism the ‘Valley of Saints’ will be known for, despite such aberrations.
The shattered glass still strewn on the road at Batengo in Anantnag was the only sign of militant attack on a bus carrying Amarnath pilgrims from Srinagar to Jammu on July 10. The pieces of the glasses are a grim reminder of the deadly attack that left seven yatris dead and around 40 injured, the first such attack in the past 17 years.
The bus with nearly 60 pilgrims on board was on way to Jammu from Srinagar when it came under attack on the highway; the pilgrims had paid obeisance at the cave shrine two days earlier and had decided to stop in Srinagar for sightseeing.
The scene of the attack is barely 200 meters from Army’s 1 Sector Headquarters and Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC) of J&K police in Khanabal locality of Anantnag town, and less than two kilometers from the office of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, South Kashmir.
The Monday’s attack is the second such strike on yatris since 90s. The first attack was carried in August 2000 when the militants struck in Pahalgam, killing 27 people, including 21 pilgrims. Prior to the attack, the militants had called a ban on the yatri in 1994 and 1995.
As the dastardly act grabbed headlines, J&K police reiterated that the bus had violated the 7 pm deadline when security is taken off the yatra route. The attack was expected since an alert titled “most urgent” was sent to top police and CRPF days before the yatra had begun.
“The yatra could become the target of militants to flare up communal tensions throughout the nation…the militants might strike in form of standoff fire on the yatra convoy to kill 100 to 150 yatris and about 100 policemen,” reads the alert that was leaked on social media.
A statement issued by the police soon after the attack said: “They (pilgrims) were not registered as yatris with Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) and had visited cave shrine on their own,” said a police official, adding: “Since they were not registered yatris, they were not escorted by the security. In case of registered yatris, fool-proof security arrangements are put in place.”
On the next day, Inspector General of Police (Kashmir range) Muneer Ahmad Khan blamed Lashkar-e-Toiaba for the attack, saying there were credible inputs about the outfit behind the attack. The militant outfit however in a statement issued to a local news agency, GNS, termed the attack a “highly reprehensible act” against the “teaching of Islam”.
“Islam does not allow violence against any faith. No Kashmiri has ever targeted any pilgrim and this barbarity and atrocity is trademark of Indian forces. They have no match when it comes to commit heinous acts against humanity,” the LeT spokesman Dr Abdullah Ghaznavi said, rebutting the police claims.
Could the attack have been prevented given the police had already circulated the alert? Though there are no answers as of now, the security agencies would need to put their heads together to find how the lapse occurred, even after additional 21000 troops had been deployed in the run up to the first death anniversary of slain militant commander Burhan Wani.
While the blame game continued, separatist leaders, Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik while strongly condemning the killings, said the incident goes against the very “grain of Kashmiri ethos”.
“The pilgrims are and will always be respected guests for us,” Mirwaiz said in a tweet.
In the past, both separatists and militants, including Burhan Wani, have welcomed the yatris as guests and assured them of safety. On June 19, Geelani reiterated that pilgrims are “our revered guests”, while trashing any threat to the yatris.
A senior political analyst said the attack could be looked from “two point of views”
“It could be an aberration and not part of larger militant discourse in Kashmir due to the result of an outside influence as some militant individual has been speaking the language which is not in tune with local militancy,” the analyst said.
“But the attack,” he said, “may also be an indication of hardening of the positions by militant groups in reaction to hardened stand of New Delhi on Kashmir, “We have been witnessing that the government is more and more depending on tough measures to tackle the militancy. Now we are seeing bodies of militants killed in encounters charred beyond recognition. This obviously raises passions.”
In the past one decade, Kashmir has erupted in mass protests to seek Aazadi and in turn the forces have used “brute power” to crush the protests. The examples are 2016 unrest or three consecutive summers of mass protests beginning 2008. Despite using suppressive measures, the pilgrimage to Amarnath has been a peaceful affair. And that is why the attack has baffled people who have risen in a show of solidarity with the pilgrims.
During the last few months, Kashmir has witnessed a flare-up in violence and militants have hardened their stand. But, despite the grim situation, nobody expected the attack on yatris. The pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine symbolizes the legacy of a composite culture and communal harmony represented by Kashmir. That is why the Valley witnessed protests against the killings to draw the message home.
To register their protest against the killings, people from different walks assembled in Srinagar’s Pratap Park on July 11. “We are here to condemn the attack, and also raise the larger question that what should be done next. Incidents like the one have happened in the past and the government, after assuring transparent probe, has only ended up shelving the cases. We demand a UN monitored probe into the attack,” noted lawyer Parvez Imroz told Kashmir Scan
Condemnation also poured in from across the political divide in Kashmir. While chief minister Mehbooba Mufti called the attack “an assault on the cultural ethos and values of humanity”, National Conference working President Omar Abdullah tweeted that “every right thinking Kashmiri must today condemn the killing of the Amarnath yatris and say, unequivocally – this is #NotInMyName.”
Though the attack took place during late evening hours, it didn’t deter people from coming out of their homes and help the injured yatris in whichever way possible. “Just minutes after the injured were brought to the hospital, many local youths volunteered to donate blood while others chipped in with monetary support financial help for buying medicines and other equipments to help injured yatris who were in state of shock,” said Dr Azad Malik at district hospital Anantnag.
“We really appreciated the support and love that we got from people here. Though all of us were petrified after the attack, the doctors and the young boys didn’t let us feel even for a moment that we are away from home,” said Pushpaben Goswami, one of the injured yatris from Maharastra who is undergoing treatment at SKIMS tertiary care instiute at Srinagar.