From faith to death
Amarnath Yatra is a divine yatra for the Hindus. Lakhs of pilgrims visit the holy site, Amarnath temple, which is believed to be Shiva’s abode. But, very often, the divinity and the purity of this place have been wrecked by the terrorists. On July 10 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 reported, 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 as he tweeted “Pained beyond words on the dastardly attack on peaceful Amarnath Yatris in J&K. The attack deserves strongest condemnation from everyone.”
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 had 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 at 3888 metres above sea level. 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 an average, 2,000-3,500 tourists used to visit the shrine per year earlier. 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. The latest attack was different from the previous ones because this deliberately targeted pilgrims. 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.
Kashmiriyat under attack
Speaking in the Lok Sabha on April 21, 2003, about his just-concluded visit to Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spelt out his perspective on the way to deal with the complex issues concerning the state. He spoke of major economic projects in areas such as the development of road and rail infrastructure and promoting employment for the youth.
This isn’t the first time the Yatra has been a target for terrorists. The incident on July 10th 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 attack 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 was 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.
Pained beyond words on the dastardly attack on peaceful Amarnath Yatris. India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks & the evil designs of hate.
-Narendra Modi, Prime Minister
The attack on the devotees of Lord Shiva is a crime against humanity. The entire nation is in shock.
-Sonia Gandhi, President, Congress
Blot on all Muslims and Kashmiris. Pilgrims come to Kashmir every year for the yatra despite all the difficulties. And seven people died today. I have no words to condemn it. I hope the security forces and the Jammu and Kashmir police arrest the perpetrators forthwith and take stern action against them.
-Mehbooba Mufti, Chief Minister, J&K
Shares the pain and anguish of families who have lost loved ones in the terror attack on innocent Amarnath Yatris. Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to accept responsibility for the incident and never allow it to happen again.
-Rahul Gandhi, Vice President, Congress
The most reprehensible act, the incident should add to India’s determination to eliminate terrorism.
-Arun Jaitley, Defence Minister
No words to express deep pain on the killing of innocent pilgrims. It is a henious act.
-Amit Shah, National President, BJP
Those attacking innocent people won’t be spared.
-Nirmal Singh, Deputy Chief Minister, J&K
These terrorists are the enemies of Kashmir & Kashmiriyat. Every right thinking Kashmiri must today condemn the killing of the Amarnath yatris and say, unequivocally – this is #NotInMyName.
-Omar Abdullah, Former Chief Minister, J&K
As the unfortunate news of the yatris killing reaches us leadership & people of #Kashmir are deeply saddened & strongly condemn it. To us the pilgrims have and will always be respected guests.
-Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmiri separatist leader
Strongly condemn horrific attack on #AmarnathYatra pilgrims by terrorists at Anantnag. Such dastardly act should not go unpunished.
-Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister, Odisha
Terrorism is not acceptable anywhere in the world.
-Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister, West Bengal
Strongly condemn terror attack. A cowardly act.
-Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister, Delhi
Our condolences to the families of the bereaved.
-Sitaram Yechury, Secretary General, Communist Party
Referring to relations with Pakistan he said: “We have extended our hand of friendship to Pakistan. Let us see how Pakistan responds. Stopping cross-border infiltration and destruction of terrorist infrastructure can open the door for talks. Talks can take place on all issues including Jammu and Kashmir.” He asserted: “The gun can solve no problems. Issues can be guided by the three principles of insaniyat (humanism), jamhooriyat (democracy) and Kashmiriyat (Kashmir’s legacy of amity).”
The terrorists knew, as everyone else in Kashmir knows, that attacking an Amarnath Yatra convoy is tantamount to hacking a living symbol of communal harmony in the state. It is the ‘Kashmiriyat’ that the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh defended admirably on Twitter, which the terrorists wanted to tear asunder.
The annual Amarnath Yatra in the Valley has had a long and respected tradition of Muslims and Hindu pilgrims coming together for each other’s cause. As lakhs of Hindu pilgrims descend on the Valley each year, it is the local Muslims who help them with food, work as their porters and guides. At every stopover of an Amarnath Yatra convoy beginning from Jawahar Tunnel, which connects Jammu to Kashmir, till Pahalgam, the base camp for Yatra, down to the tunnel itself, there are countless stories of how locals helped and often came to the rescue of the Hindu pilgrims.
In fact, not one Hindu family was reported attacked in violent protests that broke out in the Valley during 2008, 2010 and 2014. At a time when the two communities saw heightened tensions in other parts of the country, Amarnath Yatra has been an outstanding example of a long-standing syncretic culture of Kashmir.
There is an old folklore about how Amarnath cave was discovered by a Muslim shepherd, Buta Malik, 150 years ago. The shepherd and his descendents were for a long time the sole custodians of the Amarnath cave.
Though some dispute this theory and claim that the cave finds mention in 6th century text Nilamata Purana and in Kalhana’s epic Rajtarangini, the fact is that apart from Pak terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba backed attacks, which have found no takers in the Valley, Amarnath Yatra has traditionally found support from the locals.
But the dastardly attack gives a clarion call for the local politicians of Kashmir. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti may say with a heavy heart that the murder of seven Amarnath Yatra pilgrims has brought shame upon Kashmiriyat, but she has to sow the seeds of such emotions in the hearts of the common people. It is pertinent to ask: Are the ministers, MLAs, leaders and activists of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in a position to confidently ask the people on the street to boycott those spreading terror in the name of Kashmiriyat? Why doesn’t she seek the cooperation of the National Conference and other regional parties for the sake of peace in Kashmir? Why doesn’t Mehbooba request spiritual organisations and religious leaders at mosques not to issue statements in favour of terrorists and speak about the well-being of Kashmir? History is looking at Mehbooba Mufti with curiosity. Her failure won’t just be the failure of a leader, but the failure of an entire political system.
Article 370, the binding link?
Despite the near constant cycle of jihadi and separatist violence in the region, this attack on Amarnath pilgrims was a shock. Pilgrims in the region have always seemed to enjoy protection from the violent chaos in the region – but the recent attack puts an end to that state of affairs.
Perhaps the security felt by the pilgrims was just an illusion – one violently ripped away by the specter of jihad. humanity. Whatever the reason, this much was true: the valley was not safe for pilgrims to Amarnath. There was widespread condemnation of these attacks – from Hindus and Muslims alike. A strong message was sent to fundamentalists and separatists alike – pilgrims are off limits.
Early this month, a bus ferrying pilgrims to the temple in Amarnath was shot up, killing seven and wounding nineteen – and bringing up the specter of the previous attacks. Yet, unlike the attacks in 2000, were not part of a terrorist design. The tragedy were a result of ongoing fire between jihadis and the local police – the pilgrims’ bus drove into the crossfire. While tragic, these deaths were not the result of targeting killings – but the result of the horrific law and order situation in the valley.
Shootings, stone pelting, and blasts have become the dominant form of political expression in Kashmir. The people run scared while terrorists, sympathizers and separatists war for control. The people beg for release from the state government – yet the PDP remains sympathetic to the violent and deaf to the people. The people then turn to the Union, but the Union does nothing. Why?
In any other state in the Union, this extent of lawless brutality would be grounds for an invocation of President’s Rule under Article 356. To be satisfied of the need, the President would need only watch the news, any day of the week for the past decade. Then, under Article 356, he could declare martial law and restore some semblance of law and order to the region.
But, unlike every other state in the Union, Kashmir is exempted from the provisions of Article 356, as Article 370 grants Kashmir a special status in the nation – restricting many of the Union’s activities in the region. This extends to the use of President’s Rule, which cannot be executed without the consent of the state government in the valley.
Given the sympathy of the local government to secessionists and their hostility to the union, this seems unlikely – no matter how poorly things go in the region.
So, the solution seems simple. Abolish Article 370, as the vast majority of the nation wants, and treat Kashmir like any other state in the Union. Then the Union can take charge of the situation, putting down the rebels and terrorists, and ensuring proper governance and security in the region.
Unfortunately, the removal of Article 370 would also remove the region from the Union’s control.
Legally, the abolition of Article 370 would simultaneously remove the legal claim to Kashmir that India has. As the constitution was formulated based on specific powers granted by the people of different nations to the Union, the rights not ceded are beyond the reach of the Union – as discussed in the Keshavanand Bharti case. Kashmir ceded fewer rights than any other party to the Constitution – a state reflected by Article 370. Without the Article, India’s legal claim over Kashmir vanishes.
The only claim India would maintain on the valley would be our military occupation of the region. By occupying the region, India can claim to have acquired the territory, and then incorporate the state of Jammu & Kashmir under Article 3 as a new state in the Union. This would then give the Union the ability to create a fresh legislative assembly, redraw the borders, and, most importantly, declare President’s Rule under Article 356 to restore order.
Of course, this would be akin to acquiring territory through a military occupation. While one can certainly see the benefits of bringing the valley into the nation properly under the Union, there are significant drawbacks.
Instantly, the claims of the separatists would begin to look a lot more legitimate. There would be renewed accusations of Indian Imperialism – only this time, they wouldn’t be entirely without merit. Legally, Kashmir would be a state acquired through military conquest. Given how much trouble separatists have been able to raise in the current circumstances, what they could do with such a rationale is terrifying.
Meanwhile, India’s standing before the international community would be severely weakened. In the eyes of the world, from a democratic, non-aggressive, and free nation we would become no better than our openly imperialistic neighbors. Our geopolitical rivals – Pakistan and China – would be able to use this technicality to justify whatever military actions they take against the nation – be it firing over the Punjab LoC or occupying forts in the northeast.
Which brings us back to square one. An intractable problem of jihad and secession, where the Union is barred from direct intervention. A political situation too tense for needed reforms.
And all the while, Kashmir burns…
(Views expressed in this article are writer’s personal)
By Akash Kashyap
Interestingly, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant organisation suspected to be behind the attack, has also issued public condemnation of the attack. Lashkar has not only distanced itself from the attack on Amarnath pilgrims but also condemned the attack. LeT spokesman Abdullah Ghaznavi, while condemning the attack on pilgrims, has said, “It is against Islamic teachings”. “The attack on the pilgrims is highly reprehensible act. Islam does not allow violence against any faith,” he said.
LeT’s statement only indicates that the militant group is well aware of widespread resentment in average Kashmiris over the attack on Amarnath Yatra, which they percieve to be a symbol of Kashmiriyat. While the attack may have served a strategic purpose for the terror group in distracting and irking Indian forces, which had upped the ante against militancy, LeT knows the sentiment in Valley too well to openly associate itself with such an act.
The brutal attack carried out by suspected militants on Amarnath yatris is surely going to change the rules of engagement between the security forces, the militants and sympathisers of new-age militancy in the Valley.
The attack is percieved to be a reaction to a sustained counter-insurgency campaign launched by security forces against militants in recent weeks during which more than two dozen militants have been killed.
A massive crackdown against militants and militancy sympathisers in the coming days is likely to follow after the attack as pressure builds on the security apparatus to bring the perpetrators of the act to justice.
The attack is going to have far reaching implications not just on Kashmiris living in the Valley, but outside too. For more than two decades, the cultural ethos of Kashmiris have already been stained with the forced migration of Kashmiri Pandits in early 1990s. This attacks is likely to further deepen the already widening divide between Kashmir and Jammu as it will pit a Hindu-majority Jammu against the Muslim-majority Kashmir.That is the reason why Kashmiris across the political, religious and ideological spectrum have condemned the attack.
By Nilabh Krishna