The Amarnath yatra is one of those iconic annual pilgrimages many Indians look to undertake at least once in their lifetime. What is the yatra all about? Located far into Kashmir’s lofty mountains, at the virtual confluence of the Kishtwar and the Great Himalayan ranges, is this huge unusual rock cavern on the face of the hillside with a deep cave comprising a large icicle. Tradition has it that the icicle symbolises Lord Shiva, and the cave is the place where he shared the secrets of his immortality with wife Goddess Parvati. The icicle, shaped in a phallic form, remains intact through most of summer. In July-August each year, over 300,000 pilgrims (it touched 640,000 in 2011, and come down since) travel long distances to finally get an opportunity to walk, ride or be carried to the holy cave along some treacherous high-altitude mountainous routes. Though the yatra is based on Hindu belief and tradition, there is something deeply inclusive about it. The vast logistics for the challenging journey include the major involvement of Kashmiri Muslims, many of whom also equally revere Lord Shiva. The yatra gives sustenance to many Kashmiris and adds to the state’s tourist economy, The journey involves a long drive from Jammu to either Pahalgam (Chandanwari) or Baltal, the two bases, and then a walk to the holy cave.
The 28-year-old strife triggered by the Pakistan-sponsored proxy war in J&K has created an atmosphere of mistrust between the faiths. This was Pakistan’s basic intent: to deepen the faultlines in India’s inclusive culture, with mutual respect and coexistence between faiths as an essential ingredient. Always wary of India’s strength as a tolerant and inclusive nation, in contrast to its own single-faith non-inclusive culture, Pakistan has aimed to drive a communal wedge with selective acts of terror and propaganda. Pakistan and its anti-India cohorts saw the Amarnath yatra with its iconic and emotive image as an event that can be exploited. The large movement and gathering of pilgrims over six-eight weeks (the yatra ends on Raksha Bandhan each year) can be targeted on the roads anywhere from Jammu to the two bases. Thereafter, the 48-km trek with multiple resting points and camps can also be targeted from multiple mountain tops, where small teams of terrorists can infiltrate. Improvised explosive devices or the use of small arms would suffice to cause a large number of casualties anywhere along these routes.
The yatra’s management involves very detailed logistics but even more demanding is the security cover. The last time a major incident occurred during the yatra was in 2000 when a yatri camp at Pahalgam was targeted by the Lashkar-e-tayyaba, leading to large-scale casualties.
Since 2016, various anti-India elements have chosen to step up the level of violence, and through it exploit unfortunate chinks appearing in India’s inclusive landscape. After this change in the nature of the Kashmir Valley’s proxy war, we have seen terror groups showing no remorse in selecting targets for the perpetration of attention-seeking acts of violence. Unarmed policemen and local Army officers on leave becoming victims is an indicator that there would be no qualms about targeting the yatra for psychological gains and creating deeper schisms in Kashmir and consequently in the rest of India.
On Monday evening, a well-planned ambush near Khanabal, Anantnag, targeted a bus full of yatris returning after darshan from the Baltal camp. The bus apparently moved as a part of a small yatri convoy with escort, but got left behind due to a tyre puncture, and that too without an armed escort at a time when road protection had been lifted. Obviously a lapse in standard operating procedure, but even if the escort was there a deliberate ambush like this would have caused the desired harm even before any escort could react. That underlines the main challenge of securing the yatra, where 100 per cent security may never be achieved. Whether the bus being from Gujarat and all yatris from that state was a factor may never be known. What is needed is a gingering of awareness among the security forces on the types of methods the terror groups could employ. Many of these forces have been deployed from outside the Valley and would not be familiar with the history of violence in the state. Second, no one can treat security in a transactional manner, assuming that once the road protection is lifted, no yatri vehicles will move. There are enough takers for breaching rules, and they can’t be allowed to make themselves targets. These are the chinks in the armour, and the security system must devise robust checkpoints and a no-nonsense approach in tackling errant yatris who may unwittingly risk their lives.
With the social media now a tool in the hands of terror groups and other anti-India elements, the scope for giving spark to deep-rooted sentiments is vastly higher. It is heartening to see this time, though, that the negativity has been comparatively muted. The rare political consensus, that could be temporary, has added weight to the mitigation of the terrorist intent and that of their sponsors. Even in Kashmir, where alienation has become even more deep-rooted, there has been widespread condemnation for this horrific act. This has helped to soothe the increasingly charged environment in the rest of India. The temperature on the social media, which these days serves as a barometer of public opinion, was comparatively more mature and condemnatory towards the terrorists than towards a community. No doubt the right choice of words by political leaders was a great facilitator for the harmony displayed.
Yatra 2017 is just three weeks old and will continue till almost mid-August. While security can hardly ever be foolproof, the efforts towards achieving such a state must receive the total attention of the authorities. War-gaming contingencies down to the lowest levels even as they remain deployed must be done in earnest. Securitymen unaware of the actual threats are more a constraint on the system than any help.
An attempt to test India’s nerves as pinpricks on its borders continue is part of a larger gameplan of the deep-set hybrid conflict both China and Pakistan have launched against it. Their failure to achieve the desired ends due to India’s public and political maturity must send a strong message. India too must be prepared to tackle bigger challenges, with this incident having steeled national nerves.