Baltal Blaze

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For decades local Muslims fed and carried Hindus to the cave shrine. Now when non-local stakeholders started meddling with their livelihood, a crisis erupted. Safwat Zargar takes a look at a situation created by a partial and partisan law-enforcement after the local assets were sent up in smoke by the guardians of law

Aerial-View-of-Baltal-Base-Camp-incident

It was just a usual day of yatra at Baltal on last Friday, with hundreds of yatris (pilgrims) trekking uphill through the snow-capped mountains and narrow rocky tracks, to reach the cave shrine of Amarnath. In the early hours of the day, a scuffle had broken out between a local ponywalla (horsemen who ferry pilgrims to the cave) and some non-local langarwalla members (free community kitchen service) near Dumail, two kilometres away from the Baltal base camp. The ponywalla, Nayib Ahmad, from Kupwara, was beaten up by few members of the free community kitchen and according to eyewitnesses, was later moved to Baltal base camp hospital in injured condition. Ahmad was shifted to SKIMS Soura for specialised treatment.

Later in the morning, a large gathering of ponywallas, vendors, tent owners, traders and labourers, started protesting against the ‘assault and manhandling’ of the local horseman. The situation turned ugly when a rumour about Khan’s death spread like wild fire among the locals at Baltal camp, followed by violent clashes between the locals and personnel of 54 BN of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). However, eyewitnesses told Kashmir Life that CRPF didn’t try to stop non-local langarwallas who were ransacking the property of local businessmen, worth lakhs of rupees. At least 59 persons including 9 policemen and 12 CRPF personnel were injured after CRPF resorted to baton charge and teargas shelling to quell the violent clashes. According to the eyewitnesses, CRPF and non-local langarwallas together, went on a rampage and vandalised property. “They (CRPF) even beat policemen,” an eyewitness, wishing anonymity, told Kashmir Life.

During the clashes, hundreds of tents were allegedly set on fire by the CRPF and non-locals, causing explosions of LPG cylinders, eyewitnesses said. Around six langars (non-local community kitchens) were also damaged in fire. 18 fire tenders were rushed to the camp site to douse the flames.

The clashes were so intense that even the chopper carrying some high officials of the state administration was stoned by angry protestors. The protestors, who alleged high-handedness by CRPF, clashed with forces, for hours before the situation was brought under control.

Smoke-billowing-out-from-tents-at--Baltal

Bashir Ahmad Mir, President, Baltal Traders Association, said that the scuffle broke out because the non-local langarwallas were providing accommodation to the yatris, who usually hire accommodation from local tent owners. “The reason of confrontation was economical, as the local businessmen suffer losses due to the free accommodation provided by the free community kitchen service provided by non-local volunteers of Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB),” said Bashir. “Langarwallas don’t have the right to give accommodation to yatris. It snatches the livelihood of locals.”

However, Bashir claimed that some “mischievous elements” were behind the spreading of rumour about Ahmad’s death, which, according to him, “turned the situation violent.”

Pawan Kumar, SASB Baltal Camp director,, declined to explain the event when contacted by Kashmir Life and said that “he has already briefed CEO of SASB about the Friday incident.”

Sensing the gravity of the situation, Governor N N Vohra, who is also the chairman of SASB, directed Chief Executive Officer of board, Rakesh Kumar Gupta, to “immediately proceed to the camp and see that harmony was restored with the help of the district administration.” On the directions of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, Divisional Commissioner Kashmir Shailendra Kumar, IGP Kashmir Abdul Gani Mir, DIG Central Kashmir Range Syed Afhadul Mujtaba along with Deputy Commissioner Ganderbal Sarmad Hafeez and SP Ganderbal Shahid Mehraj also held a meeting with SASB officials at Baltal base camp.

While the incident was being discussed in the high profile state security set up, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh rang up Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to discuss the situation at Baltal. Singh asked the state government to take all necessary steps to control the situation in the area.

According to the various media reports, Omar Abdullah apprised Rajnath Singh that the state government had sent officials to the spot for the necessary action.

After the clashes –the ongoing yatra which is taking place for the first time under the newly formed BJP led government at New Delhi after the conclusion of Lok Sabha elections recently – yatra was suspended temporarily for one day from the Baltal route. While the officials of state administration, police and SASB rushed to the spot to assess the situation, Police arrested five persons including members of CRPF and SASB who were caught “red handed while setting some tents on fire.”

Though the CRPF refuted the allegations that its men were involved in the incident, CRPF Spokesperson, Kishore Prasad said, “CRPF was there for safety of the people.” But it is not the first time CRPF has been accused of “high-handedness and anti-local” actions by the locals.

In July last year, clashes erupted between locals and CRPF after CRPF tried to intervene in the altercation between two local Sumo drivers and Amarnath yatris over fare. Unrelenting, the dispute worsened when CRPF personnel of 115 BN beat up one of the drivers Ghulam Nabi Lone son of Sikandar Lone of Kangan. While Lone was referred to SKIMS Srinagar for treatment, Police and CRPF used force to quell a protest demonstration at the Baltal base camp of Amarnath Yatra after a CRPF canteen and makeshift bunker was set afire by protestors.

Tension had also gripped Sonmarg, Kangan, Ganderbal, Gagangir and other areas of district after the news of CRPF’s manhandling of locals spread.

Baltal-Base-Camp-incident

On May 23 this year, three J&K policemen were beaten up and injured after a group of soldiers from army’s High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) allegedly went on rampage after a scuffle in picturesque town of Sonamarg. According to the police, the army personnel had fired inside police station and snatched weapons of policemen.

After a wave of anti-army protests had blew through the town, an FIR no 3/20 14 under sections 307, 357, 392, 147, 148. 427 of RPC was registered against the army personnel of HAWS Nilgrath who according to the police, “severely beat up three of policemen while they were discharging their routine duties at a check post in Sonamarg tourist resort.”

While Police had also seized four army vehicles including a bus (06P189711) and a Swaraj Mazda (03D1516148) from Army High Altitude Warfare School Sonamarg, a day later, it released two army personnel from HAWS  – Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) S D Lengoo (E910178) and Sepoy Harpreet Singh (15341349) – who were detained after the incident.

According to sources, the next morning a police team led by Assistant Sub Inspector Abdul Ahad had to return empty handed after the officials at HAWS training camp did not cooperate with him to make the arrests of the five more accused army personnel.

On August 1, 2000, when two suspected militants attacked a CRPF camp on Amarnath yatra duty, 34 people including two suspected militants and 22 yatris were killed in CRPF firing that continued for around an hour. After preliminary reports of CRPF’s over-reaction that killed the pilgrims came to fore, the state government appointed a three member commission of enquiry headed by commander of the Srinagar based 15 Corps Lt Gen John Ranjan Mukherjee. While the enquiry indicted many CRPF officers and personnel, the report was never made public. Though the state initiated action against the cops, there was no action against the CRPF.

Back to Baltal, after the situation was brought to normal, a “scoring-opportunity” had flown over the mountains of valley to reach the Jammu city where a shutdown was observed Saturday on the call of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to protest against the clashes at Baltal base camp.

While the yatra resumed at 10 AM on the same day when Jammu was observing shutdown, it also saw the en-mass movement of local tent owners, vendors, ponywallas and labourers from the Baltal Camp. “Of the total 1200 tents erected in the three sections – A, B, C – of the camp, 700 were burnt down in the clashes, while as, 300 tent owners fled Baltal due to fear,” said Bashir. “There are hardly 100-200 tents left now.”

The impact of movement was visible as the yatris failed to arrange ponies for travelling through the rough terrain to reach the cave after the Friday incident. Most of the yatris were seen moving on foot towards the cave on Saturday.

Deputy Commissioner, Ganderbal, Sarmad Hafeez, however, called the movement of labourers and ponywallas from Baltal, “natural due to the slow yatra rush”, and said that Baltal base camp still has sufficient number of local service providers for pilgrims. “Police have already registered an FIR against the Friday incident and the case will be taken to a logical conclusion,” Sarmad said.

IG-Kashmir-at-Baltal-Base-Camp-after-Fire-incident

Acknowledging the movement of locals from Baltal camp, Station House Officer, Sonamarg police station, Aafaq Ahmad said that the law and order has been maintained and the yatra was going on smoothly.

On asking the status of investigations about the Baltal incident, Superintendent of Police, Ganderbal, Shahid Mehraj refused to comment and declined to give any information about the arrests made in the case. “Who told you that we have made arrests? Did you see it yourself?” he told Kashmir Life over phone. When asked about the movement of local vendors and tent-owners, Mehraj retorted, “What can Police do about movement. You tell us,” and hang up the phone.

Apparently, in order to save the state government from public embarrassment, a meeting was presided over by Minister for Forestry, Ecology and Environment, Mian Altaf, who himself belongs to Kangan, to persuade the local businessmen and labourers to carry on their services for pilgrims. However, the reports said that the representatives of the pony and tent owners and traders refused to carry on their business. Even though the government has promised compensation for the tent owners who suffered losses in the incident on Friday, a large number of locals had already left Baltal.

According to Bashir, who is also PDP’s candidate from Kangan for 2014 assembly polls, “three governments run in Baltal; one of the centre, other of state and the third one of the Shrine Board.”

“Nobody dares to tell them anything and its (SASB) men don’t listen to anyone,” he said. Bashir said that as per the government norms langarwallas have to erect their camp on the prescribed area size of 30×30 or 30×40 feet, but they have seized an area of several thousand feet for their camps.

“They don’t follow the procedures,” he said, “environmental concern is least for them.”

Days after the incident a major reshuffle began in the security grid deployed at Baltal camp for the security of pilgrims. In-charge Officer Yatra of J&K Armed Police’s 9th battalion, SSP Dushan Kumar and Commandant of CRPF 54 battalion S S Rawat were shifted from the base camp. While Kumar was replaced by new J&K Police officers SSP Zubair Ahmad and SSP Rajesh Kumar, P K Sandewar came as a replacement for CRPF’s Rawat.

The next move from the state government came in the form of entrusting the job of security for Yatra to Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police. Though the CRPF hasn’t been called back yet, the movement of CRPF from the Base Camp is expected soon, sources said. The move follows after the Additional Director General Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police S M Sahai visited Baltal and participated in an important meeting that was attended by the officials of SASB, CRPF and district administration officials.

Two treks of rough terrain lead to the holy cave of Shri Amarnath – the traditional Pahalgam route and the shortest 14 kilometre Baltal trek from the Baltal base camp.

Three days after the violent clashes at Baltal, an Army officer along with his troops allegedly “thrashed” a J&K police sub-inspector, Nazir Ahmad Wani, when the latter had asked for the army officer’s Identity card at the drop gate of Baltal camp. According to eyewitnesses and police, an army officer of 27 Punjab Regiment in civvies, accompanied by his family, appeared near the gate of Baltal camp after dusk hours. However, when Wani, under routine procedural, asked for I-card of the officer, he took it as an insult, eyewitnesses told Kashmir Life. After much hassle, the officer was finally allowed inside the camp, but the situation took an ugly turn when the officer flanked by troopers, returned an hour later and started beating Wani for no reason. “They kicked him, hit him by gun buts and thrashed him mercilessly,” an eyewitness, wishing anonymity, told Kashmir Life.

The injured police official was first shifted to Baltal base camp hospital and then to SKIMS Soura for advanced treatment.

On Tuesday, army ordered a probe into a policeman thrashing incident at Baltal by an army official and according to the army’s statement, RR Sector Commander and IG Kashmir, JK Police met at Baltal to investigate the incident jointly.

In the meantime, Army authorities have ordered an enquiry into the incident. “Authorities have assured that the personnel found to be allegedly involved in the incident have been replaced while the matter is under investigation. A strict disciplinary action will be taken against the guilty,” the statement read.

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