After a hiatus of more than two seasons, the Amarnath Yatra has started. With the administration anticipating the highest number to visit the cave shrine, the overall focus remains on the security aspect of the yearly pilgrimage, reports Tahir Bhat
When Lt Governor, Manoj Sinha revealed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah “have taken a special interest in finalizing arrangements for Shri Amarnath Ji pilgrimage”, it essentially means that the 43-day yatra to Amarnath cave is the key focus of Jammu and Kashmir government. The security arrangements are unprecedented and facilities have been hugely upgraded.
“This year, we have created accommodation for 126570 pilgrims as against 69700 previously while 8480 tents have been installed as compared to 3530 earlier,” Sinha said. “There have been 8118 toilets this year while previously the number was 5456. A total of 147 resting places have been established in Jammu and Srinagar.”
The DRDO has set up a hospital each at Pahalgam and Baltal that will be manned by 391 doctors and lot many paramedics.
“For the Yatris reaching Jammu, camps have been set up at the Airport, Railway Station and Bus Stand, which will issue RFID tags on the basis of travel slip and identity card. New shelter sheds have (also) been built on Baltal and Pahalgam axis,” Sinha said. “The facility of battery car will be provided to the passengers for the distance of 2.3 km of Baltal and Domel and optical fibre cable has been laid on the entire yatra route to provide dedicated telecom connectivity.” Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) has revamped its app and upgraded it into five languages – Hindi, English, Punjabi, Gujarati and Telugu.
For the first time, Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) was introduced to track the movement of the pilgrims. So far 300 thousand have registered but the administration hopes to make it an all-time big pilgrimage with eight lakh pilgrims.
For the smooth movement of the pilgrims, the traffic police authorities have put certain timing restrictions on the movement on Jammu Srinagar National Highway (NH-44). However, the Mughal Road, the alternative highway shall remain open. No Jammu-bound movement from Kashmir is possible before 11:30 am and Kashmir-bound vehicles from Jammu will not be permitted after 11 am. Heavy motor vehicles will continue plying the road on alternate days between 2:30 – 8 pm from the Srinagar side and 4-8 pm from the Jammu side. “Till 2 pm, LMVs traffic going in both the directions shall be redirected through Jawahar Tunnel and thereafter Navyug Tunnel,” the advisory reads. The government has deployed 250 Road Transport Corporation buses for yatra duty in addition to more than that hired from the market.
Involving more departments in the preparations and management, Sinha administration has expanded the base of involvement. Insiders in the administration said that even the Self Help Groups have been asked to pitch tents to sell their products and innovate ways to introduce laundry of the yatris. CRPF, the most populous of the paramilitaries in Kashmir said they have set up Madadgar desks all along the route to extend help to the pilgrims.
In the last few years, the SASB has invested heavily in the infrastructure related to the yatra. Sinha threw open the Yatri Niwas at Chanderkote (Ramban) on the eve of the beginning of the yatra. Spread over 23 kanals of land, the Niwas was built by CPWD in 14 months at a cost of Rs 47 crore. A cluster of 17 3-storeyed pre-fabricated dormitories; it has the capacity to accommodate 3600 pilgrims.
The base camps are elaborate this year. The Pahalgam camp is sort of a township of prefabricated huts, communication towers and a bustling spot for hiring mules. The tent township at Baltal is also very huge and guarded against all sides by the soldiers and the mountains. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has set up a temporary station that will broadcast news and information for 15 hours and it will be available on DTH and All India Radio’s online app. The transmission started in 2019.
A 2-Year Hiatus
The Yatra has remained a modest but routine affair and the host population has traditionally remained part of the process. Off late, however, its importance has grown, apparently for political reasons.
The pilgrimage to the cave shrine was traditionally taking place through the 48-km Pahalgam route. Later, a shorter, 14-km long Baltal route was traced and upgraded. Now the cave shrine is accessible from the twin tracks. Aged, infirm and weak usually opt for mule rides or palanquins carried by Muslims, unlike the healthy ones who take the longer Pahalgam route. The wealthy avail the choppers that would now be flying from three spots.
There was no yatra for two years because of the Covid19 pandemic. Even in 2019, the pilgrimage was in progress and 342 thousand had visited the 12800-ft cave shrine when it was closed in wake of the abrogation of Article 370.
Given the location of the cave shrine, the weather is the ultimate villain. In 1996, a summer snowfall killed 243 pilgrims.
The yatra managers, however, are concerned more about the militancy. Over the years, there have been a series of attacks on the pilgrim sites and routes killing many pilgrims. This threat is the key area that makes the Yatra 2022 exceptionally different as the entire focus is on the security part. Jammu and Kashmir is literally on a high alert and multi-tier security arrangements are in place. Jammu alone has 5000 security men deployed. The entire route, especially in Kashmir is dotted with sand-bagged bunkers manned by battle-ready soldiers.
It is a five-tier security setup. Right from the entry into Jammu and Kashmir, the road is dotted with battle-ready naka parties. At various places, mostly in Kashmir, netra, an anti-drone system is operational. Till the yatra is over, night patrolling will be a routine. CCTV surveillance is installed almost at every spot, mostly in Kashmir and the camp spots in Jammu. On all the high-rise buildings and even on strategic spots on the highway, sharp-shooters have been stationed.
In order to manage the security better, additional 300 paramilitary companies have been inducted. While the police hold the central coordination job and the army is supposed to dominate the areas, all the paramilitary forces are engaged. Some media reports linked the equipping of Jammu and Kashmir Policemen with American 500 Sig Sauer 716 assault rifles and 100 Sig Sauer MPX 9mm pistols with the yatra.
A top police officer has told the media that both pilgrims and buses are being tracked on a real-time basis. This is in the backdrop of various security agencies indicating “increased threats to pilgrimage” to the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC). However, there is no specific threat.
The security grid is worried about the sticky bombs; tiny explosives get attached to buses with magnets and exploded through remote-controlled devices. They had recovered such bombs from Akhnoor in Tiffin that drones dropped in the area. The Katra bus fire that killed four Vaishno Devi pilgrims and left 20 others injured – currently being investigated by NIA, is suspected to have been caused by a sticky bomb. In anticipation of the yatra, given the drone crossing with such bombs, the army carried out a series of operations in areas near the international border with a clear intention to prevent any infiltration.
At least in one case, the police were accused of ordering the closure of a cluster of automobile repair shops on the city outskirts, at a spot very close to the yatra camp. The spot will be having a huge Yatri Niwas next year.
However, the massive security arrangements have triggered a fierce reaction. Mehbooba Mufti, former BJP ally and Chief Minister, said such an atmosphere has been created as if an attacker is ready to assault. “Kashmir is known for its hospitality and we have been hosting Amarnath pilgrims for decades,” she said. “Pilgrims are our guests and they will always be welcome here.”
On June 29, 2022, when Lt Governor Sinha invited Kashmir politicians for interaction, they in a single voice told him that the Amarnath pilgrimage has remained part of Kashmir ethos and it will continue to be so. They said that the host population has always been extending every help that is required and it is rooted in Kashmir’s history. “When there was a crisis, owing to weather or situation,” Congress leader G A Mir, “the people brought them on their shoulders to safety.”
However, the politicians suggested to LG that the pilgrimage should not be used to alienate the population but to bring them closer. They pointed out harsh security measures, especially on the highways that restricted the routine movement. LG had invited the politicians to seek their “cooperation” and “communal harmony for the smooth conduct” of the Yatra.
On Thursday, June 29, 2022, when the first batch of the pilgrims – 4890 pilgrims in 176 vehicles – crossed into Kashmir, police and paramilitary men stopped the convoys and formally welcomed them by putting colourful garlands around their necks amid religious sloganeering. In Pahalgam, a huge billboard with Prime Minister Modi’s smiling face welcomes the pilgrims.
In his Mann Ki Baat, Prime Minister Modi on June 26, mentioned the Amarnath yatra with that of Lord Jagannath in Puri, Pandharpur in Maharashtra and Sabarimala in the South. “Devotees from all over the country reach Jammu and Kashmir for this pilgrimage,” he said, insisting that the local people take the responsibility of this yatra with equal reverence. Devinder Singh Rana, the Jammu politician who deserted NC to join BJP said the Amarnath was a “shining symbol of India’s intangible cultural heritage and civilization.”
Authorities escorted the first batch of pilgrims in a huge secured convoy to Kashmir. Ahead of them, almost 400 Sadhus were driven to twin base camps in Kashmir, a day earlier. Jammu is home to five registration centres, three token centres, and 32 lodging centres.
In anticipation of the yatra, SASB permitted more than 34 langars, and community kitchens to set up their camps. These free service providers offer free rations and other basic facilities to the pilgrims. SASB has designated 18 spots where the langars operate.