Nearly three lakh pilgrims take the arduous climb to the holy Amarnath cave in Kashmir every year, to seek the blessings of Lord Shiva, with hands raised above their heads and incessantly chanting “Bam Bam Bhole” and “Har Har Mahadev”. Similar passions are palpable at the ascent to Mata Vaishno Devi in Jammu, or even at the picturesque Shankarcharya temple near Dal Lake in Srinagar. For the staunch devotee, the Kheer Bhawani temple close to Srinagar too evokes immense reverence. Social and religious harmony is palpable in these pilgrimages, which is symbolic of the spirit of Kashmiriyat, ingrained over the centuries and largely unscathed by the power of the rifle, protests or curfews.
Of all these pilgrimages, the gruelling Amarnath Yatra is the most significant, open as it is for only around 45 days every year. The pilgrimage is propelled by the enthusiasm and perseverance of the local mule drivers, porters, food stall owners, those creating camps en route and managing them, all of whom are Muslims. The pilgrimage is a source of major livelihood for the locals; it’s also an acceptance of Hindu faith as part of Kashmir’s composite and inclusive culture. This blend of faith and belief, the cultural moorings of the people and the livelihood so generated ensure protection to the pilgrims. It’s because of this that disruptions to the Yatra by inimical elements have been very few in the last two decades and more. The pilgrims have always been provided a helping hand by the local population, be it in cases of natural calamities, accidents, protests or in spite of the turmoil following the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016.
The security forces, on their part, plan the event meticulously and stretch themselves to the maximum in ensuring a safe journey for the pilgrims. In the security calendar, the Amarnath Yatra is not only the most significant, but organising it is also a logistical nightmare. Everything has to be in place, from medical facilities, resting places, food, transportation and repair and refuelling facilities to ensuring order in the long lines of communication, right up to the holy cave.
This year, however, on 10 July, the sacred Yatra was shattered by a volley of terrorists’ bullets near Anantnag, killing seven pilgrims. A lone, unescorted, unprotected and out-of-state bus fell prey to the terrorists’ ambush at Anantnag. Having had a puncture, the bus was delayed to hours of darkness. It was as if the timing was tailored for the terrorists. Here was a laggard vehicle, which wanted to cross the Jawahar Tunnel at the earliest. So in spite of the restrictions, it was travelling down that road, perhaps because no night halts were available or perhaps because of exhortations by the pilgrims to take the risk. It was certainly a risk, yet faith in the goodness of Lord Shiva and Mata Vaishno Devi, and the warmth of the locals during the pilgrimage, could have obfuscated better judgement. These issues need to be addressed, to avoid any similar attacks in the future. However, the tragedy, which impacted not only lives but also scarred the collective psyche of the nation, did not shatter the pilgrims’ faith in either Lord Shiva, or in the supporting populace, the security forces or the administration. So the Yatra will continue for the next one month.
While the attack may seem “simplistic” in nature, that certainly was not the case. The terrorists must have noted the absence of security forces in the area of ambush, they must have chalked out a get-in and get-away plan and worked with clock-work precision. The attack also must have required overt and covert local support. The actual shooting at the bus was precise: the first volley was meant to jolt the driver of the bus and the pilgrims, in the expectation that the driver would apply the brakes and try to stop the bus. And then 75 yards away, the second burst of firing on the near-halted bus would take a major toll. That was obviously the plan. If it had succeeded, the result would have been catastrophic, but it’s just that the first volley of fire did not damage the bus that much and the driver displayed superb presence of mind by driving on, and took the passengers outside the area of ambush.
Considering the honourable tradition of religious accommodation and the dependence on the pilgrims for sustenance, the attack seems to have been orchestrated by a Pakistan sponsored terrorist outfit, even if it denies that it was its handiwork. Such an attack suits these groups to shatter the myth of Kashmiriyat and target the basic goodness of people, incite reciprocal passions and deepen cleavages already under stress. After all, an attack on pilgrims has the potential to distance minds further and harden positions.
The security forces will of course introspect on the intelligence and the security grid, the management of the pilgrimage for the rest of the Yatra, and undertake remedial measures. It is the political parties that will now have to speak in unison, for there is no place for partisan politics or finger-pointing in matters of security. The audio-visual medium in particular needs to control the decibels and avoid fanning fires in their war for ratings. Most importantly, the fundamentalists must be reined in so that the saner voices can talk about our syncretic culture. And of course, the perpetrators must be disciplined in a manner that it hurts and cautions.
These verses of the Holy Quran best describe inter-religious faith: “to you be your religion, to me be mine,” and “whoever kills a person who has a truce with the Muslims will never smell the fragrance of Paradise”.
And to the devotee en route to the majestic cave of Lord Shiva at the Amarnath, “Bhole baba ke amar kabootaron ki jodi dekhna mat bhoolna (Don’t forget to see Lord Shiva’s immortal pair of white pigeons).”
Rakesh Sharma is a retired Lieutenant General of the Indian Army