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The broken glass scattered on the road is the only remnant of Monday’s terror attack that left seven Amarnath pilgrims dead on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, threatening to stir tension in a state already divided on religious lines.
Nobody in the Valley expected the attack on yatris, despite the region witnessing a flare up in violence recently. For Kashmiris, Muslim and Hindu, the pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave of Hindus from around India symbolises the legacy of a composite culture and communal harmony. And that explains the anger on the streets today.
Show of solidarity
The attack spot is barely 200 m away from the army’s sector headquarters and the joint interrogation centre of the police in the Khanabal locality of Anantnag town. It is also less than 2 km away from the office of the deputy inspector general of police, South Kashmir.
The fact that the attack took place late in the evening didn’t deter people from coming out of their houses and helping the injured yatris in whatever way possible. “Just minutes after the injured were brought to hospital, many local youth volunteered to donate blood while others chipped in with monetary support to buy medicines and other equipment to help the injured yatris, who were in a state of shock,” said Dr Azad Malik at the district hospital in Anantnag.
The entire medical team at the hospital worked overnight to treat at least 20 injured yatris, ten of whom had bullet wounds. Two victims were operated on overnight for their grievous bullet injuries. “As a Kashmiri, it was our obligation to help the yatris. This is what defines Kashmir,” said a volunteer, Nasir Ahmad, who along with his friends remained with the yatris in the hospital till late into the night to comfort them.
“We really appreciated the support and love that we got from people here. Though all of us were petrified after the attack, the doctors and the young boys didn’t let us feel even for a moment that we are away from home,” said Pushpaben Goswami, an injured yatris from Maharastra who is undergoing treatment at SKIMS Tertiary Care Institute in Srinagar.
She was hit by a bullet on the right side of her back, bruising her spinal cord. “I will visit Kashmir again,” she said as she smiled, lying on a bed at the hospital.
The attack and the blame game
The bus carrying pilgrims was on its way from Baltal to Jammu when it came under militants’ fire. Both the Jammu and Kashmir police and the CRPF, however, said that the yatris had not registered themselves and weren’t part of the yatra convoy, which is escorted by security forces. According to the police, they had also violated the 7 pm curfew on the movement of yatris.
The attack took place despite intelligence input that the yatra could become the target of militants to “flare up communal tensions throughout the nation”.
The alert, titled “most urgent,” was sent to top police and CRPF authorities, and subsequently leaked on social media. “The militants might strike in form of standoff fire on the yatra convoy to kill 100 to 150 yatris and about 100 policemen,” reads the alert.
Kashmir police chief Muneer Ahmad Khan blamed the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba for the attack. “There are credible inputs about the LeT outfit carrying out the attack,” said Khan.
Government spokesman Naem Akhter said on Twitter, a “gang of gunmen belonging to LeT and led by Ismail from Pakistan have been identified as perpetrators of [the] yatri attack”.
In a statement issued to a local news agency, the LeT, however, termed the attack a “highly reprehensible act” that was against the teachings of Islam. “Islam does not allow violence against any faith. No Kashmiri has ever targeted any pilgrim and this barbarity and atrocity is trademark of Indian forces. They have no match when it comes to commiting heinous acts against humanity,” LeT spokesman Abdullah Ghaznavi said.
In the past two months, the security forces have intensified their counter-insurgency operations, killing at least 30 militants.
On the other hand, the killings have brought into focus once again the discourse around ‘new-age militants’, who have of late made the local police their target. Six policemen were killed in the Achbal area of Anantnag and one policeman each in Srinagar and Kulgam recently.
Could the attack have been prevented? There are no answers as of now. But the security agencies will need to put their heads together to find out how the lapse occurred even after 21,000 additional troops had been deployed in the run up to the first death anniversary of slain militant commander Burhan Wani.
Unanimous in condemnation
In a joint statement, top separatist leaders Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik expressed “deep sorrow and grief over the killing of yatris and strongly condemned it”.
“This incident goes against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos,” the statement read.
In a tweet, Mirwaiz said the leadership and the people of Kashmir are deeply saddened by the attack and strongly condemn it. “For us, the pilgrims are and will always be respected guests,” he said.
On July 11, people assembled in Pratap Park, in the heart of the summer capital Srinagar, to condemn the “barbaric act”. Students, academics, writers, doctors, lawyers, traders and members of different civil society forums were part of the protest.
“We are here to condemn the attack and also raise the larger question of what should be done next. Incidents like this one have happened in the past and the government, after assuring a transparent probe, has only ended up shelving the cases. We demand a UN-monitored probe into the attack,” noted lawyer Parvez Imroz told The Wire.
Condemnation has also been pouring in from across the political divide in Kashmir. While chief minister Mehbooba Mufti called the attack “an assault on the cultural ethos and values of humanity,” National Conference working president Omar Abdullah tweeted that “every right thinking Kashmiri must today condemn the killing of the Amarnath yatris and say, unequivocally – this is #NotInMyName.”
What does the attack indicate?
Days before the pilgrimage began this year, hardline separatist leader Geelani, on June 19, reiterated that the pilgrims were “our revered guests,” while denying the yatris faced any threat.
Though the Valley has time and again erupted in mass protests, be it the 2016 unrest or three consecutive summers of mass protests beginning 2008, the pilgrimage to Amarnath, one of the most revered Hindu shrines deep in mountains of South Kashmir discovered in 1850, has almost always been a peaceful affair.
Even militants have, in the past, assured yatris that they will be safe during their pilgrimage. And that is why the attack has baffled people, who have come forward to show their solidarity with the victims.
According to political analyst Noor M. Baba, the attack could be an “aberration and not part of lthe arger militant discourse” in Kashmir or the “result of influence from outside as some militant individuals have been speaking the language which is not in tune with the militancy operating in Kashmir”.
“But it may also be an indication of the hardening of the position by militants and a reaction to the hardened stand of New Delhi in Kashmir, as we have been witnessing that the government is more and more depending on tough measures to tackle the militancy,” said Baba.
This attack is the second strike on Amarnath yatris. In August 2000, militants attacked a yatra camp in Pahalgam, killing 27 people including 21 pilgrims. The government blamed the LeT at that time. Prior to the attack, militants had called for a ban on the yatra in 1994 and 1995.
The biggest tragedy to hit the yatra was in 1996, when close to 400 pilgrims, who were caught in heavy snowfall, died en route to the cave.