Seven Hindu pilgrims on Amarnath Yatra have died in a firefight between militants and police in Kashmir during a highly sensitive religious procession.
Six women and one man were killed in Monday evening’s attack in the southern district of Anantnag. It was the deadliest assault on Hindu pilgrims in the majority-Muslim region since 2000, and comes amid heightened religious tensions across northern India and another summer of violence in Kashmir.
Despite employing the ‘highest ever high level security setup’ to guard pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra, which included a satellite tracking system, bullet-proof bunkers, dog squads, mobile bunker vehicles and road opening parties along the route, seven pilgrims were killed while several others were injured after militants attacked a yatri bus on Monday evening.
The J & K police on Tuesday zeroed in on Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Abu Ismail, who took over from Abu Dujana as the Valley’s operation commander, as the mastermind of Monday night’s attack on Amarnath pilgrims which left seven dead and 19 injured.
“This is the handiwork of Lashkar militants,” said Inspector General of Police (IGP), Kashmir range, Muneer Khan. Sources said, Ismail, a foreigner in his twenties, has been on the security radar after the Anantnag police issued a specific threat alert regarding the Amarnath yatra in June.
However, security agencies are also looking at the role of Hizbul Mujahideen and the split faction headed by Zakir Mussa.
The bus, which came under the dastardly terror attack, was from Gujarat.The bus, bearing registration number ‘GJ 09 Z 9976’, was registered in North Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district.
All the victims were from Gujarat, state chief minister Vijay Rupani told reporters, pointing to a possible targeted strike against a chartered bus from that state. Five of the dead were women.
The attack occurred at Batengoo at about 8.20pm when 60-70 pilgrims were returning from Baltal, one of the base camps of the pilgrimage, to Jammu. Batengoo is 65 km south of Srinagar.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani on Tuesday praised driver Saleem Sheikh for showing exemplary courage when the bus he was driving came under terror attack. Saleem drove the bus on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway with 56 Amarnath yatris on board to safety amid indiscriminate firing of bullets from three sides by the militants. He halted only when he reached an Army camp two kilometres away.
Rupani said he would nominate Saleem’s name for bravery awards while also thanked him for limiting the fatalities. The attack left seven people dead and several injured. “Want to thank bus driver for saving lives of people even when there was firing going on. Will nominate his name for bravery award,” the chief minister
The bus was travelling independently and was not part of the yatra convoy, which is escorted by armed personnel. “The operator had not made the mandatory registration with the Amarnath Yatra board and so it was not part of the convoy of Amarnath yatris with security cover. It may have taken a different route as it was operating independently,” according to a member of the tour bus operators’ association as saying.
Security escorts are provided only to government State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC) buses meant for the pilgrimage. The Gujarat bus was a private tourism bus, and therefore plying on the highway like any other private vehicle. A police officer told reporters, “In reality, almost 90% of the yatra trips involve private players. Only those who cannot afford private buses take government transport and avail of the security. Most people hire SUVs or tourist buses and travel at their own convenience”.
A detailed list of guidelines issued by the Jammu and Kashmir Police presents do’s and don’ts for the pilgrims to follow while on their pilgrimage, in an attempt to prevent incidents like the one that took place on Monday night.
The list, which covers a range of issues from physical fitness to safety measures, asks pilgrims to register a month before the date of commencement of their pilgrimage.
The yatra buses carrying pilgrims are also banned from travelling after 7 pm in the evening. The bus attacked on Monday had been delayed because of a breakdown, and hence had to travel beyond the permitted time.
All the Intelligence agencies at a state multi-agency coordination (SMAC) meeting had been warned of a terrorist strike on pilgrims. “Intelligence input received from Anantnag SSP reveals that terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 yatris and about 100 police officers.
The officials of the intelligence bureau, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and J&K police in Chandigarh at a meeting on June 25, had warned of a terrorist strike on pilgrims. “The attack may be in the form of standoff fire on (a) yatra convoy which they believe will result in flaring of communal tension throughout the nation,” the alert stated. “The nature of the input needs corroboration at this stage but the possibility of a sensational attack can’t be ruled out.”
“All the officials deployed on the ground need to be directed to remain alert and maintain utmost vigil. All out efforts need to be undertaken to nab the terrorists planning such attempts of violence,” it had said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attack as cowardly, saying “India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks and evil designs of hate”.
In a series of tweets, he also said: “The attack deserves strongest condemnation from everyone.”
State chief minister Mehbooba Mufti expressed deep shock and anguish over the killings. “It is a gruesome attack not only on unsuspecting guests but a brazen attack on Kashmir and Kashmiriyat and all of us shall have to rise against this scourge of violence.” she said.
The base camps in Pahalgam and Baltal are in Anantnag and Ganderbal districts. Situated in a narrow gorge at the farther end of Lidder Valley, Amarnath shrine stands at 3,888 metres, 46km from Pahalgam and 14km from Baltal.
Hundreds of thousands of Hindus visit the Amarnath cave, 12,000 feet (3,658 m) above sea level in the picturesque Lidder Valley, in the months of July and August every year.
Amarnath cave is a Hindu shrine located in Jammu and Kashmir, India. The shrine forms an important part of Hinduism, and is considered to be one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism.
The cave is surrounded by snowy mountains. The cave itself is covered with snow most of the year except for a short period of time in summer when it is open for pilgrims. Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees make an annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave on challenging mountainous terrain to see an ice stalagmite formed inside the cave.
Pilgrims trek through treacherous mountain passes to the shrine, where devotees worship a phallus-shaped ice stalagmite seen as a symbol of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
Inside the 40 m (130 ft) high Amarnath cave, the stalagmite is formed due to freezing of water drops that fall from the roof of the cave on to the floor and grows up vertically from the cave floor. It is considered to be a Shiva Linga by Hindus. It is mentioned in the ancient Hindu texts of Mahabharata and Puranas that Lingam represents Lord Shiva.
The Cave waxes during May to August, as snow melts in the Himalayas above the cave and the resultant water seeps into the rocks that form the cave and gradually wanes thereafter As per religious beliefs, it has been claimed that the lingam grows and shrinks with the phases of the moon reaching its height during the summer festival, although there is no scientific evidence for this belief
According to a Hindu legend, this is the cave where Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to his divine consort, Parvati
The pilgrims were returning after paying obeisance at the shrine nestled in the Himalayas at a height of 4,115 metres when the attack occurred.
About 100,000 pilgrims have already completed the journey to the Amarnath shrine which began late last month and is due to end in late August under tight security.
The Amarnath pilgrimage has come under attack by militants three times in the past, including the massacre of 30 people in Pahalgam on August 1, 2000. The government had held the Lashkar-e-Taiba responsible for that attack.
Army chief General Bipin Rawat arrived in Srinagar on Tuesday to review the security situation. was scheduled to meet other security agencies too, including local police and CRPF. The proposal is “to focus security on districts adjacent to the Srinagar-Jammu national highway in south Kashmir. in first phase”
The J&K government announced ₹6 lakh for families of those killed, ₹2 lakh to grievously injured and ₹1 lakh to injured. An award of ₹3 lakh will be handed over to the bus driver “who exhibited exemplary alertness.”