Chandanwari is a mountain idyll ensconced amidst pine trees, verdant meadows and gurgling streams. However, as one of the two base camps of the Amarnath Yatra, it has been swarming with people this month. More than a lakh pilgrims have already visited the shrine. Over 30,000 officials are on duty, including 1,300 doctors and paramedics. Devotional music from loudspeakers resounds in the meadows.
However, the festive mood here belies the unrest brewing in the rest of the Valley. Bunkers have sprouted along the Srinagar-Qazigund highway and the deployment of security forces has increased manifold since the 45-day yatra began on July 1. Barbed wires and barricades are omnipresent. Early in the morning, CRPF personnel inspect the road. Later, the army’s road opening party traverses the highway with mine-protected and bulletproof vehicles to detect IEDs. Army commandos in black fatigues keep vigil. The Jammu and Kashmir Police is also assisting the forces in security for the pilgrimage.
On the Anantnag route to the base camp in Pahalgam, the arterial KP road is sealed when yatra convoys move. Before they reach Anantnag, the CRPF and police remove even the civilian vehicles parked on the road. “It is unseen and unheard of. We have been welcoming pilgrims for decades, but now we are being kept hostage during the yatra,” says a shopkeeper at KP road. The situation is similar at the Sonamarg route to Baltal base camp.
“This is the only administration in 30 years that shut down the highway and trains,” says Omar Abdullah.
The government’s order says that no civilian traffic would be allowed on the Srinagar-Jammu highway from Qazigund to Nashri between 10 am and 3 pm for the duration of the yatra. During that time, train services on the Banihal-Qazigund line will also be suspended. While there have been militant attacks during the Amarnath Yatra in the early 2000s and in 2017, this is the first time the highway has been shut for pilgrim convoys. Authorities say the heightened security is a measure to avoid a repeat of the Pulwama incident that killed 40 CRPF personnel in February this year.
Anger is growing in the Valley over the restrictions on civilian movement that are impeding livelihood and daily activities. Tourism industry associations met government officials and complained that the restrictions were hampering visitor inflow during the peak season. The food industry is also affected as perishables like fruits and vegetables cannot be transported on time.
Governor Satya Pal Malik justified the restrictions on civilians as a step to ensure the security of pilgrims. “In western Uttar Pradesh, no vehicle plies on the highway for a month during the Kanwar yatra and no one complains. Here, traffic is stopped for two hours and people raise a hue and cry,” Malik said after visiting a transit camp for pilgrims on the outskirts of Srinagar. He brushed aside the criticism regarding the dip in tourism by contending that many travellers were vacationing in Gulmarg. Hoteliers in the town, however, complain of a dip in visitor arrivals.
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah says, “It’s not that we are unconcerned about yatri security, far from it. It’s that Governor Malik’s is the only administration in 30 years that closed down the highway and railway line to protect pilgrims. This is the height of incompetence and laziness.”
In Srinagar, People’s United Front (PUF), the political platform launched by former IAS officer Shah Faesal, organised a protest against the highway closure and suspension of rail services. “Who doesn’t know that more than security agencies, it is Kashmiris who make the yatra a success?” asks PUF leader Engineer Rashid, who denounces the curbs as a gross violation of fundamental rights. “By creating issues just to defame Kashmiris and make their life miserable, New Delhi is exposing its colonial approach and hatred towards people of the Valley. It is unfortunate that the yatra is being communalised for political gains and New Delhi is endorsing the notion that Kashmiris are anti-Hindu. Everybody, including students, patients, government employees and the business community, is suffering. People feel caged and jailed.”
By Naseer Ganai in Anantnag