Ahead of Amarnath Yatra, Amit Shah, Other Officials Review J&K Security Situation

With the pilgrimage only 45 days away, Jammu and Kashmir has seen a recent spurt in suspected militant activity.

Srinagar: Union home minister Amit Shah on Tuesday, May 17, reviewed the situation in Jammu and Kashmir for the second time this year at his North Block office, with J&K’s lieutenant governor (LG) Manoj Sinha and the top brass of the security establishment.

With the Amarnath Yatra set to begin from June 30, Shah was briefed about security and other preparations for the annual pilgrimage to the cave shrine, located at an altitude of 3,888 metres, high in the mountains of South Kashmir’s Lidder Valley.

An official statement said the home minister had reviewed the “security and essential facilities” for the pilgrimage, which was “the priority of the (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi Government” and that “adequate arrangements” are being made for the pilgrims.

The annual pilgrimage will resume fully this year for the first time since 2019, when it was cut short as the Union government prepared to read down Article 370 and downgrade the erstwhile state into two Union Territories. According to officials, eight lakh pilgrims are expected to undertake the pilgrimage this year.

J&K chief secretary Arun Mehta told the meeting that every pilgrim would get an RFID card this year which would help security agencies track their movements. The insurance premium for pilgrims has been increased from Rs 3 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. “A tent city, WiFi hotspots and proper lighting will be arranged on the yatra’s travel route,” the home ministry statement said.

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The meeting was also attended by senior officials of the health, road transport, telecom, IT and civil aviation ministries.

In the second meeting, sources said that central security agencies, the J&K Police and the civil administration briefed the home minister about security arrangements being made along the two treacherous paths from Baltal and Chandanwari which take pilgrims to the cave shrine.

The meeting was attended by National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval, Indian Army chief General Manoj Pande, J&K director general of police (DGP) Dilbagh Singh and other senior officers of the security establishment.

In the run up to the annual pilgrimage, there has been a spurt in militant activities across Jammu and Kashmir.

A suspected terror attack on a passenger bus carrying dozens of passengers, mostly pilgrims from the sacred Hindu shrine of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi in Jammu’s Reasi district on Friday, May 13, left at least four pilgrims dead while nearly two dozen were injured.

According to reports, some of the victims jumped out of the moving bus which was engulfed in flames near Katra town when a sticky bomb, reportedly attached to the bus’s fuel tank, went off, triggering a massive blaze. Besides the J&K Police, the case is also being probed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

The Jammu bus attack comes close on the heels of intelligence inputs that militants could target the Amarnath pilgrimage. Earlier this month, a top militant commander, Ashraf Molvi, was gunned down with his two associates along Chandanwari, one of the routes used by pilgrims to reach the Amarnath shrine. The killing of Molvi was described by J&K Police as a “successful” operation in its effort to ensure that the 43-day pilgrimage is not disrupted.

With the Amarnath pilgrimage less than 45 days away, the suspected terror attack in Katra has sounded alarm bells in New Delhi and the home minister is believed to have told the security agencies that “unprecedented” measures should be taken to ensure that the pilgrimage remains an incident-free affair.

The home minister is believed to have directed security agencies to step up counterinsurgency operations in the Union Territory and stop using the names of new militant outfits (The Resistance Front, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, and the like.) which have claimed most of the recent attacks on civilians and security forces in official communications.

Shah told security agencies, who believe that these new outfits are offshoots of existing terror groups, such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, that they should use the names of the “original Pakistan-based terror groups so that the world knows about Pakistan’s role in promoting terror across J&K.”

“To fulfil Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s vision of a prosperous and peaceful Jammu & Kashmir, security forces should ensure zero cross-border infiltration to wipe out terrorism in the Union Territory,” said the home ministry statement, quoting Shah.

As tensions rise in Jammu following the bus attack, militants have also stepped up attacks on civilians and security personnel in Kashmir Valley. Last week, Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit who was employed in the government under the its rehabilitation scheme for Kashmiri migrants, was gunned down in a sensational attack at his office in central Kashmir.

Also read: Widespread Anger, Grief After Terrorists Shoot Dead Kashmiri Pandit Govt Employee In Kashmir

Bhat’s killing sparked rare protests by Kashmiri Pandits residing in the Valley who accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government of turning the minority community into electoral fodder. In Srinagar, J&K Police fired tear gas shells at one such demonstration near the airport last week in which protesters were shouting slogans against the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders of the BJP.

Budgam: Kashmiri pandits shout slogans while blocking a road during their protest over the killing of Rahul Bhat, who was shot at by militants inside his office and later succumbed to injuries, at Sheikh Pora in Budgam district, Thursday, May 12, 2022. Photo: PTI/S. Irfan

Soon after Shah concluded his meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday, the J&K administration reached out to the anguished Kashmiri Pandits who are staging protests in different parts of Kashmir against Rahul’s killing.

While the civil administration, headed by Divisional Commissioner P.K, Pole, met with protesting Pandits in South Kashmir’s Vessu locality, Inspector General of Police (Kashmir) Vijay Kumar sat with the protesters in Sheikhpura, the site of the police assault on Pandit protesters last week, and assured them that the “loopholes in security” would be plugged.

However, there was no mention of the measures, if any, being taken by the government for Kashmiri Pandits in the press release issued by the home ministry on Tuesday.

The killing of Bhat is the first such incident since October last year when a spate of targeted attacks left more than three dozen persons dead in Kashmir within a month. The deceased included both Muslim and non-Muslim civilians and migrant workers. Among those killed were a prominent Kashmiri Pandit pharmacist, M.L. Bindroo, a Sikh woman who worked as a principal of a government school and a teacher of the same school in Srinagar. Many Kashmiri Pandits and migrant workers fled the region following these attacks.

Also read: Kashmir: Three Civilians Shot Dead By Terrorists in One Evening, Including Srinagar’s Top Chemist

This year, ten civilians have been killed by militants in Kashmir, which includes seven from the majority Muslim community and two migrant workers. A youngster was killed when he was hit by a bullet, allegedly fired by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), during a search operation in South Kashmir’s Shopian last week. The CRPF has denied the charges and a magisterial probe has been ordered into the incident.

So far, at least 75 militants have been killed in counterinsurgency operations by security forces in Jammu and Kashmir but there has been a sharp surge in the recruitment of locals by militant groups, with 28 local youth known to have joined militancy this year along with an unknown number of their above-the-ground workers.