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Amarnath Yatra: Amit Shah's Highway Ban a Nightmare For Kashmiris

Civilians are being forced to wait long hours or use more dangerous routes. Those who trade in perishables are particularly affected.

Srinagar: Manning a fortified bunker made of sandbags, a young Indo-Tibetan Border Police officer assisted by over a dozen men brought the entire civilian traffic comprising mostly school buses to a jolting halt at Chapurgund in Ganderbal district, some 90 km from the camping ground for Amarnath pilgrims at Baltal. Within minutes, several vehicles were stuck on the Y-shaped fork and beyond, leading to a massive traffic jam. The animated officer, in a state of panic, began to run around after many passengers exited their vehicles to form a seemingly uncontrollable crowd.

As the tension began to build, a convoy of buses and cars escorted by an elaborate security detail whizzed past the stranded vehicles leaving everyone dumbstruck. The Amarnath Yatra had begun. The crowd waited for some 15 minutes more before patience on both sides started to wear thin. “We have small children in the buses,” pleaded a school bus driver. “Their parents must be worrying about them.”

Holding on to every nerve he could, the officer replied in a humble tone: “We have orders not to let anyone pass until the last vehicle in the convoy has left the spot.” This ended the conversation momentarily. Soon the convoy was gone but, still, not a single vehicle was allowed to move. When another convoy appeared with a similar escort, all the passengers came out on the road and raised a ruckus. “This is illogical,” cried someone from the crowd. “How can you hold us hostage like this?”

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The kind officer, sensing the situation was impossible to control, allowed the school buses to proceed but sternly instructed the others to stay put. Tempers ran high as the others waited for over an hour before the officer allowed the traffic to move.

The officer may have yielded, but the diktat behind such restrictions isn’t so flexible. The governor’s administration – Jammu and Kashmir is under President’s Rule and all power flows from the governor – has decreed that no civilian traffic will be allowed on the Srinagar-Jammu highway from Qazigund to Nashri from 10 am to 3 pm during the 45-day yatra period. Train services between Baramulla and Banihal have similarly been suspended.

The traffic advisory issued in light of the Amarnath Yatra

Civilian journeys which can’t wait, the order reads, must go through the (accident-prone) Mughal road for travel between Srinagar and Jammu and vice-versa. Pertinently, 11 students died when their vehicle fell into a gorge near Peer Ki Gali on Mughal road last month.

From Jawahar Tunnel in the south to Sonmarg in the north, all major roads have been declared a no-go-zone for locals during yatra hours.

The strictness with which the order is being implemented can be gauged from the fact that Gupkar road in Srinagar, which is used mostly by bureaucrats and politicians, was recently closed for half an hour to let just two yatri vehicles pass.

Jahangir Raina, who is the head of an analytics company dealing in the global telecommunication industry, said the sentiment around the yatra this time is entirely different. “Our picnic spots have been sealed; our highways closed; our trains suspended. What darshan will you achieve if you cause such inconvenience to locals? Please go back,” Raina, while expressing his anger, wrote in a Facebook post.

For the first time in history, he said, Kashmiris will not welcome Amarnath pilgrims.

Such provocations in the recent past have triggered him to substantially tone down his business in the state, he said. “The environment is completely hostile to business in Kashmir and one has to constantly reinvent ways to operate.”

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Visibly aghast at the restrictions, retired education commissioner G.A. Peer said traffic on the highway was never suspended during the yatra period even when militancy was at its peak. “If not revoked, these measures are bound to give rise to a humanitarian crisis in Kashmir,” he said. “The lives of patients needing immediate medical attention, for example, would be at great risk as they cannot reach hospitals on time.”

Noted TV commentator Gowhar Geelani said the dignity of locals is as paramount as providing security to the yatris. “Over seven million people living in Kashmir are denied freedom in every respect of their lives,” he said. “In a nutshell, we’re hostages. Imagine seven million hostages!”

Student-activist-turned-politician Shehla Rashid, whose party, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement, staged a sit-in at the Press Colony in Srinagar on Friday to protest the restrictions, sees a ‘sinister’ angle to the entire exercise.

Shehla Rashid and others staging a protest-sit against the restrictions put in the wake of Amarnath Yatra at the Press Colony in Srinagar on Friday. Image: Farooq Shah

“The heavy deployment of security forces, conducting drone surveys or introducing harsh curbs such as cordoning highways and stopping trains are the kind of measures that make us believe that the yatra is some kind of a problem – which it is not,” Rashid told The Wire. “Just like Kheer Bhawani and Vaishno Devi, it has been a part of our heritage and we have always been a part of it.”

Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq asked why, if the government claims the situation on the ground has improved, such measures have been introduced. “Such diktats, besides causing great inconvenience to common people, greatly impact the tourism industry and trade, especially those dealing in perishable items like fresh fruit and vegetables,” Mirwaiz told The Wire. Pertinently, the traffic advisory puts a complete ban on the movement of trucks along the highway.

In a video message posted on social media in 2016, the poster-boy of Kashmiri militancy, Burhan Wani, then still in the heyday of his popularity, said Amarnath yatris visiting Kashmir were performing their religious obligation and that his outfit, the Hizbul Mujahideen, would not attack them. However, a few years later, on July 10, 2018, armed men did attack a bus carrying yatris, killing eight pilgrims besides injuring dozens.

Prior to this, gunmen have attacked the yatra at least thrice, in 2000, 2001 and 2002, killing at least 38 yatris, 10 local Muslims and six security personnel.

Ahead of this year’s yatra, media reports quoting unnamed sources suggested that militants of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) were planning a terror attack on the Baltal route in Kangan area. The authorities, in the wake of the ‘recent threat’, have issued a high alert on both the Pahalgam and Baltal routes, and have thrown a massive security blanket across the Kashmir Valley, particularly along the highways that have been divided into zones and sectors.

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While on his recent visit to Kashmir, Union home minister Amit Shah held a meeting with governor Satya Pal Malik and officials from the Intelligence Bureau, Indian Army and Jammu and Kashmir police, directing them to ensure a violence-free yatra.

The yatra began on July 1, and to implement Shah’s diktat, some 40,000 security personnel have been deployed along the Baltal-Pahalgam route all the way up to the cave site.

“These measures are nothing but a part of a stiffer stance that Delhi has adopted on Kashmir post the thumping majority that the Bharatiya Janata Party got in the recent elections,” Shabir Husain, editor of Kashmir Newsline, said. “The message [the highway ban sends out] is clear: anything related to Hinduism, including its rituals, is of paramount importance to the party,” all other considerations are secondary.

Farooq Shah is a Kashmir-based journalist.