Chilling act

Print edition : August 04, 2017

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti with the Amarnath yatris, who were injured in the militant attack in Anantnag, before they were airlifted to New Delhi, at the airport in Srinagar on July 11. Photo: PTI

Despite being the target of state violence for long, Kashmiris condemn with one voice the killing of seven pilgrims in an attack on a bus carrying Amarnath pilgrims.

AN attack on a bus carrying Amarnath pilgrims on July 10 has come as a chilling reminder of the grim security situation in the Kashmir valley. While the attack was projected as one aimed at triggering communal violence, the ground reality is that it is part of the larger security problem Jammu and Kashmir has been struggling with for the past few years. Of the seven pilgrims who were killed in the firing, five were women. It appears that they were unmindful of the risks involved in travelling in a private bus so late in the evening. When the news about the attack spread, it was, as usual, clothed in confusion.

The first version that came from the police was that the bus, which in fact was not part of the convoy of vehicles that had been provided security cover, was caught in a crossfire after militants attacked a police party. A subsequent version made it known that the bus was the target, although officials in the security grid are not yet ready to confirm that “it indeed was an attack on Amarnath yatris and they were the real target”.

It is interesting to note that Botingoo (Anantnag), where the attack took place, is situated hardly 200 metres from an Army camp. Why the police came under attack first also raises questions. But the fact is that the police patrol the area as a matter of routine.

The public outrage over the attack, which was precipitated by the round-the-clock coverage of the incident on national television channels, made the State government act swiftly to ensure that investigation into the attack was done in a time-bound manner. In Srinagar, the police said that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based militant organisation, was behind the attack. They even named its commander, Abu Ismail, as the mastermind.

Ironically, the LeT not only disowned the attack but also condemned it. Calling it a reprehensible act, LeT spokesman Abdullah Gaznavi told local news agencies: “Islam does not allow violence against any faith. We strongly condemn such acts. India wants to sabotage the freedom struggle of Kashmiris; therefore, it uses such attacks to fulfil its nefarious agenda.” However, officials dismissed the statement saying that the intense reaction to the attack in Kashmir forced the organisation on the back foot.

The police are going by the presence of militants in the area and are using the records of past events to accuse the LeT. One police officer said: “Hizbul Mujahideen is not known for such attacks. This kind of targeted attack can only be the handiwork of the Lashkar.” The government has set up a special investigation team (SIT) headed by the Deputy Inspector General of Police, South Kashmir Range, S.P. Pani, to get to the root of the attack. Given his stint in the elite National Investigation Agency (NIA), he is not wanting in investigative skills. Informed sources said he would be assisted by a Superintendent of Police, two Deputy Superintendents of Police, and officers of other ranks. The SIT will also investigate the attack in which Station House Officer Feroz Dar was killed along with five others in June. “It is difficult to divulge anything at this stage as the investigation has just begun. We have some leads and we are working on them. In 10 days’ time, we may be able to reach some point,” Pani told Frontline.

conflicting versions

A look at the conflicting versions that have emerged about the attack, shows why investigations on attacks such as these have never made any headway. One police official said that the militants “are at liberty to choose their target and timing”. On June 25, the Inspector General of Police, Kashmir Zone, Munir Khan, sounded an alert about a possible attack on the yatra. The police say that the attacked bus was on its own. “The pilgrims had completed the formalities of darshan on July 8 and later travelled to Srinagar and, after sightseeing trips, were moving out of security bandobast,” said Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh.

In a way, the pilgrims had ignored the standard operating procedure set for the yatra. But that is not unusual as pilgrims, after completing their religious obligation, spread out to different areas for sightseeing.

The annual Amarnath pilgrimage is a huge project that involves months of preparation at the highest level of the State government. Scores of meetings take place under the supervision of the Governor, who heads the Shri Amarnath Yatra Shrine Board. An estimated 90,000 police, paramilitary and military personnel are deployed to ensure an incident-free yatra every year, and almost everything comes to a standstill in the areas of Pahalgam and Sonmarg (the two base camps on the yatra route), which remain a tourist attraction for three months in a year. Until July 12, that is, in 15 days since the beginning of the yatra on June 29, as many as 57,393 yatris had visited the Amarnath cave shrine. The number is expected to reach 2.5 lakh on August 7, the day of Shravan Purnima, after which the shrine will be closed until next year.

This is not the first time that militants have attacked the 40-day yatra. The biggest strike was in 2000 when 35 yatris were killed in the Pahalgam base camp. According to the police, the attack was carried out by the LeT. In 2001, an attack in Sheshnag claimed 13 pilgrims and in 2002 nine people were killed in a similar attack in Pahalgam.

How far the investigations into the latest attack will succeed in bringing out the facts remains to be seen given the fate of such investigations in the past. The July 10 attack presented a grim picture of a situation that has gone out of control, with militancy touching a new level.

Against Kashmiri ethos

A redeeming feature of the situation is the overwhelming disapproval of the attack voiced by Kashmiri society. Not only did the political class, cutting across the ideological divide, come together to condemn the attack in unequivocal terms, but civil society, the business community and the common people vehemently criticised the act, saying it was “against our ethos”.

Civil society and business community members organised separate sit-in protests. Social media exploded with reactions and local newspapers condemned the incident in their editorials.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti rushed to Anantnag at midnight to be with the victims. Opposition parties and separatist leaders minced no words in calling the attack a dastardly act. Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, who have been jointly leading the separatist movement for the past one year, said in a statement: “The incident goes against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos. The Amarnath yatra has been going on peacefully for centuries and is part of yearly rhythm and will remain so. Our heart goes out to the families of the bereaved and we express our heartfelt condolences.”

Mehbooba Mufti appreciated the people’s response to the attack by saying that the spirit of Kashmiriyat is alive and that people have rejected such dastardly acts despite being victims of violence for decades. “The vehemence with which every section of society, irrespective of ideology, condemned the killings shows that the ethos for which the State is known is intact and vibrant,” she said. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh also saluted Kashmiris and their spirit.

The unity displayed by Kashmir in condemning the violence that targets a faith has certainly come as a silver lining in the darkness that has enveloped the valley. The real challenge before the Central government is how to deal with the growing unrest that is resulting from the absence of a political approach to solve the Kashmir problem.

Will state violence against civilians stop? Is there a space for political dialogue to resolve the problem? People also want to know if an average Indian will oppose the violence unleashed against Kashmiris. Killing, maiming and blinding of Kashmiris by the police and other security forces have been the norm for some time. Unfortunately, it is being “approved” as a policy to deal with Kashmir. Will Delhi reciprocate the gesture from Kashmiris in the wake of the attack on Amarnath yatris is the big question.

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