By Ajai Shukla
New Delhi, 12th July 17
Drowned out by condemnation from the political mainstream at Monday’s terrorist attack in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) on Amarnath Yatra pilgrims, Kashmiri separatist leaders sharply criticised an attack that they said violated syncretic Kashmiri tradition and faith.
The separatist “Joint Resistance Leadership” (JRL), consisting of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, sharply condemned the Laskhar-e-Toiba (LeT) strike near Anantnag that killed seven and wounded about 50 Amarnath pilgrims, most of them from Gujarat.
Offering condolences, a JRL statement said: “This incident goes against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos. The annual Amarnath Yarta has been going on peacefully for centuries and is part of our yearly rhythm and will remain so.”
On Tuesday evening, common Kashmiris from Srinagar braved a thunderstorm to stage a sit-in at Pratap Park, near Srinagar’s iconic Lal Chowk, to protest the attack.
Given the broad condemnation it is hardly surprising the LeT has remained silent on the attack. So far, no group has claimed ownership, or supported the attack.
Meanwhile, there is a noteworthy silence from the radicals who propagate Kashmir’s accession to a global Islamist state under Sharia law (the Khilafat, or Caliphate). These include Zakir Musa from Tral, in South Kashmir, who is challenging the dominance of Kashmiri nationalist leaders, like those in the JRL, who uphold Kashmir’s distinct political identity, and reject the notion of being subsumed into a global Muslim “ummah” (community).
That silence stokes apprehensions that the Kashmiri struggle is polarising along the Hindu-Muslim axis, with a radical fringe increasingly accepting attacks on minorities and ethnic cleansing.
The J&K Police (JKP), meanwhile, holds that Monday’s terrorist attack is the LeT’s revenge for the busting last week of a LeT module that included a Hindu member.
A senior JKP officer says the LeT decided to hit back after it was publicly lambasted in a triumphant JKP press conference on Monday. According to this version, Ismail, a Pakistani LeT commander in South Kashmir, targeted the offices of senior police officials – the senior superintendent of police (SSP) and deputy inspector general (DIG) – at Khanabal, near Anantnag. As the LeT attack began, the pilgrims’ bus, straggling behind the heavily guarded Amarnath Yatri convoy because of a punctured tyre, was “caught in the cross-fire”.
There is widespread scepticism of this account. Former J&K chief minister, Omar Abdullah, said people “need to stop peddling the ‘tourist bus caught in cross fire’ bunkum. You can’t be apologists for terror.”
Journalist Ahmed Ali Fayyaz of the State Times, posted a photograph on Twitter of the ill-fated bus. Not a single bullet-hole is evident on the bus’ body, with every shot having apparently pierced through its windows – an unlikely outcome of the melee of a crossfire, and more suggestive of a cold, well-planned terrorist attack.
Whatever the motives and methods, the Monday terrorist attack on the Amarnath Yatra indicates a fraying of the longstanding consensus amongst armed jihadi groups not to strike civilian targets, particularly those quintessentially Kashmiri in nature.
After three consecutive years – 2000, 2001 and 2002 – which saw terrorist strikes on the Amarnath Yatra, the last 15 yatras have been free of armed violence. Even after 2008, when violent civil protests broke out in Kashmir after the government controversially allocated almost 100 acres of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, the yatra was not harmed or impeded.
Securing the yatra for the two months of its annual duration constitutes a major challenge for the security forces in J&K. This requires the securing of 315 kilometres of highway from Jammu to Pahalgam. There is also the requirement to secure the 46-kilometre foot yatra to the 3,888 metre-high Amarnath Cave, including three camp sites – Chandanwari, Sheshnag and Panchtarni – where pilgrims halt overnight en route to the shrine.
Additionally, a secondary, 14 kilometre-long route from Baltal, near Sonamarg, is required to be secured.
Between 10,000 to 15,000 pilgrims reach the Amarnath Cave everyday. Since June 29, when the yatra opened this year, just over one and a half lakh pilgrims have paid obeisance at the shrine.