The attack on the bus of returning Amarnath pilgrims resulting in seven deaths has shaken the nation. Protests and bandhs paralysed life in Jammu for a couple of days, the starting point of the yatra, as also in other parts of the state. A candle light vigil was held in Srinagar and a ‘not in my name’ vigil in Delhi. Death due to accidents is acceptable, however by terror strikes it is not.
The nation came together to criticise the incident. For once, most political parties, barring the odd one, avoided playing politics over the attack.
The candle light vigil in Srinagar indicated that despite claims, the majority are not against the state. There was even muted criticism from the Hurriyat. Security forces have stepped up their operations and a massive hunt is underway to track down the perpetrators of the attack.
The most remarkable fallout is the increased determination of the participants of the yatra. There is no indication of fear or worry amongst the faithful.
Those participating say in one voice that since the army is responsible for security, there is no fear. They represent the majority of Indians who trust the army with their lives. This is the true national spirit and an indicator of the grit and faith of the common Indian. It is the average Indian who performs the yatra, hence the spirit shown by him proves that the nation can never be cowed down by any enemy or adversary seeking to harm its internal fibre.
For the locals of Kashmir, the yatra is an eagerly awaited event as it is a major revenue earner. Those offering services to the pilgrims along the route to the shrine travel large distances, some coming all the way from Rajouri and Doda, south of the Pir Panjal range, while others from across the valley. During the short yatra period, they earn fairly large sums and are there every year, despite strict security checks, tough living and working conditions.
None of them desire any interruptions or terror strikes which could impact the flow of pilgrims. They are simple, hard working Kashmiris, who represent the majority, seek a better life for their kith and kin, however are overshadowed by the minority who throw stones, indulge in violence or join militancy.
For local traders, it is a bonanza. With tourism on the wane, this is the market for handicrafts and all pilgrims carry back memorabilia. Most commercial outlets in the state gain during this period.
The locals are welcoming and have a positive attitude towards pilgrims. There are numerous reports of locals assisting those stranded or injured due to accidents, as had occurred on Sunday. It is only the very few, instigated by pro-Pak separatists or terrorists who seek to target the pilgrims.
At the Central government level, the yatra is a part of the national calendar, drawing the faithful from across the country to participate in an annual pilgrimage that has continued uninterrupted in recent times. It is an indicator of the government’s determination to support the religious diversity of the nation even in remote and troubled areas.
Thus huge precautions are taken at every stage while catering for boarding, transportation, medical emergencies and security of pilgrims. For the organisers, it means sleepless nights as there are multiple challenges to overcome and innumerable contingencies to cater for, in addition to coordinating actions and activities of a variety of agencies. For Pakistan and its small band of terrorists operating within Kashmir, it offers a large movement of unarmed people, representing almost all parts of India transiting on known routes daily.
They realize that a strike on this religious pilgrimage would give them disproportionate publicity. Further, incidents like the attack this year could have repercussions elsewhere that enhance the communal divide. Hence, they issued a dictum to their cadre to strike.
Enhanced deployment of security forces, increased counter-terrorism actions and multiple layers of a counter-infiltration grid was undertaken to offset their plans.
However, despite all efforts, there is always laxity, resulting in an untoward incident. The incident involving the bus was one of those unplanned contingencies. The bus managed to break all security barriers and rules without raising eyebrows. It is a wake-up call for those involved in the conduct of the pilgrimage that lapses can occur despite precautions.
On the other hand, it also indicated the faith and trust of the bus passengers on the local population that they spent time shopping and sightseeing, unmindful of threats lurking around the corner. However, the attack occurred not because of the bravado or planning of the terrorists but because an opportunity came their way, born out of the faith of the tourists who believed they were safe. Anti-national elements would continue to seek means to break the bond which exist between the common Kashmiri and the rest of the nation, but should never be permitted to succeed. Everyone involved with the pilgrimage should ensure such incidents do not recur.
Participants too should follow security guidelines. Despite this incident, the yatra must continue with equal determination. It is an annual pilgrimage which is as important for Kashmir and its populace as it is for the nation. The recent incident brought all political parties together.
Across the board condemnation and candle light vigils foiled plans of terrorists at creating a religious divide. India has proved, yet again, that it can and will remain united.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.