By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On July 10, 2017, at around 8:20 pm, a bus bearing Gujarat Registration number GJ 09 Z 9976, carrying pilgrims returning from the Amarnath Shrine was attacked in the Batangoo area, near Pahalgam, in Anantnag District. At least seven persons, including five women, were killed, and another 19 were injured in the attack. Four of the dead were from Gujarat, two from Maharashtra and one was from Daman. Of the 19 injured, 11 were from Gujarat, and eight from Maharashtra. One of the injured, a woman from Gujarat, died in the hospital on July 16 raising the death toll to eight.
Though media reports claim that there had been attacks targeting Amarnath pilgrims since 1993, no specific details regarding the early attacks are available in the open source. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, the first attacks on record were between August 5 and 9, when a series of sporadic attacks were engineered by the Harkat ul Ansar (HuA), though there were no casualties.
The first prominent attack, however, took place on August 1, 2000. On that day terrorists had attacked a pilgrim base camp on the Pahalgam Route killing 32 persons, of which 21 were Amarnath pilgrims. This remains the worst attack to date, in terms of fatalities. The second major attack was recorded in the night of July 20, 2001, when terrorists opened fire killing at least 13 people, including six pilgrims, near a base camp on the Pahalgam Route. Seven Muslims, mainly shopkeepers and porters, were also killed. Again, on August 6, 2002, at least eight persons were killed and 30 injured in an attack on the Nunwan camp on the Pahalgam Route.
Since then, according to partial data compiled by the SATP, another at least three attacks targeting Amarnath Pilgrims have been reported, which resulted in two fatalities and 19 injured. The last of the attacks, prior to July 10, 2017, occurred on August 13, 2016. At least 18 persons, including nine pilgrims, were injured, six of them seriously, when a terrorist lobbed a grenade at Bagh Deodi near Akhara Mandir in Poonch town.
The Amarnath cave is situated at an elevation of 13,500 feet, and there are two designated routes to reach to the shrine: the Pahalgam Route and Baltal Route. The Pahlgam Route has 11 base camps (Nunwan, Chandanwari, Pissu Top, Zojibal, Nagakoti, Sheshnag, Wabal, Mahagunus Top, Poshpatri, Panchtarni, Sangam) extending across 46 kilometers. The Baltal Route has six camps (Domail, Rail Pathri 1, Rail Pathri 2, Barari Marg, Y Junction, Sangam) across a distance of 14 kilometers. Though the Baltal Route is shorter, it is less preferred because of the difficult terrain. It is the Pahalgam Route that attracts the largest number of pilgrims.
The Amarnath Pilgrimage had for long remained on the terrorists’ radar. The terrorists had, for the first time, ‘banned’ the Pilgrimage in 1994, demanding removal of security bunkers around the Hazratbal Shrine [the Shrine had been under terrorist ‘occupation’ for over a month in 1993 and after restoring orders the Security Forces (SFs) had put up bunkers]. HuA led the demand and was later joined by several other terror groups. The security bunkers were removed subsequently and the terror groups withdrew the ‘ban’. The HuA again ‘banned’ the pilgrimage in 1995 in the aftermath of the Charar-e-Sharief shrine incident – in May 1995 an encounter between SFs and terrorists had resulted in significant damage to the shrine. Such threats have been reiterated time and again thereafter.
The number of pilgrims, on year on year basis, has varied, depending mostly on the terrorism situation in the State, though inclement weather during the pilgrimage period has sometimes also played a role. According to official figures, the number of Pilgrims going to the Amaranth Shrine was 392,653 in 2009; 451,710 in 2010; 635,611 in 2011; 621,145 in 2012; 353,969 in 2013; 372,909 in 2014; 352,771 in 2015; 220,490 in 2016 and 202,705 in 2017 (till July 16, 2017).
According to partial data compiled by SATP, Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) accounted for a total of at least 375 terrorism-linked fatalities in 2009; 375 in 2010; 183 in 2011; 117 in 2012; 181 in 2013; 193 in 2014; 174 in 2015; 267 in 2016 and 183 in 2017 (till July 16, 2017).
The level violence has certainly surged since 2013 and appears to be continuing on an upward trajectory, significantly diminishing the number of pilgrims in 2016 and 2017. Given the circumstances, elaborate and robust security coverage to pilgrimage, particularly around the Pahlgam Route which has witnessed all the four major recorded attacks so far, was an imperative. On June 27, 2017, S.N. Shrivastava, Special Director General, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), had claimed, “This Amarnath yatra will have the highest-ever security setup to ensure an incident-free yatra.” According to reports, in addition to the existing strength of the CRPF in the State, the Centre provided over 250 companies of Central Armed Police Forces to the State Government, adding to five battalions provided by the Army. For the first time ever, drones and helicopters were also used for aerial surveillance.
There was also specific intelligence regarding terrorist plans to target the pilgrimage. On June 25, 2017, Munir Khan, Inspector General of Police (IGP), Kashmir Zone, had written a letter to the Indian Army, CRPF, and Deputy Inspectors General of the State Police, stating,
Intelligence input received from SSP [Senior Superintendent of Police] Anantnag reveals that terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 pilgrims and about 100 police officers and officials [this year]. The attack may be in the form of stand-off fire on yatra convoy which they believe will result in flaring of communal tensions throughout the nation.
laborate security cover ensured that the pilgrims registered with and coordinated by the Shrine Board remained protected, but an incomprehensible lacuna which allowed the unregulated movement of ‘independent vehicles’ and unregistered pilgrims resulted in the avoidable tragedy of July 10, 2017, in which seven pilgrims lost their lives and another 19 were injured. Though the Jammu and Kashmir Police constituted a six-member Special Investigation Team (SIT) on July 14, 2017, to look into the specifics of the attack and to hold people accountable, criminal negligence on the part of the chain of decision-makers in the whole process that allowed unregulated movement of pilgrims across high-risk routes in the night cannot be denied on the basis of information available thus far.
Some knee-jerk responses have already been initiated. The time of patrolling of Road Opening Parties (RoP) has been extended and every (pilgrimage) vehicle is to be checked. No pilgrim vehicle without is now allowed to ply without registration with the authorities, and drivers have been instructed to move to or call the nearest protected point in case of a breakdown of the vehicle or any unplanned delay or change in schedule.
These very rudimentary steps should have been in place well before the attack. Their absence demonstrates an inexplicable blindness on the part of the administration and security setup, despite decades of experience of the disorders in J&K, and despite the visible escalation in violence in the recent past.
SFs have inflicted tremendous losses on the terrorist formations active in J&K – particularly Laskar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) – forcing these groups on to the back foot. At this juncture, attacks such as the July 10 strike, which draw attention to existing faultlines within the security establishment and in the State, provide an impetus to the terrorist machinery and encourage its supporters – both domestic and foreign. SFs and their political masters must out-think and outmaneuver terrorist formations and their sponsors, rather than pursue belated ‘corrective measures’ after facing predictable and intermittent reverses.
* Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management