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Is militancy in Kashmir taking a new turn with the Amarnath attack?

In this power struggle between the militants and the nation state, no one cares to remember the Muslim porters who carry Hindu pilgrims on their backs to the Amarnath cave and the doors of Lord Shiva. Photograph: (Others)

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Jul 11, 2017, 12.41 PM (IST) Madhumita Saha

The roads were muddy and it was drizzling constantly as thousands of pilgrims wound their way up the narrow mountain passes to reach the Amarnath cave. The air, though very chilly, was buzzing with anticipation and chants of "Amarnath ji ki Jai". The shop owners sitting close to the caves and selling puja material advised me to make sure that I look for the white pigeons which, the myth goes, are close companions of Lord Shiva.

This is the image of my Amarnath visit that I carry almost 20 years later. Over the years, I hardly remember the steep climbs, the bruises on my legs and the loss of toenails, but what lingers on is the memory of communal harmony that made my yatra possible that year and for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. 

If instances of Hindu-Muslim cooperation were one of my most enduring takeaway from that trip, it is with an element of surprise and utter disbelief that I watch how the pilgrims were caught in the crossfire between the police and the terrorists last night. With the deepest regret, I had to tell myself, this is not the Amarnath that I know. 

It is no use splitting hairs over the fact that the gunmen were not actually targeting the bus carrying the pilgrims but a police outpost. No matter how much security personnel try to stress that pilgrims were not the target, evidence bears out the fact that Monday's attack was, in fact, on the pilgrims. The bus carrying the pilgrims came under terrorist fire near Khanabal in Anantnag district at around 8.20 pm, approximately an hour after patrolling by security forces on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway had been wound up.

While we cry ourselves hoarse over the security lapses, it must be brought to attention that without the security convoys accompanying the bus, the security forces are left with little excuse to claim the militants were actually attacking them. This makes last night's attack an ambush on innocent pilgrims who were travelling to one of holiest places in the world and, most importantly, who were not party to the Kashmir dispute.

Last night's event is a clear departure from the history of the secessionist movement in the Valley. The massacre raises the pertinent question as to whether the militancy in Kashmir is taking a new turn? Perhaps even the secessionist leaders understand that a line has been crossed. Thus, Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has come out in the open condemning the attack. He told The Indian Express, "It (the attack) has deeply saddened everybody. The people and the leadership of Kashmir strongly condemn this attack on the yatris. For us, the pilgrims are and will always be respected guests."

Yes, the people of the Valley consider the yatris as outsiders, hence, the reference to them as guests but the bit about "respect" is not mere rhetoric.

I am witness to the fact that the Amarnath Yatra is made possible not only by the thousands of military personnel deployed in the area but also by locals who support this annual act of pilgrimage.

The military forces in the area are an external import. Rarely are soldiers deployed in the area from the region, making them vulnerable to guerilla attacks had there been any. The strong protection given to the pilgrims is a summation of dedicated effort by the military and the support of the local Muslim population to whom the Shiva lingam in the Amarnath cave is as sacred as any Islamic religious site.

If one speaks to the local vendors of the area, you will come across, as I did, the strong belief that any wishes made in front of the icy Shiva Lingam will come true. Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of Islam will know that worshipping such embodiment of godly essence is not common. The trust, the love, the respect accorded to Amarnath is, thus, unparalleled. 

The Amarnath Yatra has been attacked in the past. In 2000, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants carried out an attack that killed 21 pilgrims, and injured 30 others. But an inquiry conducted later found out that the main target of the militants attacking Pahalgam were the security forces deployed to provide protection to the pilgrims. Generally, the militants fighting for Kashmir's independence from India did not consider the Hindu pilgrims as part of their fight. Thus, barring being caught in crossfires, Amarnath pilgrims were spared the gory sights of insurgency and military reprisals during their brief sojourns in the Valley.

I bet the tolerance for Hindu pilgrims is political as well as economic in nature. While the fight for Kashmiriyat has not been about religious identity but more about the region, it is also important to point out the huge business opportunity that the yatra provides for the local population. The hotel owners, the porters, the horse owners, food suppliers, bus companies and other endless business entities gain from the Amarnath Yatra every year. 

Then why this sudden shift? Is the attack a sign of deep frustration that is seeping into the ranks and file of militants in Kashmir. The Indian state and its policing machinery in J&K have shown little respect for the popular sentiment. The killing of Burhan Wani, the popular leader from the region, the pellet attacks on hundreds of Kashmiris who came to protest Wani's killings, and then tying a local to an Army jeep to ward off stone pelters -- the Indian state has sent out a strong message that it is not in a mood to compromise. In decorating Major Leetul Gogoi, the government made it even clearer that it is not going to take a step back in repentance. Moreover, it will stand by all those who tackle the terrorism bull by its horns.

Cornered and desperate to turn the tables, the separatists see no hope in PDP and Mehbooba Mufti. In conducting this attack, the separatists seek to take the fight to the next level. The gloves are off and, unfortunately, Kashmir most possibly awaits another bloody period.

In this power struggle between the militants and the nation state, no one cares to remember the Muslim porters who carry Hindu pilgrims on their backs to the doors of Lord Shiva. Is that another Kashmir or will we continue to believe what the CRPF jawan told me, "Ma'am, these people are porters during day and terrorists at night." 

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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