After an opening of 2 years because of the coronavirus pandemic, a 43-day Hindu pilgrimage has begun in Indian-administered Kashmir amid remarkable safety preparations.
The 350km (220 mile) trek beginning on Thursday to an ice stalagmite in a cave within the Himalayas – representing the Hindu god Shiva – passes via mountains, meadows and forests, and is dotted with sand-bagged safety bunkers, sharpshooters and drones.
The federal government estimates a file 1,000,000 Hindus from in all places India will sign up for this yr’s Amarnath Yatra, because the pilgrimage to the cave at 3,900 metres (12,800 ft) is known as.
The cave, situated north of Pahalgam, a well-known vacationer lodge in Anantnag district, and south of Zojila cross in Ganderbal district that connects Kashmir to Ladakh, is accessed by way of the pilgrims via each the routes.
The pilgrimage is going down amid tensions within the disputed area which has just lately been rattled by way of a spate of centered assaults on native Hindus, referred to as Pandits, and non-residents from different portions of India.
Within the final 3 years, a minimum of 23 Hindus had been killed in suspected insurrection assaults, seven of them within the final six months.
In reaction, the Indian forces have intensified their counterinsurgency operations, killing greater than 100 suspected rebels this yr, just about 30 on this month on my own.
The final Amarnath pilgrimage was once minimize quick on August 5, 2019, the day High Minister Narendra Modi’s executive stripped the area of its restricted autonomy and taken it below New Delhi’s direct regulate, triggering the present wave of anger and violence within the valley.
For 75 years, Kashmir has been on the center of tensions between India and Pakistan who rule over portions of the Himalayan area however declare in its entirety. The 2 nuclear powers have fought two in their 3 full-scale wars over the territory.
Since coming to energy in 2014, Modi’s Hindu nationalist executive has aggressively promoted the Amarnath pilgrimage as a part of India’s claims over its most effective Muslim-majority area.
Whilst a heavy army presence all over the pilgrimage is a regimen affair, officers say the risk belief is upper this yr because of threats of assaults by way of armed insurrection teams preventing since 1989 for an impartial nation or the area’s merger with neighbouring Pakistan.
This yr, some insurrection teams have warned in a couple of statements of focused on the pilgrimage, accusing the federal government of “politicising the pilgrimage” amid emerging anti-Muslim sentiment within the nation.
The pilgrimage has been centered a number of occasions by way of insurrection teams up to now. In 2017, they attacked a bus and killed 11 pilgrims in Anantnag.
So that you could save you such assaults, government have carried out a five-tier safety association, the usage of drones and radio frequency identity (RFID) to trace each and every pilgrim getting into the area.
“The roads will likely be scanned ahead of a convoy wearing the pilgrims is permitted to continue. Demanding situations are there however a strong safety grid could also be alive. Via technical methods, we will be able to have real-time details about the motion of pilgrims,” a senior police authentic instructed Al Jazeera on situation of anonymity.
Sunil Kumar, a 45-year-old resident of Uttar Pradesh state, instructed Al Jazeera it was once his 2d consult with.
“I think fortunate to be a part of the holy adventure,” he mentioned. “We were looking forward to at the moment for the final two years.”
Kumar mentioned he isn’t frightened about his protection all over the trek. “We really feel secure as the protection preparations are excellent,” he mentioned.
However observers say the pilgrimage this yr can be a safety problem for the federal government.
“The stern security features had been taken for quite a lot of causes. There are drones being utilized by terrorists and civilian killings are going down. The yatra has been centered up to now as smartly,” Shesh Paul Vaid, the previous police leader of the area, instructed Al Jazeera.
Vaid mentioned heavy safety preparations have been important “as a result of if the rest occurs to them (pilgrims), there can be a backlash” throughout India.
“If the rest occurs to the yatra, it’s going to have an have an effect on at the entire nation. Whilst terrorism has decreased, it has now not totally vanished (after 2019). It’s going to take a little time to fully finish it,” Vaid added.
Abul Rashid, a resident who has arrange a tent in probably the most base camps for the pilgrims, instructed Al Jazeera that safety is remarkable this yr.
“The entirety is being keenly watched,” he mentioned.
A Kashmiri political professional who didn’t wish to be recognized fearing reprisals from the federal government mentioned there’s “scepticism” amongst citizens about the way in which the BJP executive is selling the Amarnath pilgrimage.
“Nobody asks the federal government to decrease its guard however the natives will have to now not be held hostage to the pilgrimage,” he mentioned.
He additionally blamed the government for ignoring the environmental prices of the pilgrimage in an ecologically fragile area. The trek to the cave traverses forests, high-altitude lakes, meadows and small glaciers.
“The federal government is performing as environmentally mindful in different states. It’s only in Kashmir that every one pointers are thrown to the winds,” he mentioned.
Sooner than Kashmir turned into a flashpoint, the yearly pilgrimage was once a low-key affair of a shorter length.
Alternatively, its political importance for the Indian executive has grown sharply within the final 3 a long time, with pilgrims regularly noticed making Hindu nationalist slogans all over their adventure as Indian safety forces watch over them.