Amarnath Yatra, arguably the ultimate pilgrimage for Indian devotees of Lord Shiva and definitely a test of physical endurance, starts from July 1, 2023, and security drills have begun in Jammu and Kashmir, through which the pilgrimage route runs. This year, the mountain force Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) has joined the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in guarding the icy cave shrine.
The reason for the additional force deployment is that the Ministry of Home Affairs wants tighter and better security management for the annual pilgrimage. The Home Ministry decision was taken after consultations with Jammu & Kashmir Police and Shree Amarnath Shrine Board.
Reportedly, the ITBP was roped in this year to complement the CRPF because of the high-altitude specialist force’s rescue role in the flash floods of July 2022 that killed at least 16 Amarnath pilgrims.
“[ITBP is] a mountain force which is trained for natural calamities,” said a senior officer to NDTV.com. Indeed, ITBP jawans who were deployed nearby were among the first to come to the rescue of pilgrims when last year’s cloudburst caused the flash floods.
In addition, the government is deploying the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and arranging for aerial inspection of the terrain by Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters to check for any signs of glacial ice melt or other factors that might cause floods or landslides. Border Security Force (BSF) personnel are also being deployed at several points of the long pilgrimage route.
The enhanced security arrangements for the Amarnath pilgrims came after Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla chaired the meeting, attended by security agency leaders, including Tapan Deka, Director, Intelligence Bureau (IB); and Samant Goel, Secretary, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
Past terrorist attacks on Amarnath yatris
In addition to the threat of natural disasters, many Amarnath pilgrims have died in terrorist attacks in the previous years — in 2017, for instance, seven people died and many were injured after a pilgrim bus was attacked by Kashmir terrorists. Two of the worst massacres of Amarnath pilgrims occurred in 2000 (when 35 pilgrims were killed by J&K terrorists) and in 2001 (when 13 people died in a grenade attack and firing on a camp by terrorists).
In recent years, following the revoking of Article 370 (granting special status to Jammu & Kashmir) by the Central government in August 2019, there have been some targeted terrorist attacks on civilians, where individuals have been gunned down randomly. Attacks on Indian Army and paramilitary personnel have also been taking place now and then.
Yatra trial run on Jammu-Srinagar national highway
The Press Trust of India reported that a trial run of Amarnath Yatra was conducted today from Jammu to Banihal for a thorough inspection of security and other arrangements to ensure a safe pilgrimage for the devotees.
Leading a convoy of security vehicles, Additional Director General of Police Mukesh Singh, accompanied by senior officers, conducted the trial run along the Jammu-Srinagar national highway. Senior civil and police officers in charge of the Jammu division examined all arrangements made by Jammu, Udhampur, and Ramban district administrations for the pilgrimage.
The 62-day-long pilgrimage to the cave shrine in the south Kashmir Himalayas begins on July 1 and ends on August 31 this year. Pilgrims will embark on the yatra via two routes: the traditional 48-kilometre Nunwan route, in south Kashmir’s Pahalgam; and the shorter 14-kilometre Baltal route in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal.
The first batch of pilgrims will depart from the Bhagwati Nagar base camp in Jammu on June 30. They will travel on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway before reaching their designated base camps in Pahalgam and Baltal.
To ensure the utmost convenience of the pilgrims, the administration had planned that transit camps would accommodate the devotees, in the event of inclement weather necessitating the closure of the highway, officials said, adding that steps had been taken to ensure landslide debris were cleared promptly, expediting the reopening of the highway.