The pilgrimage to the holy cave of Amarnath in Kashmir is scheduled to commence on 29 June, the auspicious day of “Jesht Purnima” in accordance with the Hindu calendar and culminate on 07 August, coinciding with “Raksha Bandhan.”
The Shri Amarnath shrine is located at the head of the Sind Valley in Kashmir, flanked in the north by the great Himalayan range and in the south by the Sasakat mountain range. It is located beside a small tributary of the Sind River called Amaravati.
It is believed that the Lord Shiva narrated the Amar Katha to Goddess Parvati in this cave; it has been a place of pilgrimage since many centuries.
The Amarnath Yatra (pilgrimage) is an event that probably rivals the Kumbh Mela in terms of sanctity and religious significance. An annual feature, its uniqueness lies in the difficult terrain and the inclement weather that has to be overcome in order to reach the holy shrine.
The locals of the area are the fulcrum for the success of the Yatra. Unmoved in their faith and devotion to the shrine, the Muslims of the area have never heeded the diktats of terrorists and they participate in the pilgrimage with fervour equal to that of the Hindus.
Hotels, shops, pack ponies, porters and all other related services gear up to welcome the pilgrims. A festive air is visible in the area. The guides and porters of both communities are equally conversant with the legend and mythology and are more than willing to narrate the same to anybody ready to listen to them. Anybody requiring assistance finds hundreds of hands extended towards him, without knowing whether the hand belongs to a Hindu or a Muslim.
The security force deployed in the state comprising of the Indian army, paramilitary troops and Jammu and Kashmir Police ably assist the administration and the locals towards ensuring smooth and safe conduct of the pilgrimage.
The task of the security forces begins much before the pilgrims arrive. First and foremost, the army ensures that the entire route is secured against any kind of security threat and is in a fit state to be used by the pilgrims. The soldiers go over the entire route of the pilgrimage, at considerable risk to their life and limb, to set out the trail that the pilgrims ultimately tread. It is only after the Army gives a go ahead that the next step for starting the pilgrimage is taken.
When the Yatra begins, the Indian Army stands alongside the organisers as an ever watchful sentinel, ready to respond to any exigency. Apart from security the Army provides immense humanitarian aid to the pilgrims. Throughout the Yatra, in addition to the arrangements made by the civil administration and other voluntary organisations, the army provides food, refreshment and shelter to thousands of pilgrims. Helping the aged and the feeble negotiate the adverse terrain is yet another goodwill gesture of the Army.
Children who are separated from their parents in the large crowds find friendly guides in the men in olive green who led them back to their worried parents.
The arduous trek and debilitating weather results in a number of pilgrims falling ill; the army sets up medical aid posts at various points along the route that are open to all civilians day and night. Thousands are rescued every year from succumbing to adverse weather conditions by this thoughtful gesture. This apart, the army carries out evacuations of serious casualties. Veterinary camps are also organised to ensure the safety of the ponies, pack mules and other animals used in the Yatra.
The army has exigency plans in place to meet any natural calamity which, one fervently hopes, is not required to be activated. The mere presence of the Indian soldiers gives a sense of security to the pilgrims.
The prominent role played by the army in the conduct of the Yatra is by virtue of its size and wherewithal. This, by no means, belittles the excellent effort put in year after year by the paramilitary forces and the Jammu and Kashmir Police.
The responsibility for the security of the pilgrims lies on the shoulders of these two organizations and they make elaborate arrangements to ensure the same.
The Director General of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Rajiv R Bhatnagar, has confirmed that all arrangements are in place and the additional requirement of sixty five companies has been met. The arrangements exemplify complete synergy between the security forces, the Army, the government, the local administration and the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) that functions under the Governor of the state.
The threat to the Yatra from terrorist violence is palpable even though separatists like Syed Geelani are making political statements to the contrary. He has stated that talk of threat to the Yatra is a “calculated move aimed at maligning and discrediting the political struggle of Kashmiri’s.”
One would like to remind Geelani that even he is not safe from terrorists like Zakir Musa who threaten the separatists with death if they do not toe the fundamentalist Islamist line based on the ISIS ideology. How then can he give assurance of the safety of the Yatra? The fact is that intelligence reports indicate the possibility of the terrorist attack on the Yatra and the security forces are leaving no stone unturned in providing fool proof security.
Despite the challenge posed by the cult of terrorism and the difficulty posed by the terrain, two lakh registrations from all parts of the country and abroad have been made and more are pouring in every day. Even during the peak of terrorism, the number of pilgrims was always more than what the government could allow and this year will be no different.
All arrangements are in place well in time and Kashmir is poised to receive its annual guests to its most revered shrine. It is time to extend best wishes to the organisers as well as those who are undertaking the holy pilgrimage.
(Jaibans Singh is a reputed columnist, author and speaker)