With only three days to go before the Amarnath yatra begins, the controversy surrounding it is finally showing signs of winding down.
But in the past few days, the army and Jammu and Kashmir government, both known to be at loggerheads over various issues, created a controversy over a rumoured terror threat to Amarnath.
The Amarnath cave in Kashmir is located at a height of 12,700 feet. Every year hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims undertake a long trek through difficult terrains to reach the cave, where they pay homage to Shiva.
The pilgrimage is usually open for 55 days every year. According to official figures, around 600,000 pilgrims visited the shrine last year.
The controversy started when Northern Corps commander Lt Gen KT Parnaik announced in Jammu on June 17 that militants planned to “disrupt the Amarnath Yatra this year”.
Parnaik said a special operation called Operation Shiva had been launched to counter the threat and ensure an “incident-free” yatra. Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde also confirmed this.
And it was not just talk. The measures Parnaik spoke of were visible on the ground. The army, traditionally in charge of maintaining the security of the outer ring of Amarnath, set up base at one of the camp sites in Pahalgam for a change.
The route to the cave had aerial surveillance and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were pressed into action. Security agencies were asked to deploy “spotters” at camps to keep an eye on suspicious characters.
State government officials, however, put down all such efforts to “fear mongering”. “The army loves to give names to operations. Operation Shiva is one such fancy name,’’ said an official. Sources said the intelligence bureau also denied the army reports.
“The threat is no more or no less than what it has always been,’’ insisted chief minister Omar Abdullah. “We are taking all the regular precautions with a multi-layer security grid. Media reports saying the yatra would be attacked are a gross exaggeration.’’
In recent times, the J&K government and the army have had their differences over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA, which empowers the governor or central government to deploy armed forces in areas deemed necessary.
While Abdullah advocates withdrawal of the army from certain ‘peaceful areas’, the army vehemently opposes the proposal.
As the state government and the army sparred, the Amarnath controversy flourished. The separatists interpreted it as an attempt to “defame the people of Kashmir”.
Moderates like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq issued statements saying “Kashmiris have always received the pilgrims with open arms”, while hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani spoke about how the people of Kashmir “have always received pilgrims and extended all help to them”.
Others saw it as an attempt to create a divide between ‘Muslim Kashmir’ and other states. Columnist and former bureaucrat M Ashraf wrote, “The unnecessary hype...will on the one hand discourage devout Hindus from coming but on the other hand members of the Hindutva brigade will resolve to come in large numbers to counter the supposed threat.’’
Amarnath shrine board CEO Naveen Chaudhary stuck to the middle path. “I’m not the right person to say whether there is any threat. There has been no security issue in the recent past and even this year I’m happy with the security arrangements’’.
But with the yatra beginning on Friday, the army changed tack. Army chief General Bikram Singh said last Saturday, “This kind of threat has always been there. But we have our operational plans in place,” thus ending the controversy.