After a gap of three years, the journey to the cave shrine of Amarnath in south Kashmir’s Lidder Valley will resume fully this year. The pilgrimage will be held under the shadow of the terror threat. The Resistance Front, an offshoot of terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba, warned on 22 May that it would “spill the blood”.

Amarnath Yatra: Get ready for a 'bigger and better' pilgrimage even as terror  threat looms large

In a letter, the terror outfit wrote: “They [government] are going to use Amarnath Yatra for their dirty politics. From mere 15,000 to 8 lakh pilgrim registrations and from 15 days to 80 days is just to provoke the sensitivity of the Kashmir situation. It has come to our knowledge that this fascist regime is pumping RSS sanghis into the Valley in the name of Amarnath Yatra.”

“We are not against any religious matter but when such religious institutions are used against Kashmir struggle, then it becomes our concern to take such matters into our hands,” the letter reads.

Taking cognizance of the possible threat, Director General of Police Dilbag Singh and Inspector General of Police (Kashmir) Vijay Kumar has chaired security review meetings with New Delhi, taking direct charge to ensure that the pilgrimage passes off peacefully.

“There are different types of threats, especially the threat of drone attacks and sticky bombs to yatri convoys and security forces,” IGP Kumar discussed in one of his meetings.

RFID tags to anti-drones: How security at the Amarnath Yatra has been  heightened

The pilgrimage to the cave temple located at an altitude of 12,756 ft will begin on 30 June and conclude on 11 August. The J&K administration opened the registration for the pilgrimage on 11 April. Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry Secretary Apurva Chandra said on 12 April that six to eight lakh pilgrims are expected to perform the “better than before” pilgrimage to get a glimpse of the ice stalagmite of Lord Shiva in the cave temple.

For the first time, the Jammu and Kashmir administration will offer a midway night-stay for pilgrims in tented townships and prefab structures that are being set up along the twin routes from Sonmarg and Pahalgam that lead to the shrine.

The en-route night-halt accommodation capacity has gone up from 29,000 to 70,000, a two-and-half-fold increase. There will be one sanitation worker for every 10 pilgrims and a sanitary inspector for every 10 sanitary workers to ensure a comprehensive sanitation programme.

“Overall, there would be a capacity of more than one lakh pilgrims at 147 locations with a provision for proper toilets/baths, langars and dozens of medical centres, as given in the meeting. The yatra would be conducted in a very pleasant atmosphere as an enhanced number of cloakrooms, water dispensers, dust bins, bottle catchers, steel benches and signages have been erected by the Shrine Board this year,” an official spokesperson said.

Instead of Rs 3 lakh, the pilgrims will get insurance cover of Rs 5 lakh. RIFD tags will be installed on pilgrims’ vehicles at Lakhanpur itself to monitor their movement once they enter the union territory till they reach the base camp of the shrine. The system will be connected to a control room which is being set up in Srinagar.

“No yatri and other persons involved in yatra would be allowed for the Amarnath yatra without the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags,” Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Shri Amarnath Shrine Board Nitishwar Kumar said and added. “If pilgrims would come for yatra through flights or trains, the facilities pertaining to the provision of RFID tags would be kept at the airport and railway station.”

With the threat of Covid-19 still looming in the air, the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board headed by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, which manages the annual pilgrimage, has green-lighted the proposal for setting up two 30-bedded makeshift hospitals, isolation centres and oxygen booths along the two routes. According to sources, the government, both in J&K and the Centre, is also discussing a proposal to convert the two Covid hospitals sanctioned by DRDO for J&K in Jammu and Srinagar cities, into exclusive medical centres for dealing with any Covid-19 outbreak during the 43-day pilgrimage.

The government has also laid the network of fibre-optic cables along the route and close to four dozen small towers have been set up to improve connectivity for the pilgrims. This year, the helicopter service to the cave shrine will be increased significantly to cater to the increasing demand among the pilgrims who will also be getting weather updates with greater accuracy as they hike to the cave shrine. CCTV cameras have been installed at the base camps and strategic places along the routes that will be used by the pilgrims.

While the scale of arrangements being made will take the annual pilgrimage to the next level this year, the J&K administration and the Union government are mindful of the terrorist threat. Over the last few weeks, two top terrorist commanders have been gunned down in south Kashmir areas and J&K Police have claimed that the killings have diminished the threat to the pilgrimage.

In the first encounter on 6 May, Ashraf Khan alias Ashraf Molvi, one of the most wanted terrorist commanders, was gunned down in an encounter by security forces in the woods of south Kashmir’s Pahalgam health resort. This resort is the first stopover for pilgrims approaching the cave shrine from Anantnag. Inspector-General of Police (Kashmir) termed the killing “on the (Amarnath) yatra route” as a major success for security forces.

On 10 May, two terrorists were gunned down again in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district. “This encounter is important in two aspects: One, it is the same group of terrorists that escaped the Watnad encounter on 16 April 2022 in which one soldier was killed. Two, the encounter site is very close to the National Highway and an imminent threat to the highway and the yatra,” IG Kumar said.

A senior police officer said that these killings suggest that the terrorists might be planning to disrupt the pilgrimage by staging a “sensational attack”. “We are working out plans for security deployment on the twin routes. No stone will be left unturned to ensure incident-free pilgrimage,” he said.

According to Northern Army commander Lt Gen Upendra Dwivedi, the deployment of security forces for this year’s Amarnath Yatra will be doubled as compared to 2019. While the Army’s role is limited to medical emergencies and other quick responses, it will be roped in to plug any loopholes in providing security coverage along the routes of the pilgrimage.

Drone threat a major challenge for security forces during Amarnath Yatra -  YesPunjab.com

Besides, the Union government is dispatching 350 additional companies of security forces, including about 150 companies of CRPF, while the rest will be from Border Security Forces, ITBP, SSB, and CISF. This is besides the more than a hundred thousand strong J&K Police force, a part of which will be set aside for yatra duties.

“A robust security plan is being put into place to ensure fool-proof security arrangements for the pilgrimage. Any attempt to disrupt the pilgrimage will be dealt with an iron hand,” the official said.

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