Amarnath Yatra terror attack: By killing unarmed pilgrims after 15 years, terrorists breach unwritten rule

In 2000, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants carried out an attack on Amarnath Yatra pilgrims. They fired into the pilgrims' base camp at Pahalgam, killing 21 pilgrims and injuring 30 others. Now, while terrorists have attacked the yatra on other occasions as well, the incident in 2000 is important considering the sheer number of fatalities. It was part of spate of terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir which saw militants kill 89 people. An inquiry conducted later found out that the main target of the militants attacking Pahalgam were the security forces deployed to provide protection to the pilgrims.

The fact that pilgrims were not the target assumes importance in the wake of the current attack which killed seven pilgrims on Monday night. The attack in 2000 showed the existence of an unwritten rule which has been followed even through the heightened periods of militancy in 2008, 2010 and 2016. The rule quite simply is that pilgrims are off-limits. It stems from the fact that the Kashmir fight is not one of religions. The militants are fighting for the separation of Kashmir from India. And Hindu pilgrims are not part of the fight. Therefore, they are not to be attacked.

So when militants attacked a bus full of pilgrims on Monday night, it not only marked an end to a 15-year-period where yatris were not the target, but it also showed an increasing desperation on part of the militants. It is now becoming clear that militancy in Kashmir might have taken a drastic turn.

Seven Amarnath yatris were killed and 19 others were injured as a bus carrying pilgrims got caught in the way of a terrorist attack. PTI

Seven Amarnath yatris were killed and 19 others were injured as a bus carrying pilgrims got caught in the way of a terrorist attack. PTI

Monday's attack was different from the older attacks because it was the first time that an attack was carried out solely targetting the pilgrims. Even though officials and police personnel justified saying that the pilgrims weren't the target and it was certainly made easier by the fact that the bus had not followed proper security protocol. It was neither registered with the Amarnath Shrine Board nor had it adhered to the security detail which is compulsory for the pilgrims in view of a possible security threat.

Despite the sensitive security situation prevailing in Kashmir, the bus was on its way to Jammu at night, which is not permissible as it exposes the vehicles to terror attacks. The bus came under terrorists' fire near Khanabal in Anantnag district at around 8.20 pm, over one hour after the patrolling by the security forces on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway is wound up.

Rather paradoxically, the lack of security should have actually made the travel safer had the militants been willing to follow the unwritten rule. It was also not the first time that a security lapse had occurred while the pilgrimage was happening. That there was no security convoy with the pilgrims meant that the militants could no longer say that they were attacking security forces. This, then was an attack solely on people travelling to a holy shrine who were not parties to the Kashmir dispute.

That this was not a spur-of-the-moment attack is evidenced by that fact that police sources have said that there were specific intelligence inputs warning about such an assault, according to a ground report by CNN-News 18. The attack was carried out despite drone-mounted cameras, jammers, police dogs, bullet-proof bunkers, and satellite tracking devices employed to keep Amarnath yatris safe.

Further, an article in Firstpost pointed out that this year’s yatra was more closely guarded compared to its predecessors. All pilgrims have been asked to take only the southern route, via Pahalgam, and return via the Baltal route. The government and all the security forces were sharply focussed on protecting the yatra since it began on 29 June as tensions have run high among them.

The fact that this pattern of not attacking pilgrims was broken points to somethings quite alarming. This is highlighted in this Firstpost article which noted that the attack marks a turn in Kashmir militancy. It means that militants are now ready to attack non-related parties in their bid to spread terror.

The attack crossed a "new red line for militants in Kashmir," a report in The Indian Express said. The article noted that separatist leaders in Kashmir sensed this crossing of the line as they quickly condemned the attack. Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told the newspaper, "It (the attack) has deeply saddened everybody. The people and the leadership of Kashmir strongly condemn this attack on the yatris. For us, the pilgrims are and will always be respected guests."

Criminals in many countries follow a similar rule wherein they don't attack families of cops. The reason for this is that the families are not part of the fight. There is also another reason for following this rule. Because once families are attacked, the gloves are off. It takes the violence to another level. As Kashmiri militants attacked the Amarnath pilgrims on Monday, they changed the entire paradigm. They have given security forces cause to step up the conflict. And this can only lead to the worsening of the situation of Kashmir.

With inputs from PTI

Updated Date: Jul 11, 2017 15:15 PM

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