Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – The Srinagar-Jammu highway in Indian-administered Kashmir is lined with bunkers and checkpoints.
Security arrangements for the annual Amarnath Yatra, which takes place in the lap of Himalayas every summer, are high this year.
Hundreds and thousands of devotees will make the days-long pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave, one of Hinduism‘s holiest sites, at 3,870 metres above sea level.
Festivities last for two months, ending in late August.
As temperatures rise in the cave, an ice stalagmite forms. It is known as Shiv Linga, an iconic representation of Hindu deity Shiva.
The 350km route passes jagged mountains, pastures, and forests.
The shrine is located in the disputed region between India and Pakistan. Since 1947, the rival neighbours have fought several wars over Kashmir.
A heavy military presence along the route is normal. But this year is different. The level of security is unprecedented.
Last year, fighters attacked a tourist bus in the Anantnag district of south Kashmir, killing eight people and injuring more than 10.
The bus had become separated from a convoy of vehicles carrying pilgrims that was protected by security forces.
It was a rare attack – the pilgrimage has been relatively spared from the region’s violence.
Before last year, the worst assault came in 2000, when 30 people, most of them Hindus, were killed.
The Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba was blamed for both attacks.
Hi-tech security and political tensions
Authorities are eager to avoid more violence, and have deployed hi-tech security measures.
CCTV, drones and bulletproof convoys have been deployed. Electronic devices have been fitted on vehicles leaving base camp in Jammu to track their location.
Security forces have cameras mounted on their helmets to monitor activity on National Highway, the road where the attack took place last year.
Motorcycle squads prevent vehicles from drifting from the designated route.
There are some 40,000 troops in the operation.
A senior police officer posted in Indian-administered Kashmir told Al Jazeera: “This is a pilot project for this year. I hope in coming years, we will be able to implement it fully.”
The push also comes against the backdrop of heated political tensions.
The security situation overall has worsened since 2016, when rebel commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with Indian troops.
The deaths of Wani and other rebels were part of a hardline government policy by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power in 2014.
Heightened measures around the pilgrimage are seen as fulfilling the BJP’s security-first perspective, and send a positive message to its far-right Hindu constituency.
In June, the Hindu-nationalist BJP quit a fraught coalition government in Kashmir with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), leading to the resignation of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti.
The state’s governor, Narinder Nath Vohra, now rules on behalf of central government until a new coalition is formed, or until there are new elections.
‘Maybe it’s safer this year’
Reyaz Ahmad, from Pahalgam, told Al Jazeera: “This year, security forces are deployed in huge number, as compared with the last few years. I go every year with pilgrims to carry their bags and help them to perform the annual pilgrimage.”
Like hundreds of local workers, Ahmad is dependent on the pilgrimage.
The trek lasts between five and six days.
“The pilgrims have to walk many kilometres at a stretch and it is very difficult for any pilgrim to carry their belongings,” Ahmad said.
Locals keep their ponies and palanquins ready at Chandanwari and Baltal.
A palanquin is carried by four people, and costs around $500 for the trip.
Shiv Shankar Das, of Kolkata, is on his second pilgrimage.
“Security arrangements are very strict, as compared with last year,” he told Al Jazeera. “Maybe it’s safer this year.”
In 2008, separatists rallied against the government because it had decided to transfer nearly 40 hectares of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, which manages the annual Yatra, for providing pilgrims shelter.
The decision was later revoked, prompting counterprotests.
In later years, separatists called for the pilgrimage, which is 40 days long, to be shorter.
“The pilgrims used to come for a shorter time and yatra was performed in just 15 days, but it’s been stretched by the Indian government. People in Kashmir are not against yatra, but are concerned about the environment,” Shiekh Showkat Hussain, a political science professor from Central University of Kashmir, told Al Jazeera.
Rebels promise peace
This year, rebels have announced that they will not attack pilgrims.
Riyaz Naikoo, commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest armed group in Indian-administered Kashmir, said in an online video: “We will never ever attack Amarnath Yatra, as they are our guests and they come to perform their religious rituals. We are not at war with them.
“We have never attacked them in the past and we don’t have any enmity with them. Our fight is with those who commit cruelty against our people and those who have forced us to pick up the gun … We are at war with those who are suppressing the people of Kashmir.”
However, the police officer who spoke to Al Jazeera said: “Militants’ announcements can’t be credible to us. We can’t rely on them and take any chances.
“Security is the prime concern for us and we will ensure safety. People in Kashmir, too, are supportive. We are meeting with locals to [bring] confidence and avert any untoward incident.”
Security experts said that this year’s threat level is believed to be higher.
“This year’s threat perception is higher as compared to the previous years due to last year attack on pilgrims,” Sameer Patil, a security analyst with Gateway House, a Mumbai-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
An attack would quickly spoil the atmosphere, he continued.
While he praised the efforts of security forces, he said pilgrims should follow “basic precautions”, such as registering with relevant authorities.