Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – Restrictions on civilian traffic along an important highway in India-administered Kashmir due to a Hindu pilgrimage have caused outrage among the residents, with traders saying the curbs have also hit the disputed region’s economy.
Every year, thousands of Hindus from across India undertake the Amarnath Yatra – a 46-day pilgrimage that involves a trek to a Himalayan cave temple of Hindu god, Lord Shiva, situated in southern Kashmir’s picturesque Pahalgam town, which stands at an altitude of 3,888 metres.
However, the Indian authorities this year issued two orders, restricting the civilian traffic for five hours every day on the highway connecting the disputed region – claimed by both India and Pakistan in full for more than 70 years now – to the rest of India.
“There will be no vehicular movement in the opposite or same direction as the ‘yatra’ [pilgrimage] convoy moves between Nashri and Qazigund,” said an order issued by the traffic department.
Indian railways also announced the suspension of Qazigund-Banihal train services, the two stations which connect Kashmir to the national rail circuit, until the pilgrimage is over.
“It is pertinent to inform your good self that, as per directions from your office, train operations will remain suspended between Qazigund-Banihal railway section from 1000hrs to 1500hrs till completion of Amarnath Yatra,” said a letter by the railways’ Chief Area Manager in Srinagar to Baseer Ahmad Khan, the region’s Divisional Commissioner.
The authorities also deployed over 30,000 additional troops along the pilgrimage route, in addition to hi-tech devices such as unmanned high-resolution drones, CCTV cameras, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags and a barcoding system to keep track of the pilgrims.
Moreover, with about 700,000 Indian soldiers on the ground, making the region one of the most militarised in the world, the forces also set up dozens of additional bunkers and checkpoints in different areas, mainly along the highway in the restive southern Kashmir.
A senior official in the Kashmir administration, on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the security measures were taken “for the safety of the pilgrims and that they are temporary”.
Officials said curbs on the movement of local residents have been imposed following a deadly suicide attack on an army convoy on another highway in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
In February, at least 42 paramilitary troopers were killed in the attack carried out by a local rebel who belonged to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad group.
Two months after the attack, while the Indian general elections were being held, a similar ban on movement of civilian traffic was imposed on all the highways in Kashmir for two days every week, triggering anger and protests.
‘Turned to garrison’
Jahangir Nazir, a 34-year-old resident of Anantnag in southern Kashmir, told Al Jazeera the entire district has been “turned into an army garrison”.
“For decades, the local Kashmiris had been helping and hosting the Hindu pilgrims. But this year, the authorities are turning the religious activity into a political opportunity to harass the residents. We cannot use our own roads,” he said.
Nazir said the harassment has “become routine and the people are being denied basic rights”.
Kashmiri politicians also condemned the move and termed it “anti-people”.
“Kashmir has always been proud of its syncretic traditions. But denying the right of movement of the local population due to the ongoing pilgrimage is not at all acceptable,” bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal told Al Jazeera.
“If it is turned into an annoyance for millions of people, then the very spirit of the pilgrimage is lost,” he said.
But the state police chief Dilbagh Singh defended the move, saying even the security forces have been asked to adhere to the restrictions.
“They (traffic curbs) are just for the smooth movement of pilgrim traffic, so that they don’t get stuck anywhere,” he told Al Jazeera. “People understand there are security issues.”
Curbs hitting economy
In a statement, local traders’ body, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), denounced the restrictions, saying they were hitting the economy of the region, mainly tourism.
“There are numerous reports about inconvenience caused to the tourists due to the restrictions and tourists being stranded at various places … The restrictions have caused damage to stocks of perishable fruits such as cherries and plums as fruit-laden trucks are halted,” the statement said.
KCCI said industries dependent on import of raw material from outside the Kashmir region were unable to meet their schedule since the supplies were stuck at various points along the highway.
The hardline approach of India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has created a perception among Kashmir residents that the Amarnath pilgrimage, a religious affair, has been turned into a “militaristic exercise”.
“Curtailing and banning what is otherwise a basic and fundamental lifeline amounts to a gross and unforgivable crime against the helpless population,” Kashmiri separatist group, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said in a statement.
While most pilgrims hailed the stringent traffic arrangements along the highway, some said there was “too much security”.
“I have been coming to Kashmir, but this year they have deployed a lot of security. I feel Kashmiri people are there to protect us,” Ravi Kumar Singh, a pilgrim from Gaya, Bihar told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t think anyone will harm us as we only come here for a religious obligation.”