After a gap of two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, a 43-day Hindu pilgrimage has begun in Indian-administered Kashmir amid unprecedented security arrangements.
The 350km (220 mile) trek starting on Thursday to an ice stalagmite in a cave in the Himalayas – representing the Hindu god Shiva – passes through mountains, meadows and forests, and is dotted with sand-bagged security bunkers, sharpshooters and drones.
The government estimates a record one million Hindus from all over India will join this year’s Amarnath Yatra, as the pilgrimage to the cave at 3,900 metres (12,800 feet) is called.
The cave, located north of Pahalgam, a famous tourist resort in Anantnag district, and south of Zojila pass in Ganderbal district that connects Kashmir to Ladakh, is accessed by the pilgrims through both the routes.
The pilgrimage is taking place amid tensions in the disputed region which has recently been rattled by a spate of targeted attacks on local Hindus, known as Pandits, and non-residents from other parts of India.
In the last three years, at least 23 Hindus have been killed in suspected rebel attacks, seven of them in the last six months.
In response, the Indian forces have intensified their counterinsurgency operations, killing more than 100 suspected rebels this year, nearly 30 in this month alone.
The last Amarnath pilgrimage was cut short on August 5, 2019, the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped the region of its limited autonomy and brought it under New Delhi’s direct control, triggering the current wave of anger and violence in the valley.
For 75 years, Kashmir has been at the heart of tensions between India and Pakistan who rule over parts of the Himalayan region but claim in its entirety. The two nuclear powers have fought two of their three full-scale wars over the territory.
Since coming to power in 2014, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has aggressively promoted the Amarnath pilgrimage as part of India’s claims over its only Muslim-majority region.
While a heavy military presence during the pilgrimage is a routine affair, officials say the threat perception is higher this year due to threats of attacks by armed rebel groups fighting since 1989 for an independent country or the region’s merger with neighbouring Pakistan.
This year, some rebel groups have warned in multiple statements of targeting the pilgrimage, accusing the government of “politicising the pilgrimage” amid rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.
The pilgrimage has been targeted several times by rebel groups in the past. In 2017, they attacked a bus and killed 11 pilgrims in Anantnag.
In an effort to prevent such attacks, authorities have implemented a five-tier security arrangement, using drones and radio frequency identification (RFID) to track every pilgrim entering the region.
“The roads will be scanned before a convoy carrying the pilgrims is allowed to proceed. Challenges are there but a robust security grid is also alive. Through technical systems, we will have real-time information about the movement of pilgrims,” a senior police official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
Sunil Kumar, a 45-year-old resident of Uttar Pradesh state, told Al Jazeera it was his second visit.
“I feel lucky to be part of the holy journey,” he said. “We had been waiting for this day for the last two years.”
Kumar said he is not worried about his safety during the trek. “We feel safe as the security arrangements are very good,” he said.
But observers say the pilgrimage this year would be a security challenge for the government.
“The strict security measures have been taken for various reasons. There are drones being used by terrorists and civilian killings are taking place. The yatra has been targeted in the past as well,” Shesh Paul Vaid, the former police chief of the region, told Al Jazeera.
Vaid said heavy security arrangements were necessary “because if anything happens to them (pilgrims), there would be a backlash” across India.
“If anything happens to the yatra, it will have an impact on the whole country. While terrorism has reduced, it has not completely vanished (after 2019). It will take some time to completely end it,” Vaid added.
Abul Rashid, a resident who has set up a tent in one of the base camps for the pilgrims, told Al Jazeera that security is unprecedented this year.
“Everything is being keenly watched,” he said.
A Kashmiri political expert who did not want to be identified fearing reprisals from the government said there is “scepticism” among residents about the way the BJP government is promoting the Amarnath pilgrimage.
“No one asks the government to lower its guard but the natives should not be held hostage to the pilgrimage,” he said.
He also blamed the authorities for ignoring the environmental costs of the pilgrimage in an ecologically fragile region. The trek to the cave traverses forests, high-altitude lakes, meadows and small glaciers.
“The government is acting as environmentally conscious in other states. It is only in Kashmir that all guidelines are thrown to the winds,” he said.
Before Kashmir became a flashpoint, the annual pilgrimage used to be a low-key affair of a shorter duration.
However, its political significance for the Indian government has grown sharply in the last three decades, with pilgrims often seen making Hindu nationalist slogans during their journey as Indian security forces watch over them.