In Kashmir, Hindu pilgrimage begins in shadow of security bunkers, drones
Srinagar, India, June 30 (EFE).- A mass pilgrimage that involves an arduous mountainous trek to an ice stalagmite representing the Hindu deity Shiva began Thursday in the disputed region of Indian Kashmir.
Authorities have taken exceptional security precautions to safeguard the Hindu pilgrims, fearing attacks by rebels in the Indian-administered Kashmir that has been engaged in a long-running armed struggle.
Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed in an already highly-militarized region, split between India and Pakistan, and which has been at the center of more than 70 years of a territorial dispute between the two South Asian neighbors.
“Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags have been made compulsory for real-time monitoring of pilgrims by tracking them enroute to the cave shrine,” a police officer told EFE.
According to eyewitnesses who spoke to EFE, thousands of gun-toting soldiers and paramilitary troopers have taken control of both routes leading to the cave shrine deep in the Himalayas of south Kashmir.
“All the peaks leading to the cave from both the routes have been covered and security forces have set temporary posts on these peaks,” a police officer said.
“The number of security forces personnel deployed on the ground for the smooth conduct of the pilgrimage is three to four times more than the previous years,” the officer told EFE.
The pilgrimage’s management board said drones and CCTV cameras would monitor the cave routes.
The “extraordinary security measures,” according to the locals, have converted a strictly religious event into a military operation.
“Hundreds of sandbag bunkers and drones flying over the skyline are evoking fears of war,” said Shaban, a Pahalgam resident who provides services to the pilgrims.
Authorities also imposed restrictions from June 25 on the movement of tourists in Pahalgam and Sonmarg resorts that house the base camps for the trek.
The pilgrimage is will conclude on Aug.11.
The shrine board estimates that this year will see the largest number of pilgrims ever visiting the cave, at about 800,000.
The Covid-19 epidemic caused a two-year hiatus in the pilgrimage’s schedule.
It was called off in the middle, days before the Indian government abolished the region’s semi-autonomous status in 2019.
The yearly pilgrimage has long been a tradition in Indian Kashmir.
Even though militant organizations have frequently said that the pilgrimage was not their target, it has still become a sensitive issue, particularly after the anti-Indian armed revolt began in 1989.
Environmentalists also criticize the pilgrimage over its duration and the number of pilgrims camping in ecologically fragile woodland areas covered by glaciers and snow-covered mountains. EFE