On Wednesday morning, the first batch of over 2,900 pilgrims embarked on this year's Amarnath Yatra. The pilgrims, who have undertaken the two-month trip from Jammu to the cave shrine will, for the first time, be monitored though hi-tech equipment and their movements tracked by satellite.
For authorities, the goal is simple: Stop a repeat of the July 2017 incident when militants fired on a vehicle carrying pilgrims, which left eight dead and 20 injured. That day, the vehicle was travelling by itself and had not informed the police, which is responsible for the safety of pilgrims.
Now, all vehicles leaving the Jammu base camp of Bagwati Nagar have been fitted with radio-frequency identification devices (RFID). Internet Protocol based CCTV cameras will also be installed. “This technological intervention has been done to maximise the security of the yatris,” Arun Manhas, Additional Deputy Commissioner Jammu, said. “It will also save us time when a vehicle in a convoy goes missing. Every vehicle has been tagged with a chip in order to allow the Central Reserve Police Force to track its movement.”
Manhas said the enhanced security measures come at the insistence Governor NN Vohra, who also happens to be chairman of the Amarnath Yatra Shrine Board. This year, 2,11,994 pilgrims registered for the yatra, board officials said. Manhas further added that there has been a surge in the number of people turning up at Jammu and registering on the spot.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which has arranged for 60-day pilgrimage to go on amid heavy security, decided not to leave all the arrangements upto the Jammu and Kashmir government even as the Hizbul Mujahideen purportedly released an audio clip assuring Amarnath pilgrims they have nothing to fear as long as they visit Kashmir only to fulfil their religious duties. HM commander Riyaz Naikoo said the Hindu pilgrims need not worry about their safety and can even visit Kashmir without security.
As 2,995 yatris were flagged off from Jammu on Wednesday morning by BB Vyas and K Vijay Kumar — two advisers to Vohra — state of art drones tracked the convoy. The CPRF has erected dozens of bunkers along the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway and Indian Army soldiers are also patrolling roads leading to the base camp. The new Qazigund-Srinagar Highway, a 65-kilometre stretch from Sringar's Nowgam to Qazigund's Wanpoh in Qazigund, passes through sparsely-populated areas and is being used to provide safe passage to the pilgrims.
"Amarnath Yatra is a very significant annual event. With the cooperation of public, security agencies and development agencies, we have put a scheme in place and are trying our best to address concerns of the yatris and ensure smooth flow of traffic," Kumar said.
"Vehicle movement is being tracked by drones en route and also at the base camps in Nunwan and Baltal," said Ravideep Sahi, Inspector General, CRPF, Srinagar sector. Security agencies have fitted more than 500 CCTVs at different locations to maintain round the clock surveillance. CRPF was seen escorting the convoy on Wednesday morning as it cruised through the mountains along the Jammu and Kashmir highway.
For decades, the pilgrimage was undertaken by a few thousand people — mostly sadhus and Kashmiri Pandits — but after insurgency erupted in the Valley in early 1990s, pilgrims began visiting the shrine in higher numbers. In 2010, over six lakh yatris made the trek. The duration of the yatra has also changed over the years.
This year, more than 24,000 troops of the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) and Jammu and Kashmir Police have been deployed for the yatra. Officials said 213 companies of CAPF been deployed this year as compared to 181 companies in 2017.
Under the Hindu calendar, the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave shrine starts on Jyestha Purnima, which falls on 28 June. This year, the two-month pilgrimage will conclude on Shravan Purnima (Raksha Bandhan), which falls on 26 August.