Tight Security For Hindu Pilgrimage In Kashmir

15 June 2009
Agence France-Presse

Srinagar: Thousands of troops were deployed in Indian Kashmir on Monday at the start of a two-month annual pilgrimage by Hindus to an icy mountain grotto, officials said. The pilgrimage to Amarnath shrine has previously been the target of Islamic militant groups battling Indian-rule in the Muslim majority region. 'Police and paramilitary forces will guard the pilgrims and secure the routes,' an officer told AFP, as the first devotees left the state winter capital Jammu in buses and cars. The group was to reach the base camp at Baltal later Monday and take a difficult 16-kilometre (10-mile) track to the shrine on Tuesday. The safer 50-kilometre three-day route will be open for the pilgrims later in the week as the tracks are currently under fresh snow. Last year the region's government planned to hand over a plot of land to a trust managing the Hindu pilgrimage. But the decision triggered massive protests in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley, where the land is situated. It was later reversed, angering Hindus who attacked Muslims and blocked the only road to the valley, sparking further protests by Muslims. The crisis ended when the government decided to make the land available to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board every year for three months for temporary facilities. More than 50 Muslim protesters were killed during the unrest but that did not dissuade over 500,000 pilgrims from heading to the cave of Amarnath, which is situated 3,800 metres (12,800 feet) above sea level. Violence in Indian Kashmir has fallen sharply since India and Pakistan launched a peace process in 2004 to resolve all pending disputes including the region, which is divided between the two but claimed by both. The Islamic insurgency in Kashmir has claimed more than 43,000 lives since 1989.