India increases security for Amarnath pilgrims  

40,000 personnel to be deployed for two-month Hindu pilgrimage after Islamist militants killed seven last year
India increases security for Amarnath pilgrims  

Indian security forces check vehicles in Jammu and Kashmir on June 14 after Islamic militants abducted a soldier from Shopian district. (Photo by IANS)

Indian agencies are beefing up security to ward off a possible Islamist militant attack on a Hindu pilgrimage to a hill temple in Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state.

The 60-day annual pilgrimage that treks through the hills to Amarnath temple-cave is due to take place from June 28 to Aug. 26. Seven pilgrims died last year when a bus was attacked.

The government expects 150,000 pilgrims to join the temple pilgrimage, located 3,800 meters above sea level. It houses a 2.7 meter-tall ice sheet considered to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, one of the most revered Hindu gods. 

The Amarnath Yatra (pilgrimage to Amarnath) through the treacherous hill area bordering Pakistan is assisted by the Indian army. 

"Taking a cue from last year's incident, we are gearing up security forces. We will ensure a safe Yatra," Mohsin Shehadi, an official of the Central Reserve Police Force, told reporters in Srinagar on June 10.

The Jammu and Kashmir government is deploying 22,500 paramilitaries to ensure security for pilgrims from Islamic militants fighting to free Kashmir from India and join it with Pakistan. Reports say a total of 40,000 security personnel will be deployed as part of a multi-tier security operation.

At the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the federal government declared a ceasefire and directed security forces not to launch any anti-militancy operations. However, the truce was rejected by militants. 

Army officer Lt. Gen. A.K. Bhatt told New Delhi-based NDTV on June 12 that 200-250 militants are waiting in Pakistan to enter Kashmir. "If the suspension of operations [ceasefire] continues, we will have a degree of difficulty to carry out our role. But whichever way the government decides, we are ready," he said.

A senior police official told that militants have recently intensified attacks on security personnel. "The threat looms large. A robust mechanism is needed to ensure a peaceful pilgrimage this year. We are on tenterhooks," the official said.

On July 10 last year, militants targeted a bus ferrying Amarnath pilgrims, killing seven and injuring 19 in the biggest attack on the pilgrimage since 2000.

Since militants started their campaign three decades ago, 44 Hindu pilgrims have been killed in attacks. The deadliest was on Aug. 2, 2000, when 21 people were killed when militants attacked the pilgrims' base camp in Pahagham. 

The conflict dates to 1947 when British rule ended with the creation of India and Pakistan. Both countries claim Kashmir, part of which is ruled by each of them. Kashmir was the focus of three wars between them as well as countless skirmishes.

Militants have stepped up violence since 1989. Rights groups estimate that 100,000 people have been killed, but Indian official records put the number at closer to 47,000. 

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