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Pahalgam (India) (AFP) – Indian flags fluttering above a sea of khaki army tents will form the backdrop for a mass pilgrimage beginning this week in Kashmir as the Hindu nationalist government in Delhi hopes to bolster its claims to the soil-soaked territory blood.
The region divided between India and Pakistan has been the cause of several wars, and three years ago Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed direct control over the Indian-administered part where an insurgency has been raging for decades. decades.
His government hopes one million Hindu pilgrims from across India will take part in the Amarnath pilgrimage this year, a trek to an ice stalagmite depicting the Hindu destruction god Shiva.
Once a modest, uncrowded annual event, the pilgrimage – and the security mobilization that accompanies it – has gained momentum as its political importance has grown.
Interrupted for two years by the pandemic, the pilgrimage sees devotees trek for several days to the cave at 3,900 meters (12,800 feet), sleep on the road in tents and use bio-toilets lining the flowing glacial streams fast.
Dozens of makeshift kitchens are handing out free food.
The elderly and infirm can take a shorter route or be taken by donkey, mule or palanquin carried by local Muslims. The rich can go there by helicopter.
Businessman Vinod Kumar, 40, who traveled from Punjab state in northern India, said he had been coming every year for two decades.
“I don’t like (pilgrimages) anywhere more than Kashmir,” Kumar told AFP.
Snowstorms and bullets
The weather can be treacherous – sudden blizzards killed 243 people in 1996 – but it’s not the conditions that worry Indian security forces.
Rebel groups opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir have often said the pilgrimage is not among their targets.
But they have warned in the past that they will act if religious practice is used to establish Hindu rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir.
In 2017, suspected rebels fired bullets at a pilgrim bus, killing 11 people.
This year, tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed, three to four times the number of the last pilgrimage in 2019, in which 600,000 worshipers participated.
A police officer told AFP on condition of anonymity that more than 400 sandbag bunkers manned by armed soldiers dot the villages and forests around the shrine and the road to Chandanwari base camp.
During the 43-day pilgrimage, worshipers – many of whom shout Hindu religious and nationalist slogans – will be ferried through Kashmir in armed convoys.
Arriving in the nearby main town of Pahalgam, they are greeted by a billboard with Modi’s smiling face.
Base Camp is a mini township of prefabricated huts and flimsy tents housing security personnel, communications towers, and a bustling temporary bazaar filled with screaming mules.
Before an armed insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir broke out in 1989, the pilgrimage was a relatively low-key affair lasting 15 days and undertaken by a few thousand pilgrims.
Now it is highly militarized and has grown exponentially and almost all government departments are involved in the huge logistics operation.
“Over the past 25 to 30 years, the annual trek to the Amarnath shrine has evolved from an inner journey of pilgrims to a political cry of majority defiance,” said Siddiq Wahid, a historian and political commentator.
“In this context, neither the Kashmiri hosts nor the pilgrims can be blamed for being afraid of violence, through no fault of either,” he told AFP. AFP.
© 2022 AFP