File photo of pilgrims travel on ponies or on foot, along a track besides a glacier-fed stream on their way to the cave. Courtesy: Reuters

Srinagar: As the annual Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage started in Kashmir with the deployment of the largest number of security forces, locals in the Valley are irked by the measures that have hampered daily life.

Civilian traffic has been blocked along the Kashmir stretch of the highway at the time of pilgrim movement, while railway services remained suspended between Qazigund and Banihal, a crucial area connecting the Kashmir valley with Chenab, leading to Jammu.

Ensuring the security of Amarnath ‘yatris’ has always been a tough task for the forces, but following the February 14 suicide attack on a CRPF convoy, leading to the death of 40 paramilitary personnel, the security apparatus in the Valley is on its toes. Security forces fear an IED attack on pilgrims.

As many as 100 new bunkers have been erected on the highway and the route which leads to the Amarnath cave. This year, over 40,000 paramilitary personnel have been deployed to ensure pilgrims’ security, besides deployment of the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Army.

But locals are unhappy with the extraordinary security measures. Usman Farooq, a resident of Banihal who studies in government degree college Dooru in Anantnag, used to take the train that would take an hour to reach college.

Now, as the train service has been suspended between 10 am and 3 pm, Farooq has to wake up two hours earlier and reach home two hours late for the longer travel that he has to undertake.

“Every day, I waste four hours because of suspension of train services,” he told News18.

The ban on civilian traffic on the highway was earlier imposed for the movement of security convoys. During the parliamentary election in the state, the Kashmir stretch of the highway was banned for civilian traffic for two days every week.

The blockade has also severely inconvenienced locals. The approach roads not only on the highway, but on KP road in Anantnag, which leads to the cave, has also been blocked.

“We are unable to come out of our homes. We cannot even stop at the road. The forces harass us,” a resident of Anantnag told News18.

The security situation has also affected business on KP Road, which is one of the main markets in the district. “Forces don’t allow people to even stop. How will they come for shopping?” a distressed shopkeeper in Anantnag asked.

On Wednesday, paramilitary forces deployed near Lethpora, where the suicide attack had taken place on February 14, stopped buses of Islamic University of Science and Technology. The vehicles were on their way to the university with students and were searched. The students alleged that some of them were asked to deboard and frisked.

Political leaders and civil society members have raised serious concerns over the issue. “Putting civilians to such unprecedented inconvenience, first during the Lok Sabha election and now for the yatra, is a clear message that Unionists have failed to even restore basic dignity to the life of a Kashmiri,” said senior journalist and political commentator Gowhar Geelani. “A message is being telegraphed that convoys and pilgrimages are the priority, natives can wait.”

Student activist-turned-politician Shehla Rasheed termed the restrictions “bizarre” and “unacceptable”. “Nowhere in the world is the local population held hostage to the movement of pilgrims,” she wrote on Facebook.

“Traders, students and patients are suffering massively due to this illogical order. Fruit and other goods worth crores are rotting on the highways, causing unimaginable damage to the local economy. It is strange that the traffic department’s order uses the word ‘convoy’,” she added.

Imran Dar of the National Conference also slammed the administration. “The National Conference never opposes religious pilgrimage but it is shocking to see how the government is bullying local people in the name of security,” he told News18.

“There is no justification for what the government is doing. This is not the first time that the Amarnath Yatra is taking place,” said Dar, adding this move will lead to a sense of alienation among locals.

“The yatra has been one of the confidence-building measures. It should take place the way it used to. The way the administration is handling it, locals are feeling segregated,” said Waheed Parra, youth leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Since militancy took roots in Kashmir, there have been six attacks on Amarnath pilgrims. The last deadliest attack took place on July 10, 2017, when militants targeted a bus carrying pilgrims near Anantnag in south Kashmir, killing at least 12 pilgrims.