COVID-19: J&K to go ahead with Amarnath Yatra despite concerns

Govt decision stands out as several pilgrimages across the country have been cancelled

By Riyaz Wani
Published: Thursday 09 July 2020

The Jammu and Kashmir authorities have given their go-ahead to carry out the Amarnath Yatra (pilgrimage) in July 2020, despite concerns over several risks emerging from the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Union territory’s Lieutenant Governor, Girish Chander Murmu, participated in preparatory rituals at the Amarnath cave shrine July 5, 2020.

The government said it has chalked out standard operating procedures (SOP) for the pilgrimage this year.

Five hundred yatris (pilgrims) will be allowed per day by road from Jammu, according to J&K Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam. The number of days for the pilgrimage was reduced to 15 from the usual 42 days as well.

“The yatra this year will have to be undertaken in a restricted manner so that the SOPs for COVID-19 are strictly adhered to,” he said.

Several concerns

The move to allow the pilgrimage — despite the government’s measures — has led to unease in Kashmir, where people are concerned by the possibility of the yatra leading to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Pilgrims have to not only travel hundreds of kilometres but also embark on a long trek to the cave shrine through hilly terrain nestled in the valley’s glaciers. There are two routes to the shrine: One, via Pahalgam in south Kashmir, is 45 km long and another, through Baltal, in north Kashmir is 14 km long.

“Why is government pushing for Amarnath Yatra putting lives of both yatri and local Kashmiris in danger?” asked a user on micro-blogging site Twitter.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the state rose to 8,931 with 143 deaths as on July 8. In Kashmir division, where the pilgrimage takes place, there are 139 positive cases.

“Pilgrims across India will visit J&K for the yatra. They will travel huge distances to come here,” said Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. “Why do this at a time when we are in the middle of a pandemic with cases rising by the day?” he asked.

No religious gatherings officially allowed

Making the case for these concerns is the fact that opening religious places is officially banned by July 4 guidelines under ‘Unlock 2’, the second phase of the Union government’s plan to move out of the countrywide lockdown.

The guidelines said:

Religious places / places of worship shall continue to remain closed till further orders. All social, political, sports, entertainment, academic, cultural, religious functions and other large gatherings and congregations shall remain closed.

The administration has categorised nine out of 10 districts in the Kashmir Valley as red zones. This includes traditional routes for the Amarnath Yatra as well.

“The J&K government has ordered a ban on all religious activities but Amarnath Yatra has been allowed to carry on…if the pilgrimage will be undertaken in a restricted manner, why can’t other religious activities also be undertaken in the same way?” asked another Twitter user.

Several pilgrimages cancelled

Many other pilgrimages across the country were cancelled due to the pandemic. The annual Kanwar Yatra — expected to begin July 6 this year — was postponed due to COVID-19.

Similarly, Mumbai’s Lalbaughcha Raja Ganeshotsav mandal (committee) decided not to hold its annual Ganesh festival for the first time in its history. The committee decided to set up a blood donation camp instead.

The Supreme Court initially barred the annual Rath Yatra in Odisha’s Puri on June 18, citing the pandemic. The apex court, however, modified its order June 23 to allow it, but only after ensuring a total reduction of public attendance to avoid the spread of the infection.

Saudi Arabia cancelled the annual hajj too, saying the pilgrimage to Mecca would be “very limited” this year because of the pandemic. Around 1,000 pilgrims from Saudi Arabia have been allowed to attend the event which begins late July.

Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said no Indian will be sent for hajj this year. He said 213,000 applications were received for the pilgrimage this year. The Centre, has, however, initiated the process to refund applicants.

Decision stands out

This has made the J&K administration’s go-ahead to the Amarnath Yatra stand out, as the pilgrimage — despite the announced measures— is a major logistical and security undertaking.

The yatra was cut short last year as the Centre cited a security threat in the run up to the revocation of Article 370 on August 5.

The Centre order issued last year asked yatris to “curtail their stay in the valley immediately and take necessary measures to return as soon as possible”. This unanticipated order by the Centre, however, triggered a hasty exodus of the pilgrims from the valley.

There were no expectations, however, for the pilgrimage to be held this year due to the pandemic.

“We urge the government to cancel the yatra at a time when religious gatherings and other yatras in India were shelved,” said Raja Muzaffar, who heads the Jammu and Kashmir Right To Information Movement. “Making an exception for one yatra sends the wrong signals,” he added.

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