The latest deadly attack in India-administered Kashmir killing several Hindu pilgrims has sparked fears of increased tensions and violence in a state already hard hit by tumultuous civil unrest. Murali Krishnan reports.
Six pilgrims, most of them women, were killed and 19 wounded on Monday night when unidentified gunmen opened fire on a bus travelling through Anantnag district in the Indian part of Kashmir.
The victims were returning from an annual pilgrimage to a Himalayan cave revered as the abode of the god Shiva.
It was the worst such attack in the divided Himalayan region since 2000 when gunmen fired on a group of Hindu pilgrims, killing 32 people including two police officers.
Following the killings, Indian Home minister Rajnath Singh called a high-level meeting in New Delhi to review the situation along with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and other senior security and intelligence officials.
"We have reviewed the situation and decided to reinforce security for the remainder of the pilgrimage. It is obviously a very serious incident and there will be tighter security protocols," said R R Bhatnagar, a senior police official and head of India's Central Reserve Police Force.
Symbol of religious unity
Despite the attack, an estimated 3,000 Hindus continued the pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave shrine on Tuesday.
Tens of thousands of Hindus from all over India travel to Kashmir every year to visit the Amarnath shrine, which is located at a height of around 3,900 meters in the Himalayas.
They trek through tough mountainous terrain to reach the cave to worship a naturally formed, sacred, phallus-shaped, ice formation believed to be a representation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
The pilgrimage is conducted for a short period every year between the time the snow clears on the route and before the summer melts the icicle. A total of 212,000 people registered for the 40-day-long pilgrimage this year.
The ice formation is said to have been discovered in 1850 by a Muslim shepherd who became a custodian of the shrine, along with two Hindu priests. The caves can only be reached on foot or on horseback and are seen as a symbol of religious unity in the volatile region.
Militants battling Indian rule in Kashmir have largely spared the pilgrimage, even during the most violent phases of their 28-year armed revolt.
The latest attack drew strong condemnation from various quarters in India. "Pained beyond words on the dastardly attack on peaceful Amarnath Yatris in J&K," tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding that: "India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks and the evil designs of hate."
Jammu and Kashmir's Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said the incident was a "blot on all Muslims and Kashmiris."
India has been struggling to restore normality in Muslim-majority Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim in full but rule in part
"Pilgrims come to Kashmir every year for the yatra (pilgrimage) despite all difficulties. And seven people died today. I have no words to condemn it," Mufti told reporters as she visited wounded victims in hospital. She stressed that "it is an assault on our values and traditions" and promised to punish those involved in the attack.
Germany's Ambassador to India Dr Martin Ney also criticized the attacks and said: "I convey our deepest condolences to the families of the victims. Germany resolutely stands by India in the fight against terrorism and extremism."
Even separatist leaders in Kashmir condemned the attack, which they said "goes against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos."
"The annual Amarnath Yatra has been going on peacefully for centuries and is part of our yearly rhythm and will remain so," they said in a joint statement.
Some Indian media quoted the Kashmir police chief, Munir Khan, blaming pro-Pakistan militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) for the latest attack.
But a spokesperson for the LeT, Abdullah Ghaznavi, denied any involvement and condemned the attack, saying it was against Islamic teachings. LeT is among the top militant groups operating in India-administered Kashmir. Indian security officials say LeT runs several training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Stoking communal tensions
Authorities said the two-month pilgrimage season would continue after the attack on the bus, which was not part of the official convoy carrying pilgrims. Reports said the bus was travelling after dark and without the official security usually provided to pilgrims.
"The bus was reportedly not a part of the main convoy and was not registered with the shrine board. That is why it was not given not given the customary police protection," said police chief Munir Khan.
Authorities say they are taking preemptive measures to avoid the situation from getting out of control and precipitating communal discord.
"One of the reasons why we are beefing up security in vulnerable pockets of the state and elsewhere is that this terror attack must not take on a communal tinge," said an official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Authorities have beefed up security measures following the latest attack in India-controlled Kashmir
Most of the victims were from the western state of Gujarat where police said they were on high alert for protests. A demonstration was also planned in Mumbai, capital of western Maharashtra state, where some of the pilgrims were from.
The attack has stirred the ire of hardline Hindutva groups tied to Prime Minister Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who have long sought tough action against militants fighting Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir.
In the Hindu-dominated Jammu region of the Indian state, saffron-clad members of the rightwing Bajrang Dal group stopped cars to enforce a strike in memory of the pilgrims.
Protests also took place in the country's financial capital of Mumbai and the industrial city of Ahmedabad in the west.
India has been struggling to restore normality in Muslim-majority Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim in full but rule in part.