The Jammu and Kashmir government on Tuesday (July 21) announced the cancellation of this year’s holy Amarnath pilgrimage due to rising cases of COVID-19.
The key decision was taken during the 39th board meeting of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), chaired by Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu. The board members discussed the pandemic in detail and how it had pushed the region’s healthcare system to its limits.
“The spike has been particularly very sharp in July. Health workers and security forces are also getting infected and the focus of the entire medical, civil and police administration at the moment is on containing the local transmission of the COVID-19 pandemic,” an official statement said quoting the board members.
“The health concerns are so serious that the strain on the health system, along with the diversion in resources to the Yatra (Amarnath pilgrimage) will be immense. This would also unnecessarily put the Yatris (pilgrims) at risk of catching the COVID-19,” it added.
A government representative reasoned that “it would not be advisable to conduct the yatra and it would be advisable to cancel it this year in larger public interest. This would enable the administration, police and health officials to focus on the immediate challenges facing them rather than diverting resources, manpower and attention to the conduct of the pilgrimage.”
According to the administration’s media bulletin, the number of COVID-19 cases in Jammu and Kashmir neared the 15,000-mark with 14,650 cases reported until Tuesday. As many as 262 individuals have died with 240 in the Kashmir Valley alone.
Though the government had made all necessary preparations for the pilgrimage, it has cancelled the yatra due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases.
“The board is aware of and respects the sentiments of millions of devotees and to keep the religious sentiments alive, the board shall continue the live telecast/ virtual darshan of the morning and evening Aarti (rituals). Further, the traditional rituals shall be carried out as per past practice. Also, the Chhadi Mubarak shall be facilitated by the government,” the statement said.
Each year, over half-a-million Hindu devotees make the long and arduous trek to pay obeisance to an ice stalagmite believed to be an embodiment of Hindu deity Shiva. The pilgrimage lasts for about six weeks every year between July and August.
It takes almost two-and-a-half days to cover the 46 kilometres from Pahalgam. For pilgrims who take the Baltal Sonmarg route, the distance to the cave is 14 km, which takes between five and six hours. Those who can’t trek opt for the aerial route using helicopters to reach the cave. For thousands of devotees, a visit to the shrine is an act of faith.
According to an ancient tale, a Muslim shepherd named Butta Malik was given a sack of coal by a Sadhu (holy saint) which turned into gold once he reached home. Butta Malik was delighted and rushed back with the aim to thank the Sadhu. But at the spot of their meeting, he discovered a cave which eventually became a place of pilgrimage for the believers.
Since then the descendants of Butta Malik residing in Batkoot Anantnag in south Kashmir have been beneficiaries of one-third share of the offerings at the Amarnath Cave until 2000. However, after the formation of SASB, through an act passed by the J&K State Legislature, the Butta Malik family does not receive the share any longer.
Official data indicates that the number of Hindu pilgrims were restricted to below 5,000 until 1950, but the number increased rapidly to 353,969 in 2013 and 342,883 for 32 days of the restricted pilgrimage last year with the Centre’s abrogation of Article 370. Days before the August 5 move, the government, in an advisory, had asked tourists and pilgrims to leave J&K almost immediately.
The Amarnath shrine is in a cave situated 3,952 metres above sea level in the Lidder Valley near tourist resort Pahalgam in south Kashmir. The area has a large concentration of glaciers which include Kolahai, Nehnar and Bodpathri. Pilgrims reach the cave via Pahalgam in south Kashmir and Baltal Sonmarg in north-east Kashmir.
The pilgrimage has also courted controversies for environmental reasons. The State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) had once recommended limiting the number of pilgrims at the ecologically fragile zone of Pahalgam. The SPCB had suggested respecting the carrying capacity of the area. Moreover, the board had favoured a complete ban on the use of polythene en route the holy cave.
The Amarnath pilgrimage has been attacked twice by militants. In a recent attack in 2017, seven pilgrims lost their lives. The Police had held Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) responsible for the attack. But, the LeT had denied any role in the attack. In 2000, about 21 pilgrims were killed in another terror strike. After the recent attack in 2017, the government forces beefed up security for the pilgrimage.
In 1996, around 250 Yatris lost their lives due to the snowstorm and exhaustion, exposure to cold and freezing. In 2015, three pilgrims were killed and 11 injured after a cloudburst triggered flash floods and landslides near the Baltal base camp of the Amarnath Yatra.
Besides LG Murmu, the virtual meeting was attended to by B.V.R. Subrahmanyam, chief secretary; Bipul Pathak, CEO SASB; Anup Kumar Soni, Additional CEO SASB and other senior officers of the board. “Threadbare discussion was held on the current circumstances of COVID-19 pandemic and its likely impact on the Yatra,” the statement said.
The Board also discussed the Supreme Court order of July 13, in which the decision to conduct the pilgrimage was left to the discretion of J&K administration/government after assessing the ground realities prevailing in the region.
“The SASB was informed that the arrangements were on track since February 2020, but due to lockdown and pandemic, the State Executive Committee, J&K has continued to keep religious places and places of worship closed for the public. These prohibitions continue till 31st July,” the statement said.
Members also discussed the decision of J&K High Court on writ petition (No CM No. 3022/2020 in WP(C) PIL No 5/2020 in which the HC directed the SASB to take a final view in light of the order of the Supreme court and keeping in view the compliance of all healthcare protocols, Standard Operating Protocols notified by the governments in New Delhi and in Jammu and Kashmir.