SRINAGAR, India (AP) – A government order in Indian-administered Kashmir on Friday asked tourists and Hindu pilgrims visiting a Himalayan cave shrine “to curtail their stay” in the disputed territory, citing security concerns and intensifying tensions following India’s announcement it was sending more troops to the region.
Kashmir’s home secretary, Shaleen Kabra, said in the order that the pilgrims and tourists should “curtail their stay in the (Kashmir) valley immediately and take necessary measures to return as soon as possible.”
The order cited “prevailing security situation” and the “latest intelligence inputs of terror threats with specific targeting” of the annual Hindu pilgrimage as reasons for the advisory. The 45-day annual pilgrimage draws hundreds of thousands of people to the hallowed mountain cave, the Amarnath shrine.
The order comes after officials on Thursday suspended the pilgrimage for four days due to bad weather along the route. The pilgrimage began on July 1 and about 300,000 pilgrims have visited the icy cave so far this year, according to officials.
In the past, dozens of pilgrims have been killed in attacks blamed on rebels. However, hundreds of people have died due to exhaustion and exposure in harsh weather during arduous treks in the icy mountains.
Muslim rebels fighting for decades against Indian rule in Kashmir accuse India’s Hindu majority of using the pilgrimage as a political project to bolster its claim on the contested region.
The advisory is likely to escalate the tensions in the region, which has been on edge since last week when India announced it was deploying at least 10,000 more soldiers to one of the world’s most militarized areas. The troop buildup has sparked fears that New Delhi is planning to scrap an Indian constitutional provision that disallows Indians from buying land in the Muslim-majority region.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and each claim the divided Himalayan territory in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
Later Friday, residents in the region’s main city of Srinagar and other towns thronged grocery stores and medical shops to stock up on essentials. They lined up at ATMs to take out money and at gas stations to fill up their vehicles.
Kashmir, a region known for lush green valleys, lakes, meadows and dense forested mountains, has become notorious for long hauls of security lockdowns and crackdowns.
Tourist operators called the advisory an attack on the Kashmir economy.
“The advisory is not about hundreds of thousands of Indian migrant laborers who earn their livelihood in Kashmir. It’s about tourists who spend in Kashmir,” said Sajjad Ahmed, a tourist operator. “The Amarnath pilgrimage has already been suspended and the handful tourists are told to leave Kashmir. How else would you understand it?”
An Indian soldier was killed Friday during a gunbattle with rebels in the region. The fighting erupted after police and soldiers cordoned off a village in southern Shopian area on a tip that militants were hiding there, police said. In the exchange of gunfire, at least one soldier was killed and another wounded.
As the news of the counterinsurgency operation spread, anti-India protests and clashes broke out with villagers trying to reach near the site of fighting and help the trapped militants to escape. At least three civilians were injured in the clashes with government forces, who fired shotgun pellets and tear gas to stop stone-throwing protesters from marching in the streets.
Indian soldiers are ubiquitous in Kashmir and residents make little secret of their fury at their presence in the Himalayan region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in its election manifesto earlier this year promised to do away with special rights for the Kashmiris under India’s Constitution.
A top security official said the entire security grid in Kashmir has been directed to be on “alert as major policy revamp in in offing” regarding Kashmir. “We don’t know exactly what it’s about but it’s certainly some kind of decision which has far-reaching security implications,” the official said on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy.
Omar Abdullah, a top pro-India Kashmiri leader who has criticized Modi government’s muscular approach in Kashmir, said in a tweet Friday that the security alert, “if actually issued, would be about something very different” and not about removing special status.
Ordinary Kashmiris fear that the already ongoing crackdown against anti-India dissenters will be intensified.
“The uncertainty makes the situation simply horrific and as frightening as it can be,” said Javaid Ahmed, a resident in Srinagar. “People are dead worried about their lives and families.”
Kashmir has seen renewed rebel attacks and repeated public protests against Indian rule in last few years as a new generation of Kashmiri rebels, especially in the southern parts of the region, has revived the militancy and challenged New Delhi’s rule with guns and effective use of social media.
About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown since 1989.