On the highway passing through Botengoo village in Anantnag district, shattered glass is still strewn on the road. On Monday night, pilgrims from Gujarat, back from a visit to the Amarnath Shrine, had passed through this road on bus. They were attacked by suspected militants near the village. Seven pilgrims, including five women, were killed and 19 injured.

The circumstances of the killings have been clouded by confusion since Monday night, when reports of a shooting emerged. A local police official said that “we were informed of firing on a vehicle. We proceeded on that information. We were not told that it was a yatri bus.”

Refuting claims that the pilgrims were caught in crossfire, an officer said “it was militant action” and that no security forces were present there at the time. The bus was “unescorted, not a part of a convoy. The ROP (Road Opening Party) had withdrawn,” the officer said.

‘Fired at from front, right and rear’

The bus was on its way to Jammu from Baltal in Sonemarg when it was intercepted by suspected militants. The attack first came from the right of the bus as it neared Botengoo, according to police accounts. The police officer said that “the bus was fired at from the front, right side, and rear”. The 19 pilgrims who were injured mostly had wounds in the lower body. Four had bullet injuries in the abdomen and one in the face. The pilgrims were between 30 years and 65 years old.

Local residents of the areas said two bursts of gunfire were heard around the time of evening prayers. “Between 7.45 pm and 8 pm, I heard the first fire. It lasted about 15 minutes,” a businessman in Botengoo said. “Half an hour later, another firing took place. It lasted five minutes.” The police officer said six pilgrims were dead on the spot at the time rescue parties of the police arrived.

Kashmir’s police chief, Muneer Khan told ANI, “The attack on Amarnath Yatra pilgrims was carried out by the LeT, and masterminded by Pakistani militant Ismail.”

A report sent by the Jammu and Kashmir Police to the ministry of home affairs states that a 56 seater bus was attacked at 8.17 pm near a petrol pump from the right side of the vehicle. The bus was attacked again after 75 yards.

Police officials in Anantnag commended the driver for not stopping the bus. “He saved lives,” said another official. “Had he been shot, nothing could be said of what would have happened to the remaining pilgrims.”

The stretch of the highway where the incident occurred is surrounded by homes and business establishments on either side. It also is a short distance from important police and district administration offices.

On the left side of the highway at the spot of the attack, there is a faint dirt track leading to an empty plot of land on the banks of the Jhelum River. On the other side of the highway, a road branches out, leading to areas of Kulgam district known to be frequented by militants. This belt of villages in Kulgam, a police official said, is primarily dominate by the Hizbul Mujahideen and a “transit zone for militants of both Lashkar and Hizb”. “Its only logical that they fled from there,” another officer said.

The police official in Anantnag district said militants had “strong networks” of support here, which may have helped track the bus’s movements. He said that civilian sympathisers tasked with logistics, called overground workers, “monitor the highway movements very closely” to keep track of government officials’ and security forces’ movements.

A tense situation

Residents of Botengoo are now wary of outsiders, particularly the press. A sense of fear has taken over the village.

On Monday night, soon after the attack, residents allege, army officials caught hold of six local youth and thrashed them in their homes. “They damaged houses, stole money, cigarettes, and eatables. Some houses had grapevines, they stole those too,” a woman from Botengoo said. “The police that arrived on the scene after the attack and took them away.”

The local police official confirmed that the youth were thrashed by soldiers and that they were under preventive detention “for their own safety”. The official said that the “religious sentiments of the security forces were provoked. They mainly belong to the Hindu community. They vented their anger on whoever they caught hold of.”

The attack has led to protests in the Jammu region and inflammatory remarks from Hindutva groups across the country. The police official said that the authorities were under pressure to play down the incident because it was fear that the incident could inflame the environment beyond the Kashmir Valley if it acquired a communal tinge.

Yatra politics

Separatist outfits, political and militant, condemned the killings late Monday night. The Amarnath pilgrimage has been at the centre of controversy ever since the militancy erupted in Kashmir in the 1989. In 1994, the pro-Pakistan militant outfit, Harkat-ul-Ansar, banned the Amarnath pilgrimage.

On August 1, 2000, militants attacked the Amarnath yatra office in Jammu. On the same day, 17 pilgrims were killed when militants lobbed grenades and opened fire on a pilgrim camp in Pahalgam. Six local Kashmiris and two security officials, besides two terrorists were killed. The next day four more persons succumbed to their injuries. The government had then held the Lashkar-e-Taiba responsible for the attack.

In 2008, the Muslim-majority Valley erupted in mass protests over the transfer of forest land to the Amarnath shrine board. In Hindu-majority Jammu, protests broke out after the order was rescinded. Protestors from Jammu blocked the national highway, choking off supplies to the Kashmir Valley.

In 2012, Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani had said India was trying to work demographic change in Kashmir through the Amarnath Yatra. In 2015, Geelani had called for the yatra to be curtailed to 30 days from 40. This June, however, he said that that the pilgrims were “our revered guests”, who would be received as per the age-old traditions, PTI reported.

Said Geelani: “The terror threat to the upcoming yatra is a brazen lie and aimed at maligning the freedom movement. Kashmiris are not against any religion or its followers. However, they are pursuing a legitimate struggle for their fundamental rights.”

Despite the killings, a batch of 3,289 pilgrims started from Jammu at 3 am on Tuesday for the shrine.

Condemnation and skepticism

On July 11, Kashmiri Muslims from different walks of life protested against the killing of seven Hindu pilgrims in volatile South Kashmir. Civil society and separatist groups, tour and travel operators, and students held demonstrations condemning the attack.

In Anantnag district, too, there unequivocal condemnation. Residents of the town came down heavily on the killings. “We should have done a hartal,” rued a businessman near Botengoo, the site of the killings. “In Kashmir, if someone’s stomach is upset, there is hartal. Here seven lives were wasted.”

However, the condemnations spare the militants. A young resident of Anantnag town, who did not wish to be named, said “people do not believe militants could do such a dastardly attack”. In most cases, the police version of violent incidents are contested by local versions. This time, the initial police statement found takers in the area.

“Militants initially attacked a police BP [bulletproof] bunker at Botengoo,” it ran. “The fire was retaliated. There was no report of injuries. Thereafter, the militants fired on a police ‘naka’ near Khanabal. The fire was retaliated. A tourist bus was hit by bullets in which about 18 tourists were injured. Among them six person died while rest are being treated. The bus was on way to Jammu from Baltal and was not part of the convoy.”

The young resident refered to the statement and “it was not an attack on yatra”. “Pakistan gives a weapon but the support structure to militants is given by the people,” he said. “Militants will not antagonise the society they thrive in.” The Hurriyat, he said, should have come out against the attack unequivocally and done more on the ground. “Mere statements do not matter. Compassion has to be followed up by action.”

Meanwhile, he said, some residents of the town were planning “to put up roadside stalls to welcome the yatris with placards and refreshments to make them feel safe”.