Gunmen opened fire on a busload of Hindu pilgrims in Kashmir on Monday, killing at least seven people and threatening to ignite tensions in a region already deeply divided between Hindus and Muslims.
The pilgrims were returning from a Himalayan shrine when unidentified militants attacked a police patrol and a security checkpoint, and then fired on the bus near the village of Botengoo, according to Muneer Khan, Kashmir’s inspector general of police. At least seven pilgrims, most of them women, were killed, and 16 others were wounded, three of them critically.
The assault was the first major attack on pilgrims in the area since 2000, when 30 people were killed.
“We have no words to condemn this violence,” said Naeem Akhtar, the minister for public works in Kashmir. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of Kashmiri separatist groups, said in a statement that the attack “goes against the very grain of the Kashmiri ethos.”
“The Amarnath yatra has been going on peacefully for centuries and is part of our yearly rhythm,” the statement said, referring to the pilgrimage. “These are enemies of Islam, these are terrorists, and the attack should be investigated.”
Every summer, as many as 100,000 Hindu pilgrims make a steep trek to a frigid cave where water freezes into a stalagmite shaped like a phallus, considered to be a symbol of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
The procession winds through a part of the disputed territory of Kashmir where Muslim separatists have attacked Hindus in the past, prompting thousands of Indian soldiers and police officers to be deployed along the pilgrims’ path to provide protection. This year, surveillance drones hovered above the procession for added security.
Khan said the bus that was attacked was not part of the main convoy and was not registered with the state government, perhaps explaining why it was traveling in the dark and was not more closely guarded.
He said he believed the attack was in retribution for security forces’ recent killing of militants.
A shopkeeper in Botengoo said he heard shots around 8:25 p.m.
“Every shop in the area was open, and people were walking on the roadside,” Iqbal Ahmed Parray, 32, said. “Suddenly, there were gunshots and everyone started pulling down the shutters of their shops and running for their life.”
The state’s chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, arrived at the scene shortly after the attack, which she called “an assault on our values and traditions.”
A former chief minister of the state, Ghulam Nabi Azad, added: “I don’t think anybody in Kashmir would support this attack. Everybody will condemn this.”
The pilgrims, who include families, businessmen and barefoot ascetics, depart from a base camp near Botengoo for a 19-mile journey to a spot that is about 10,000 feet above sea level. The number of people making the trek has grown over the years, even after Kashmir was convulsed by a separatist insurgency in 1989 that has sought to wrest control of the region from India. (Courtesy New York Times)