‘Terrified’ local traders shut operations, start leaving Base Camp
As dismayed Shiraz Ahmad vainly rummages through the rubble of his torched tent at the base camp of AmarnathYatra here, hordes of pilgrims gradually walk past gushing Sindh river to perform the annual pilgrimage.
An uneasy calm prevails in this picturesque tourist resort, three days after violent clashes following assault on a Ponnywalla by a Langar owner near Dhumail here.
The assault causing injuries to the Ponnywalla, Naib Ahmad of Kupwara, triggered protests with locals suspending work and leading a procession towards Baltal base camp. This had led to commotion at the highly-fortified Baltal base camp which houses dozens of Langars run by non-locals and over 1,000 tents set up by locals for Amarnath pilgrims.
Witnesses said on the fateful day amid massive protests by locals, the paramilitary CRPF guarding the camp took all Langar owners into their makeshift camp. “After sometime, CRPF men alongwithLangar owners appeared on the spot and set ablaze our tents. They also stopped the fire-tenders at the camp’s main gate,” alleged Shiraz Ahmad and other affected traders.
Seeing the tents in flames, he claimed that some youth rushed to the spot and ransacked the Langars. “In the melee, some cylinders caught fire and burst inside the Langars, triggering panic in the area. After the incident, the CRPF men severely thrashed us, forcing us to run for our lives,” the tent owners said.
On Monday, the only things visible on the spot were half-burnt shoes, socks, empty juice containers and slippers, and also a repugnant smell engulfing the whole area.
“We have never seen such a horrible incident,” says Farooq Ahmad Magrey, a local agent, whose two tents were burnt while he took refuge in a police post.
“We have been carrying on our tradition of facilitating Yatra. But today we are left with just debris and humiliation,” Magrey said.
“I had sold my cow for Rs 35,000 to purchase a new tent. My hopes to earn some money for supporting my family have been dashed with the burning of my tent.”
According to local traders, around 700 tents each costing around Rs 40,000, were torched during the clash and bedding worth lakhs destroyed.
“Our business has been hit hard,” said Abdul Razak a local.
Over a dozen community kitchens, like hundreds of tents, are in ruins here. “We cannot restart the Langars in the camp,” said a Langar owner from Punjab while selling the damaged furniture and utensils to scavengers.
Fear was palpable among the local tent owners at the camp who have started to migrate from Baltal.
“After CRPF threatened our members of dire consequences, many of them closed their business and returned home. Our 695 tents were burnt on the fateful day. We have decided to close our tents till government provides us with security and compensation,” said Bashir Ahmad Mir, president of Mazdoor and Traders Union Baltal.
A police officer, wishing anonymity, said before torching the tents, the CRPF personnel smashed close-circuit cameras installed by police at the Baltal base camp.
A CRPF officer overlooking security arrangements at Baltal base camp refuted the allegations. “Our personnel did not take sides with Langar owners and used force to disperse the two groups,” he said.
The police officer said they are investigating the role of CRPF in the incident. “Action under law will be taken against trouble mongers after completion of the investigation,” he said.
Pilgrims said due to the incident they had to face a tough time. “We are caught in a big problem here,” says Jitendar, a pilgrim from Punjab. “After the incident we had nowhere to go; we had no food and nowhere to sleep. It was like hell.”
Minister of Forests, MianAltaf Ahmad, who is also the local legislator, said government will compensate the tent owners for their losses.
“Due to timely intervention of the government, the situation in Baltal was prevented from escalating. I met the stakeholders and sought cooperation from them to ensure smooth Yatra. However, there are allegations against CRPF of using unbridled force on locals and damaging their property. Police is looking into the complaints and government has also taken up the matter with senior CRPF officials,” said Altaf.
Deputy Commissioner Ganderbal, SarmadHafeez, said the Yatra from Baltal route has been fully restored.
“Efforts are on to restore sense of security among local traders and Langar owners. However, Yatra has been restored. We are assessing the losses suffered by stakeholders in Baltal an interim relief will be immediately paid to them,” the DC said.
Meanwhile inchargeYatra officer of JK Armed police and Commandant of CRPF have been removed following the torching of tents and Langars in Friday’s violent clashes in Baltal area.
According to official sources, Dushan Kumar, SSP 9th battalion of JK armed police and SS Rawat, Commandant 54 battalion of CRPF who were deployed on Yatra duty, have been removed from Baltal.
They said SSPs Rajesh Kumar and Zubair Ahmad have been deployed for Yatra duties to Baltal.
Sources said though CRPF has not been called back from the base camp, the state government has entrusted security duties of the Yatra to Jammu and Kashmir police.
The development follows the visit of Additional Director General (Armed), SM Sahai to Baltal base camp who chaired a joint meeting of JK police and CRPF there.
Meanwhile most of the local service providers including ponywallas, tent owner, palkywallas and laborers have left the Baltal base camp.
“There are just 100 local tents left at Baltal now, out of around 1100 tents which were there prior to Friday’s violent clashes,” an officer, deployed on the Yatra duty, said, adding that accommodation crisis is causing great inconvenience to the Yatris.
When contacted DC Ganderbal, Sarmad Hafiz told Greater Kashmir that he has urged all the service-providers to cooperate for smooth conduct of Yatra.