Amarnath and Aftermath: Religious Identity could Promote Security

Terrorist attacks on the Amarnath Yatra are foreseeable. They could also be an opportunity for unprecedented statesmanship.

The trip to Amarnath. Source : Tehelka


This article examines the scenario wherein terrorists attack the Amarnath yatra (pilgrimage), with the intent to spark off violent reprisals against Muslims across the country. If such an attack did trigger communal violence in the country, that would embarrass the newly-elected BJP government and raise deeply uncomfortable questions about its commitment to protect religious minorities. On the other hand, if properly prepared to respond to such an attack, and/or any consequent reprisals or counter-reprisals, the government may well prove the truth in the adage about letting no crisis go to waste.


The threat to the Amarnath yatra is well-documented, and recurring in nature. The pilgrimage is an ideal target, with scale and terrain making security particularly challenging to ensure. It also touches on a highly emotive issue: Kashmir remains a frozen conflict precisely because it is definitional to the national identities of both, India and Pakistan. To India, it is the diadem in her secular crown, the proof of tolerance in a pluralist democracy; to Pakistan, it is a Muslim state cut off from the homeland, the “unfinished business of Partition”. Many anticipate that the new Prime Minister – with his Hindu nationalist origins – will redefine that relation, for better or worse.

Successive governments have deployed a combination of military, paramilitary and intelligence resources to ensure such plans are disrupted. These efforts have been successful more often than not, although the yatra had to be suspended in the 1990s, and suffered a major attack at Pahalgam in 2000. In that sense, the prospect of a terrorist attack on the Amarnath yatra is significant not so much because it would be a tragedy in itself, but rather in terms of the national backlash that it may seek to provoke.


A number of factors make 2014 particularly significant. A terrorist attack (or even an attempted or abortive attack) and consequent reprisals would be a crucible for the government to refine its policies on the intertwined questions of terrorism, religious extremism and nationalism. If handled deftly, it would reconcile constitutional secularism with Hindutva’s assertion of India as a Hindu rashtra (State), reasserting national commitment to tolerance and state-mediated equality. Mishandled, it could lead to a national polarisation along religious lines, and severely compromise India’s claims to secularism and institutionally-guaranteed stability on the international stage.

In the delicate world of religious identity politics, the position of the BJP-led government is complicated by the long shadow cast by the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. This is especially true of the Prime Minister; his alleged complicity in those events had led, inter alia, to his being denied a visa by the USA on the basis of the International Religious Freedom Act – a fact that his administration seems willing to use to keep the U.S. on the back foot in their approach to him. He has tendered no apology for those events; this fact, more than any other, makes him a deeply polarising figure, and considerable public debate in India has questioned whether a vote for the BJP amounts to making peace with that legacy.

At a geostrategic level, the pressure on security arrangements to prevent cross-border infiltration will increase, as the drawdown of NATO forces in Afghanistan enables a redirection of jihadi manpower from that battlefield. There is, of course, a lot of terrain to traverse between the Khyber and Rohtang passes; Pakistan’s government, though, can have little desire to confront veteran fighters from Afghanistan on its own territory. If they take the opportunity to move out into Kashmir, they become someone else’s problem.

At the local level, Kashmiris expect precipitate actions of a BJP-led government. While statements made in an election campaign should be taken under advisement, the Prime Minister has certainly positioned himself as a decisive leader. In conjunction with the BJP manifesto’s mention of a review of nuclear doctrine, this has led many to expect a more hard-line foreign policy, including on Kashmir. At the same time, the BJP neither makes nor seeks electoral gains in Kashmir, and there is also little love lost between BJP leaders and Omar Abdullah’s government in Srinagar; the combination leads Kashmiris to expect a breakdown in centre-state cooperation, perhaps even increased military activity. The recent media frenzy over amending Art. 370 of the Constitution fuels and exemplifies this brand of speculation.

In security terms, on the other hand, the outlook improves. The Indian military has enjoyed remarkable success in countering, anticipating and preventing infiltration along the Line of Control. An effective border fencing exercise and a successful “hearts and minds” campaign (the Chinar Doctrine) have, in combination, drastically reduced incidents of terrorist activity in the state. Attacks still take place, but the visible army presence is remarkably reduced – one visiting journalist found fewer checkpoints in Srinagar than in Islamabad! This success itself, however, may drive existing insurgents to select a more subtle line of attack; it may also create the space for right-wing Hindu nationalists to plan the same attack, hoping to serve thereby as agents provocateur.

Finally, given the Prime Minister’s rise from the ranks of the RSS, he cannot shrug off the saffron association with the Hindutva origins of the BJP – not that he appears to want to. The legal inquiry into post-Godhra riots also continues; as do arguments that he bears moral complicity for the actions of his cabinet at the time. The potential for controversy and embarrassment makes it particularly attractive for terrorists to seek to provoke communal violence; an attack on the Amarnath yatra, sparking reprisals against Muslims around the country, could spiral into a BJP-led government’s own Munich moment. It would also be an eerie echo of Godhra, which occurred barely two months into Modi’s first tenure in Gujarat. The government would be under close scrutiny, domestic and international, and each subsequent / related violent incident would discredit it further. In a sense, India’s public image has seldom been more precarious.


It is this writer’s opinion that the response to any threat to national security and unity must be a coherent and united one; the event cannot be permitted to devolve into an arena for contesting narratives. India is a fractious polity and society, with multiple layers of competing interest; without appropriate preparation, our response will assuredly be fragmented. In this, the government can best establish its leadership by taking a proactive role.

Reportage on the Prime Minister’s political career has described him as a hands-on, even an authoritative leader. In this new role, however, he will of necessity have to adopt a more diplomatic stance to engaging his colleagues in Parliament. One early measure would be to identify a selection of leading politicians across party lines, as also across religious, ethnic and linguistic groups, and contacting them to serve as the core of an integrated conflict response team. In practice, this group may be convened as a joint standing committee, i.e. with members from both houses of Parliament.

In the event of an attack and/or any reprisals, this committee can then serve to determine a response, and contribute to its execution in a coordinated fashion. One hopes to avoid thereby the unedifying spectacle of national or regional leaders exploiting a national tragedy to score political points off each other, while events are still unfolding. The committee should also form the nucleus of a broader contact group including religious leaders, representatives of major national and international NGOs, and senior journalists, tasked with developing contingency plans for an integrated response to terrorist attacks and/or reprisals. Given the potential for any attack or reprisal to become a source of obloquy for a BJP-led government, sending credibility into a downward spiral, coordinating an inclusive response will be only the first step. The central executive must be seen to act rapidly and decisively to safeguard all citizens, without discrimination.

The best time to respond to communal tensions is before they actually lead to violence. As opposed to the standard practice of appealing to all citizens to maintain calm and public order, the Prime Minister, Home Minister and Defence Minister must take the lead in directly addressing citizens of areas known to be tense, and specifically ask the citizens there to be wary of incitement or provocation. They must emphasize that resorting to violence is falling into a terrorist trap, and explicitly warn citizens against taking the law into their own hands. This appeal to a common national identity over religious identities, coupled with a gentle reminder that such actions will have consequences, should be most effective in preventing escalation of violence.


Where violence does occur, or where tensions run particularly high, senior government officials or ministers should visit and personally offer to mediate (or arrange for some form of dialogue); this should be done as part of delegations drawn from the contact group discussed above. It is important to include senior politicians of different religions, so that the government can demonstrate its commitment to secularism and dialogue to resolve difficulties. Ironically, this blatant use of politicians’ religious identities will be the most effective way to invoke the broader national identity and ensure cohesion. One may draw inspiration from Gandhiji’s appearing with Muslim leaders in Bengal to prevent a reprisal of the 1946 communal violence during Partition.

Kashmir itself is at least risk for seeing reprisals by Hindus, given they are reduced to a demographic minority in the region. In the event that Muslims are attacked elsewhere in the country, this minority may need protection against counter-reprisals. There is also the possibility that Hindu pilgrims visiting for the yatra will attempt to riot; this must be dealt with firmly. Kashmir is unique in that the military is more trusted than law enforcement; it is also able to deploy with greater capacity and felicity. Thus it must take the lead, although not at the cost of its primary mission of securing the borders. Supporting forces, if required to be deployed, may be drawn from the paramilitary, especially the Rashtriya Rifles regiment that is familiar with (and to) Kashmiris. The Army’s expertise with handling media coverage, honed during the Kargil War, may also be called upon; the key being again to emphasize it as a national institution, protecting all citizens regardless of religious identity.

To the greatest extent possible, responses to tensions or incidents anywhere else in the country should be handled by state or national law enforcement. The police may be supported by such paramilitary forces as the CRPF and CISF, including for such tasks as providing security to visiting government officials. To call in the Army would signal a loss of control over the security situation, and play into existing criticisms that they should have been called in to Gujarat in 2002.


The official integrated response mechanism will gain significantly from the involvement of various non-official actors. They can add credibility to government claims and actions, reduce dissension and highlight moderate voices, relegating more extremist elements to the margin of popular attention and discourse. They can also serve as trusted intermediaries within communities, or between the government and community leaders. These individuals or organisations can serve as an intermediary between official government views and those of civil society, addressing concerns that the government is acting in a unilateral or non-inclusive fashion, and bring a degree of broader receptiveness to government policies.

Religious leaders may be particularly effective advocates, able to persuade communities to refrain or desist from violent confrontation, especially in situations where those populations come under the sway of demagogues seeking to inflame passions. Faith-based organisations, especially if they are active in a given area, may offer access and a trusted channel for communication to community leaders. Respected academics may be better able to reach out to student or urban constituencies than either political or religious leaders.

The media in India today, particularly the television and online media, is driven by its own calculations of viewership goals, inherent leanings or biases etc. The coverage of natural disasters and terrorist attacks alike has seen some alarming deviation from best practices, and a tendency to sensationalise which may prove detrimental in delicate situations. For instance, television news media’s most popular format – the anchored debate – may serve to highlight differences of opinion or interest in scenarios where a common message would be desirable. The Indian military, as mentioned, has considerable experience in managing press relations (especially in Kashmir); this knowledge can be supplemented by guidelines drawn from global best practices on embedded reporting. Involving senior media figures from the policy formulation phase itself can ensure some clarity on expectations from the media, and provide them with some assurances of authentic content to carry. Irresponsible reportage, frankly, could serve as a spoiler in this context; the most democratic solution is certainly to negotiate directly with the industry itself.


It is no secret that the Indian government has an uneasy relationship with various international NGOs: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the ICRC, MSF etc. Restrictions have been placed, at various times, on the access or funding allowed to such organisations. Including their representatives in policy formulation, as also in delegations for official visits, would be a low-risk, high-reward route to demonstrating a commitment to transparency. This would also enable government efforts to benefit from these organisations’ proven expertise in mobilising and delivering relief and documenting the effects of trauma. Encouraging greater coordination between international and local NGOs can simultaneously help improve the capacity of the latter, while granting the former an intermediary with the local populace in instances where the identity of actors presents access barriers.

Finally, an observer role (not unlike the second capacity in which NGOs are included) could also be offered to diplomats of specific foreign countries, especially those that voice concerns over the treatment of particular communities or the handling of particular incidents, or those that have a track record of serving as neutral facilitators and witnesses. Some ambassadors may also be well-suited, as a matter of their own background and faith tradition, to reach out to particularly vulnerable communities. This would deepen ties between India and the country in question, while again mitigating international criticism by showing that the government is responsive to those concerns.


The personality-driven media climate surrounding this election (and his subsequent win)has left little room for serious critique of Mr. Modi’s policies or credentials. Whether or not such critique emerges, one must hope he has the vision to anticipate the many challenges he will face in governing this vast and diverse nation – and the courage of conviction to adopt the mature solutions only his authority can encompass.



Ameya Naik

Ameya Naik

Contributing Editor at InPRA
Ameya Naik is a researcher on peace operations team at the International Peace Institute in New York. Ameya has extensive experience as an analyst, writer, and editor, including as a Harvard Program on Negotiation Fellow, a Tufts Institute for Global Leadership Martel Scholar, and a Takshashila Research Scholar. His research examines the intersection of conflict, governance, and development, with a particular focus on UN peacekeeping and rule of law in fragile states. He also writes on conflict sensitivity, systems analysis, and education for conflict-affected and displaced children. Ameya is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he received a dual MA/LLM, with a Certificate in Diplomatic Studies; he also holds degrees in psychology and law from Mumbai University.
Ameya Naik