In tense Baltal, traders count losses of arson

Srinagar: Uneasy calm prevailed Saturday in Baltal, the base camp of the annual Amarnath pilgrimage, where over two dozen people, including CRPF men and cops were injured in violent clashes on Friday, after troopers allegedly burnt hundreds of tents belonging to the locals.
Reports said that tension prevailed at the base camp, even as the pilgrimage resumed after Friday’s riots and arson allegedly by the CRPF troopers following a clash between locals and the community kitchen operators after volunteer of a non-local community kitchen stabbed a pony owner when he refused to carry a pilgrim to cave.
Though ponywallas and vendors resumed their business Saturday morning, the owners of the camping agencies were seen counting their losses.
“Before the Yatra started, I brought a truck load of tents, blankets, tables and chairs and decorated it beautifully hoping for a good business season. Today, I brought a small load carrier to carry the left out rubble home. It’s shocking and disheartening,” Liyaqat Ali, who runs Younis Camping at Baltal, told Kashmir Reader Saturday.
Ali said that he alone suffered damaged to the tune of Rs 20 lakh. He said all his 40 tents were set ablaze “by the troopers after they stole the blankets and other items”.
“CRPF exploited the minor scuffle and turned it into a communal clash. We would have resolved the matter amicably with the langar wallas. However, CRPF didn’t want it to happen. They added fuel to the fire,” he added.
Ghulam Mohammad Bhat of Tangmarg, who runs Amarnath Tent House, is also shocked over Friday’s tragic events. Bhat, who has been operating tent service for pilgrims at Baltal since 2003, said the Friday’s inferno has devastated him.
“It took me 11 years to establish camping business. However, in minutes CRPF men devastated it. I have a family to feed. What will I do now,” Bhat said.
Bhat said that all his ten tents worth Rs 4 lakh were damaged in the blaze. Troopers and the volunteers of community kitchen, he said, brandishing swords and knives forced the tent and pony owners to run for lives.
“We had no idea what was going on. We saw CRPF and members of non-local community kitchens and CRPF men in civvies charging towards us. They were carrying guns, swords and knives. We left our tents and ran for life. The rampaging mob set afire our tents as we watched helplessly,” he said.
He said had police not reached the spot on time, “the mob would not have spared the Muslims who have been carrying pilgrims on the tough terrains in scorching heat.”
“Not one, two, or three tents, but over 500 were torched. Our youth, who would risk their lives to take the pilgrims safely to the cave, were beaten. Is this what we deserve for making the tough pilgrimage of Hindus possible,” he said.
Like Bhat and Ali, Taj-ud-Din Khatana is also perturbed with the devastation left by Friday’s arson.
“The two months of Amarnath Yatra is the only source of income for us. For the remaining time of the year, we remain jobless. We have nothing left now. What will we do with empty hands? We’ll move back to our homes,” he said.
He said the arson has also scared the local ponywallas, many of whom have decided to call it a day. He said many vendors are also winding up their business amidst a sense of uncertainty and insecurity.
Meanwhile, official sources told Kashmir Reader that the civil administrations, police, and paramilitary CRPF officials held deliberations for the second consecutive day Saturday over the Friday’s arson and riots in Batal.
If the sources are to be believed, pressure is being built on police by certain quarters in Jammu and Kashmir and New Delhi to play down the Friday’s violence. The police, sources said, have been asked to avoid filing a case against the troopers and the members of the non-local community kitchen for indulging, instigating and fuelling violence.
“Police was trying its best to strike a compromise between the local tent owners and the community kitchen owners to end the crisis. However, the tent owners are reluctant. Besides action against the rioters, they also want adequate compensation for the losses,” the sources said.
They said that Forest Minister Mian Altaf has also stepped in to resolve the crisis and persuade tent and pony owners to carry on with their business.
Superintendent of Police (SP) Ganderbal, Shahid Meraj, told Kashmir Reader that the situation was “normal” and a fresh batch of pilgrims has left for ‘darshan’.
“From Manigam, a batch of 5000 pilgrims left towards the cave for ‘darshan’. The situation is absolutely normal and under control,” he added.
Meanwhile, General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps, Lt Gen Subrata Saha Saturday reviewed security situation near Baltal.
An army spokesman in a statement said that Gen Saha was briefed by the Sector Commanders, Brigadier Kular and Brigadier Sood in charge of both the routes, on the security environment. “Consequent to the violent altercation between Bhandara wallas, tent and pony owners, locals and Yatris approached the army troops who were deployed in close vicinity for assistance”.
“The army troops responded immediately on humanitarian grounds and moved the stranded people to the army Camps. In Domel approximately 1500 and in Sonamarg 250 Yatris were accommodated and provided shelter, food and other essential administrative needs,” the spokesman said.

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