India cancels Amarnath Yatra amid mounting virus cases

Updated 23 Jul 2020

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The pilgrimage was cancelled for the first time in more than a century. — Reuters/File
The pilgrimage was cancelled for the first time in more than a century. — Reuters/File

SRINAGAR: Indian-held Kashmir on Wednesday imposed a strict lockdown for a week as authorities warned of rising coronavirus cases, one day after cancelling a major annual Hindu pilgrimage.

India, which has recorded almost 1.2 million infections and is the world’s third-most infected nation, had significantly eased a months-long shutdown to revive its shattered economy.

But numerous states across the nation of 1.3 billion people have reimposed restrictions in recent weeks as case numbers exploded, sparking fears of overwhelmed healthcare systems.

Authorities said the Muslim-majority Himalayan valley, apart from one district, would go into lockdown until July 29, when the restrictions would be reviewed.

“Complete lockdown in all red districts ... from today evening,” the local administration’s information department tweeted.

Decision comes ahead of the first anniversary of India’s annexation of held Kashmir on Aug 5

Agriculture, construction, and the transportation of fuel and other goods is permitted under the order.

It came a day after the Amarnath Yatra — an annual Hindu pilgrimage to a cave shrine in held Kashmir that draws some 300,000 participants — was cancelled for the first time in more than a century.

The pilgrimage, held for nearly two months, is usually guarded by some 40,000 government forces as well as health professionals.

But authorities said they were not able to divert such huge resources to the event with the health crisis still raging.

“The health concerns are so serious that the strain on the health system, along with the diversion in resources to the yatra, will be immense,” officials said late on Tuesday.

“This would also unnecessarily put the yatris (pilgrims) at risk of catching Covid-19.” Held Kashmir has so far reported nearly 16,000 virus cases including 273 deaths in the region of 14 million people, local health officials said on Wednesday.

The Kashmir lockdown came just before the major Eidul Azha festival of animal sacrifice, which begins at the end of the month and lasts for several days.

It also came ahead of the first anniversary on August 5 of the controversial stripping of held Kashmir’s autonomy by India’s Hindu nationalist government.

Last year’s pilgrimage was cut short abruptly days before the autonomy decision, with authorities claiming pilgrims and tourists faced terror threats from anti-India rebel groups.

Severe restrictions on movement and communications were also imposed across the restive region to quell any unrest.Organisers of the Amarnath Yatra, where saffron-clad Hindu ascetics walk 46 km (28 miles) to the cave across glaciers and waterlogged trails, said a “very sharp” spike in coronavirus cases had forced the cancellation.

The mountain cave contains an ice stalagmite that is considered a physical manifestation of Hindu diety Shiva. It is the first time the pilgrimage has been cancelled since the cave was discovered by a farmer in the 19th century.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2020