At five in the morning on Wednesday, the first batch of 3,000 registered Amarnath pilgrims were given an official send off from Jammu. They will take both the traditional Pahalgam route, which is 45 kilometre long, and the shorter Baltal route to reach the holy Amarnath shrine, situated at an altitude of over 3,800 metre, about 140 km from Srinagar. The pilgrims say they are thrilled.
"We are going for the Amarnath darshan by the grace of God and we want more people to join the Yatra. There is no fear. The security forces and god will protect us," says Neetu, a pilgrim.
Another pilgrim Vijay says "pilgrims are not scared of stone throwing incidents." "Army is there for our safety and there is nothing to worry," he adds.
After last year's attack on the pilgrims in South Kashmir's Anantnag that killed nine pilgrims, the security forces are taking no chances.
Drones and satellites are being used by the security agencies to monitor the Yatra route. Special Quick Action Teams of the army and the CRPF will guard the Jammu-Srinagar highway. Closed circuit cameras are installed along the highway and at sensitive locations on the Yatra route. Around 20,000 troops have been deployed along the route to ensure safety of pilgrims.
Radio frequency identification tags or the RFID have been installed in all the vehicles that ferry the pilgrims. "RFID is a unique chip that's installed in the vehicles for tracking them. For any reason, if a vehicle goes off track, we can locate it and give it a direction and guide it to a proper place. We don't want a repetition of last year when yatris lost the way and came under terrorist attack," said Abhay Vir Chouhan, IG CRPF.
Last year more than 2.5 lakh pilgrims undertook the Amarnath Yatra. Despite threats, this year nearly 2 lakh pilgrims have already registered.
"There are inputs about threats to the Amarnath Yatra but we are taking all the precautions and have put in place all security arrangements," said Sanjay Sharma, Commandant CRPF.
The heightened security presence may be a grim reminder of prevailing violence in the valley, but clearly, it has not dampened the enthusiasm of the pilgrims.
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