India curbs on highway for Hindu pilgrimage anger Kashmir residents

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Curbs on civilian traffic along a highway linking disputed Kashmir to the rest of India, imposed for a Hindu pilgrimage, have angered residents of the Muslim-majority region.

The six-week Amarnath Yatra began on Monday and will see hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims trek to a holy cave high in the insurgency-hit region at the heart of decades of animosity between India and Pakistan.

No civilian vehicles other than those transporting Hindu pilgrims will be allowed to move along a 100 kilometers (62 miles) stretch of highway that links the mountainous Kashmir valley and India’s plains, said an order issued by traffic police chief Alok Kumar and seen by Reuters.

Police will allow local civilian traffic during a three-and-a-half hour window in the evening, the order said.

Bashir Ahmad said it took nearly 20 hours to travel between the main cities of Srinagar to Jammu where his son had a medical checkup. The journey usually takes six hours, he said.

“It is ridiculous,” he told Reuters. “How can they stop people from travelling on the highway?”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made Kashmir a major theme during the general election that returned his Hindu-Nationalist government to power for a second term in May.

Home affairs minister Amit Shah recently visited the region to inspect security measures for the Amarnath Yatra, which has been a target of militant attacks in the past decade.

Authorities imposed similar curbs after February attacks by a Pakistan-based militant group killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel, taking India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

Civilian traffic was banned for two days a week to allow military convoys to move freely, triggering angry scenes as motorists left their cars to confront heavily-armed Indian troops.

Siraj Ahmad, convener of a committee representing trade bodies in Jammu and Kashmir, said most residents supported the pilgrimage but were frustrated over the disruption to their lives.

“The government attempts to make the pilgrimage look like an aggression by making the lives of the people uncomfortable,” he said.

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