India OKs Hindu pilgrimage despite COVID-19 risks

Pilgrims trek through mountains to reach the holy Amarnath cave shrine, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam, Kashmir, July 27, 2019. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 July 2020

India OKs Hindu pilgrimage despite COVID-19 risks

  • The annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave, which is located about 4,000 meters above sea level in the Lidder Valley and is considered sacred by Hindus
  • The pilgrimage is expected to start from July 21, with only 1,500 people allowed to gather, out of which 1,000 will travel by helicopter and 500 on foot

NEW DELHI: New Delhi’s decision to open up sections of the Kashmir Valley for an annual Hindu pilgrimage has come under sharp criticism from health experts and analysts who said the move was “schizophrenic” and timing highly suspect.
“The government is showing schizophrenic traits by demonstrating to the world that they are serious about fighting the pandemic on one side and underplaying the COVID-19 crisis by putting people’s lives at risk on the other. They are playing with religious sentiments,” Dr. T. Jacob John, a virologist at the Christian Medical College (CMC) in the southern Indian city of Vellore, told Arab News on Wednesday.
India has the world’s third-highest number of infections, with more than 950,000 cases and 24,500 deaths recorded as of Wednesday. 
More than 11,000 of those are from Indian-administered Kashmir, which has reported 200 deaths so far.
The annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave, which is located about 4,000 meters above sea level in the region’s Lidder Valley and is considered sacred by Hindus who constitute 80 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion population.
Pilgrims must walk 24 km to reach the cave, which, under normal circumstances, sees a footfall of more than 5,000 people.
But this year’s pilgrimage was delayed due to a nationwide lockdown and social distancing measures. Media reports say that the pilgrimage is expected to start from July 21, with only 1,500 people allowed to gather, out of which 1,000 will travel by helicopter and 500 on foot.
However, Anup Soni, one of the members of the Amarnath shrine board, told Arab News on Wednesday that no decision has been taken yet about the pilgrimage date.
“The shrine board and local administration will take the final call,” he said.
India’s Supreme Court on Monday said it would not “interfere in this matter” after a Punjab-based volunteer organization filed a petition to ban this year’s pilgrimage because of the pandemic.
The court was responding to the petition filed by the Shri Amarnath Barfani Langar Organization (SABLO), which organizes free kitchens and provides accommodation for pilgrims. 
“Considering the reality across the country it would be wise to have a virtual tour of the cave rather than the physical tour which would further spread the pandemic at the community level,” Ranjan Gupta, general secretary of SABLO, told Arab News.
“The chances are that the presence of so many pilgrims will spread the virus,” he said.
Meanwhile, Zaffar Choudhary, a Kashmir-based political analyst, said that the government’s move was suspicious.
“The latest COVID-19 guidelines keep religious activities suspended, but at the same time there are full preparations for the Amarnath pilgrimage,” Choudhary, editor of the Kashmir-based web news magazine The Dispatch, said.
He asked why the government was allowing the pilgrimage while imposing stricter anti-virus measures at other places of worship.
“Kashmiris are not averse to the Hindu pilgrimage, but they ask why prayers in local mosques or even temples violate COVID protocols but it is OK to have a pilgrimage that will have at least 5,000 pilgrims coming in every day,” he said.
 Since the lockdown was imposed in March, several Indian states have banned interstate travel, among other measures, to limit the spread of the disease.
On Tuesday, however, the government reopened Jammu and Kashmir for tourism, a move seen as an attempt “to show normalcy in the state.”
“The tourism infrastructure has collapsed and needs huge investment from the government to prop it up,” Hameed Wangnoo, president of the Houseboat Association of Kashmir, told Arab News.
The situation in Jammu and Kashmir has been volatile since Aug. 5 last year, when New Delhi scrapped Article 370 of India’s constitution and revoked the state’s autonomous status.
Tourism to the region took a severe beating, with massive losses to locals who depend on it for survival.
India and Pakistan both rule parts of Kashmir while claiming the area in full. They have fought two wars over the region and their forces frequently exchange fire across a 740 km Line of Control, the de facto border.

Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

Updated 12 August 2020

Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

  • President Ghani’s order to release 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners opens way for negotiations

KABUL: The Taliban have rejected calls for a truce before the long-awaited talks with the government get underway. They said that the possibility of a cease-fire could be debated only during the talks.

“When our prisoners are released, we will be ready for the talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Tuesday.

“A cease-fire or reduction of violence can be among the items in the agenda of the talks,” he said.

This follows President Ashraf Ghani signing a decree for the release of 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners on Monday — who Kabul said were responsible for some of the worst attacks in the country in recent years — thereby removing the last obstacle to the start of the negotiations set by the Taliban.

However, Kabul has yet to announce the date of their release.

Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the government-appointed peace council, said that Doha, Qatar, would be the likely venue.

“Deliberations are continuing, and no decision has been made on a firm date yet,” he said.

Ghani pledged to release the prisoners after the Loya Jirga, or traditional assembly, voiced support for their freedom.

After three days of deliberations the Jirga, which comprises 3,400 delegates, said that its decision was for the sake of “the cessation of bloodshed” and to remove “the obstacle to peace talks.”

After the Jirga’s announcement, Ghani said that “the ball was now in the Taliban’s court” and that they needed to enforce a nationwide cease-fire and begin talks to bring an end to more than 40 years of war, particularly the latest chapter in a conflict that started with the Taliban’s ousting from power in the US-led invasion in late 2001.

The exchange of prisoners between the government and the Taliban was part of a deal signed between the insurgent group and the US in Doha in February
this year.

The prisoner swap program — involving the release of 5,000 Taliban inmates in return for 1,000 security forces held by the group — was to be completed within 10 days in early March, followed by the crucial intra-Afghan talks.

February’s deal between the Taliban emissaries and US delegates, led by the US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, came after 18 months of intensive and secret talks, amid growing public frustration in the US about the Afghan war — America’s longest in history.

Ghani, whose government was sidelined from the February accord, initially voiced his opposition to freeing the Taliban inmates.

However, faced with increasing pressure from the US, Kabul began releasing 4,600 prisoners in a phased manner.

The intra-Afghan talks are also crucial for US President Donald Trump, who is standing for reelection in November and is keen to use the pull-out of forces and the start of negotiations as examples of his successful foreign policy. However, experts say the next stage will not be easy.

Analyst and former journalist Taj Mohammad told Arab News: “The talks will be a long, complicated process, with lots of ups and downs. It took 18 months for the Taliban and US to agree on two points; the withdrawal of all US troops and the Taliban pledging to cut ties with militant groups such as Al-Qaeda. Now, imagine, how long it will take for the completion of a very complicated process of talks between Afghans who will debate women’s rights, minorities rights, election, Islamic values, … the form of government and so on.”

For some ordinary Afghans on the streets, however, the planned talks have revived hopes for peace and security and “are more needed in Afghanistan than in any other country.”

“I am more optimistic now than in the past. All sides have realized they cannot win by force and may have decided to rise to the occasion and come together,” Fateh Shah, a 45-year-old civil servant from Kabul, said.

Others spoke of their dreams to “go back home.”

“I have been away from my village for 19 years, and as soon as peace comes, we will pack up and go there,” said Rasool Dad, a 50-year-old porter who lives as a war-displaced person in Kabul, talking of his desire to return to his birthplace in southern Helmand province.

However, 30-year-old banker Sharif Amiri wasn’t very optimistic about the future.

“Even if the talks turn out to be successful, that will not mean an end to the war or the restoration of security. There are spoilers in the region, at home and at an international level who will try to sabotage peace here,” he said, hinting at rivalries among countries in the region, including major powers such as Russia, China and the US, who have used Afghanistan as a direct and indirect battleground for years.