As evening fell on southern Kashmir on Monday, a tour bus packed with Hindu pilgrims came under a hail of heavy gunfire. In the course of the violence, seven of those pilgrims were killed and at least 19 more were injured.
The victims had been on a pilgrimage through the Himalayan valley, a long-disputed region on the border between India and Pakistan, returning after paying their respects at a Hindu shrine in Amarnath cave.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweeted statement that he was “pained beyond words on the dastardly attack” on the pilgrims, who hailed from his home state of Gujarat.
“The attack deserves strongest condemnation from everyone,” Modi said. “My thoughts are with all those who lost their loved ones in the attack in [the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir]. My prayers with the injured. India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks & the evil designs of hate.”
As NPR’s Julie McCarthy notes, there have been competing accounts of the motives behind the attack: “One version of events says the bus full of more than 50 pilgrims got caught in the crossfire,” she reports for NPR’s Newscast unit. “Another account has militants opening fire on the bus.”
She notes that generally security forces protect the pilgrims, but local police say the bus had not been part of an authorized tour and thus had no protection.
“I saw five to six gunmen right in front of our bus,” the owner of the bus, Harsh Desai, told the BBC. “They were firing indiscriminately and throwing stones at our bus. I told the driver not to stop and just keep driving.”
Indeed the actions of the driver, Salim Sheikh, have come in for significant praise in the wake of the attack.
“They first fired from the front with the intention to eliminate the driver. I ducked sideways to escape the bullets and drove ahead,” he told The Indian Express. “I do not know how I got the strength to go on at that time. Maybe Allah helped me and gave me strength.”
Vijay Rupani, chief minister of Gujarat, announced that he plans to “recommend the name of driver of the ill-fated bus, who saved lives of other passengers,” for a bravery award.
Still, Julie explains that many in the region fear the attack could inflame tensions over the region, which has often been riven by political and religious discord.
“Militants fighting for self-rule in Muslim-dominated Kashmir have stepped up their attacks, increasingly backed by the local population.
“But no one is applauding this latest attack — the worst on Hindu pilgrims in years. Muslim Kashmiris usually welcome the Hindu pilgrims who cross miles of frozen ground to reach a sacred giant column of ice — a stalagmite — that symbolizes the powers of the Hindu God, Lord Shiva.”
Yet the violence has done little to slow the pilgrimage, which yearly swells with tens of thousands of people. The procession continued Tuesday.