The driver of the bus carrying Amarnath Yatra pilgrims that came under terror attack last night in Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir is getting praise for his exemplary courage and presence of mind. Salim Sheikh was at the steering wheel of the bus bearing the registration of Gujarat when it came under attack from terrorists. Seven pilgrims were killed in the attack while 19 others were injured. While Guajarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said he would recommend Salim’s name for bravery awards, the J&K government and Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) separately announced rewards totalling Rs 5 lakh.
The rewards have been announced for Salim for displaying exemplary alertness and courage, saving several lives as he continued to drive the bus in the midst of firing by terrorists. The state cabinet, which met under the chairpersonship of Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, sanctioned a reward of Rs 3 lakh in favour of Salim for exemplary alertness and courage during the incident, an official spokesperson said.
Governor N N Vohra, in his capacity as chairman of SASB, also announced a special reward of Rs 2 lakh to the driver for his alert response which saved lives of many pilgrims, the spokesman said.
The driver kept the vehicle moving even when he was under heavy fire from the front and the wind-screen had been shattered.
The state government also announced ex-gratia compensation of Rs 6 lakh each to the kin of those killed, Rs 2 lakh for those seriously injured and Rs 1 lakh for those with minor injuries, the spokesman added.
The cabinet directed the finance department to provide necessary additional funds for meeting the compensation/ex- gratia on most immediate basis for release to the next of kins of the deceased and to the injured, the spokesman said.
Sheikh, the driver of the bus belonging to Om Travels from south Gujarat's Valsad town which was carrying 51 pilgrims, showed grit and determination, as he kept driving the vehicle in pitch darkness last night unfazed by the hail of bullets fired at the bus.
The driver applied brakes to the bus only after reaching a military camp, some two km away from the site where they were ambushed, saving many pilgrims who were in the bus, said an injured male survivor, lying on a stretcher.
The bus bearing the registration number GJ09Z 9976 was attacked by terrorists around 8.20 pm near Khanabal in Kashmir's Anantnag district when it was on its way from Srinagar to Jammu, police said.
"God gave me strength to save their lives. At around 8 pm yesterday, the terrorists started firing. They kept on firing non-stop from the front," Sheikh said. "I decided to keep on driving, and ducked to avoid getting hit. I kept on driving until we reached a safe place," he told reporters after arriving at the airport here.
As Sheikh ducked to save himself, three bullets hit the bus owner, Harsh Desai, who was sitting by his side. Though Desai fell down, Sheikh, undeterred, kept on driving the vehicle.
The driver's courage also touched Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani, who said he will recommend Sheikh's name as well as the bus owner to the Centre for a bravery award.
"I salute Salim Sheikh and Harsh Desai as I have learnt that they showed exemplary courage by driving the bus for almost 2 km despite heavy firing by terrorists.
"I would like to thank them for the way they saved the lives of pilgrims by driving the bus without stopping amidst the firing. Had they stopped there, many more might have been killed," Rupani said.
(With PTI inputs)