September 1999 News


Between the ballot and the bullet

15 September 1999
The Hindu
By Shujaat Bukhari

KUPWARA: The threat from militants looms large over the border district of Kupwara, part of the Baramulla parliamentary constituency, which goes to the polls on September 18. Fresh infiltration from across the border has changed the face of militancy and counter - militancy here.

Once infamously called the "gateway to militancy", Kupwara witnessed impressive election-related meetings in 1996 and in 1998. But this time, electioneering has not only been low-key but to a large extent even "invisible".

Kupwara's efforts to shrug off the years of militancy and choose the path of peace (in 1996 and in 1998) have taken a beating this time. In recent weeks, the district has seen an unexpected flow of militants from across the Line of Control. This time, the modus operandi of the militants is different. The Lashkar-e-Toiba - which according to the State police chief, Mr. Gurbachan Jagat, has taken over the reins of militancy - has introduced "Fidayeen groups" (suicide squads) who straightaway storm security force camps.

Right from Sopore onwards, fear is writ large not only among the civilian population but the security forces as well. Road Opening Parties (ROPs) of the Army and the BSF panic when a civilian vehicle comes to an halt nearby or tries to overtake an Army vehicle.

The most affected areas along the Srinagar-Kupwara road have been Nutnusa, Nagri Malpora, upper Dragmulla and adjacent hamlets near the dense woods. Upwards Haihama, the Chowkibal belt on one side and the picturesque Lolab valley and Kalaroos on the other are today the haunts of militants. Security authorities admit that militants, particularly foreign mercenaries, have sneaked in big numbers. And they have succeeded in terrorising the people before elections.

Take the following case, for instance. Recently, a group of around 60 militants spotted in Aura-Haihama area, stopped a passenger bus asking for pro-Government militants associated with the RK group, headed by a former KLF commander, Rasheed Khan. They could identify only one person who was showered with a volley of bullets.

Similarly, in the Lolab valley the Lashkar cadres call the shots. When the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Mr. Mushtaq Ahmed Lone, went to campaign in Sogam - his home town - he had to take refuge in Kupwara's Dak Bungalow along with the local MLA, Mr. Mir Saifullah. Mr. Lone managed to visit Sogam only once. He was advised by the authorities against visiting the place again and the same was also conveyed to him by militants through "somebody".

Even as the authorities are tightlipped over the actual number of militants present in Kupwara, independent sources say that their number must be between 1,000 to 2,000. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 28 Infantry division at Kupwara, Maj. Gen. V. G. Patankar, admits that after Operation Vijay the infiltration from across the border increased, but "we have succeeded in controlling it".

There are reports that the Army has relocated its camps at various places, in view of increased threat perception from militants.

Accordingly, the electoral process here has received a major setback this time. Not only are the candidates inhibited from campaigning in a major setback this time. Not only are the candidates inhibited from campaigning in a major way, but also the workers who are not coming forward. Only a few weeks ago, a prominent National Conference activist was gunned down by the militants, which created panic among those who wanted to be associated with the elections.

Observers believe that the turnout on September 18 could be much lower than in the first phase (12 per cent) owing to increased threats from militants.

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