From J&K | Sound of the Guns

How ‘purana’ Kashmir keeps spoiling ‘naya’ Kashmir’s party

A FORCE Report

In Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, often referred to as the ‘Red Square,’ a clock tower has emerged as a symbol of peace and stability in the restive region of Jammu and Kashmir. Lal Chowk, a bustling business hub in Kashmir’s summer capital, derives its name from Moscow’s Red Square. Some local historians attribute its name to a group of communist reformers, who christened it Lal Chowk following Lenin’s rise to power in Moscow in 1917. Over the ensuing decades, Lal Chowk evolved into a symbol of left-leaning Kashmiri nationalism, closely associated with the political ideology practised by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah during the ascent of the Soviet Union.

BSF Jawan at Dal Lake Srinagar
BSF Jawan at Dal Lake Srinagar

In the 1980s, a clock tower was constructed in the Lal Chowk area. It eventually fell into disrepair and ceased to function for years. The old tower, now replaced by a new one, has become a symbol of new politics in the region. For the past four years raising the tricolour at the tower in celebration of the Narendra Modi government’s decision to revoke Article 370 of the Constitution has become routine.

The pedestrian space in Lal Chowk has been expanded. Tourists from various parts of the country regularly visit the clock tower, capturing memorable moments with it as it now glows with tricolour lighting. Government officials assert that peace has been restored in the Valley. J&K Lt Governor Manoj Sinha often says the government under the leadership of Modi does not believe in buying peace but in establishing it firmly. He says that they have indeed achieved this goal.

Sinha says 80 per cent of the population is content with the current arrangement under him and prefers continuity over change. Discussing the Prime Minister’s Vishwakarma Scheme in mid-September, he stated that a network of individuals profiting from conflict and elements of terror have been successfully dismantled. “Over the past three years, we have overcome numerous challenges to bring peace and prosperity to the lives of the common people,” he said.

The clock tower, the symbol of the government’s peace narrative and of ‘Naya Kashmir,’ is patrolled by Jammu and Kashmir Police vehicles manned by officers armed with heavy weaponry. Paramilitary CRPF gunship vehicles are a visible presence with CRPF personnel similarly equipped with heavy weapons. These things remind us that there’s still a lot of ‘Purana Kashmir’ on the streets even if the streets are redone with cobblestones and pedestrian-friendly walkways. Some CRPF jawans express enthusiasm at the sight of tourists in the vicinity and willingly accommodate their requests to take photographs with them. The government is holding several programmes here. The anti-militant protests and candlelight protests condemning militancy are also seen at the Lal Chowk. The programmes are allegedly either directly or indirectly sponsored by the government. Last year the army had taken credit for holding such a programme at Lal Chowk around the clock tower.

In one such protest this month a small group of people condemned the militant attacks in Kokernag. The encounter took place in Gadole hamlet, approximately 100 kms south of Srinagar. The village of Gadole is located at the foothills of the mountains that connect the Kashmir Valley with the Chenab Valley region of Doda-Kishtwar and Ramban in the Jammu region.

The joint operation by the army and police began in the early morning of September 13 following intelligence inputs. The militants seemingly anticipated the operation and opened fire on the forces, killing two army officers, Colonel Manpreet Singh and Major Ashish Dhonchak, and deputy superintendent of the Jammu and Kashmir Police Humayun Bhat.

The army rushed hundreds of troops along with Jammu and Kashmir police personnel and the CRPF to retrieve the bodies of the soldiers but they failed to do so as the helicopter came under a volley of fire from the militants. On the evening of September 13, the police, however, were successful in retrieving the body of the DSP. According to his family, Humayun had talked to his wife, asking her to take care of their two-month-old baby and herself. They say he was confident of making it but he did not.

The bodies of Col Singh and Maj Dhonchak were retrieved on September 14, two days after their killing. Col Singh was the commanding officer of 19 Rashtriya Rifles, which oversees operations in South Kashmir. He died on the spot during the encounter. The body of the missing soldier, sepoy Pardeep Singh, was recovered on the fifth day of the operations.

As the gunfight began, in contrast to pre-5 August 2019 encounters, the villagers of Dodkul, Gadole, Ahlan and Phirmullah remained inside their houses and did not come out. There was not a single incident of law and order problem or stone throwing giving credence to the government’s claim that it has ended stone-throwing protests after the abrogation of Article 370.

The locals at Kokernag refer to Pir Panjal where the intense firing and mortar shelling was underway as Gurnag Halpa mountain. They say the mountain has always remained a dense forest. A local medical shop at Dodkul village said most of the villagers were buying antacid medicines while firing was going on. “I feel it is a war going on in the jungle. I and my children have not slept in the past four days,” said a villager on the fourth day of the encounter. The villagers were reluctant to talk to the media. However, they were allowing media persons to pluck apples from the apple orchards in the highlands of the village.

77th Independence Day celebration
77th Independence Day celebration

On September 20, the seventh day of the operation, the Army declared it over. The Army said they had killed two militants along with the local militant Uzair Khan and another unidentified militant. Uzair had joined militancy a year ago and in the police listing he was not classified as an A-class militant. The police described him as a LeT commander.

As the militancy has moved towards the jungles engaging thousands of troops, including para commandos, the gunfight deep inside the dense forests shows new tactics of the militants. Police sources said the terrorists seemed trained in jungle warfare and made use of the mountainous terrain and forest cover for unconventional warfare. The terrorists seemed familiar with the terrain and used it to their advantage in their attacks. Earlier the militancy was confined to the villages, where the terrorists would take shelter in houses. However, during the Kokernag operation, troops fired hundreds of mortar shells and rockets used hi-tech equipment and dropped explosives through advanced drones.

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