Communication gap

Kashmiri separatists target mobile telephone towers, leading to all-round panic

Aasha Khosa | July 1, 2015


#kashmir   #kashmiri separatists   #kashmir mobile towers   #kashmir terrorism  

In the nineties when the postal service was the main means of communication for the Kashmir valley, extremists had triggered panic by disrupting it. Now mobile telephony, the modern mode of communication, is under threat.

Kashmir had witnessed many a bizarre phenomenon including the systematic burning of post offices by terrorists in the 90s. It had resulted in a near total collapse of the postal services and massive inconvenience to people across the valley. The one survivor was the Srinagar general post office (GPO). It functioned as it had been virtually converted into a fortress with sand bunkers manned by security men dotting its boundary.

But the militants’ strategy was clear – to break the link between Kashmir and the rest of India. They have been at it on and off.

A few years later, terrorists had managed to damage one key communication tower over Peer Panjal peaks and disrupted the telegraphic service and other communications for six long months.

Those days, Kashmiri people went to the bus stand or the airport to hand over their important mail envelopes to the Jammu-bound passengers requesting them to post it in Kashmir’s winter capital. Even journalists had to send important news reports to Jammu or Delhi through hand couriers.

This summer, the communication lines have been down again. There have been attacks on mobile towers in Kashmir.

It all began on May 23 when terrorists threw a hand grenade on a mobile tower in the northern Kashmir town of Sopore. In the next three days, two men linked to the multi-crore business of mobile telephony were killed in north Kashmir.

A hitherto unknown outfit, Lashkar-e-Islami, emerged on the scene to claim responsibility for the attacks.

The attacks then spread to south Kashmir and the resultant panic and fear spread across the entire Kashmir. Lakhs of people found themselves isolated because of the shutting down of the mobile services.

Feeding on the fear, the Laskhar posters appeared in many parts of the valley. These handwritten posters in Urdu clearly asked people associated with the business of mobile telephony to cooperate in shutting it down. The reason cited by the posters was that the mobile technology was being used by the security forces to track down “freedom fighters”. It claimed that many Kashmiri armed men had been killed recently because of the mobile tracking system.

One poster read, “Due to these cellphone companies, our commanders and militant brothers have been arrested or killed. We warn all the people associated with the telecom companies to stop working for them and tower site owners to dismantle the towers. We also warn shopkeepers who recharge cell phones to stop it. If not, they will be killed.”

The warning had a cascading effect. Landlords asked the mobile companies to remove the towers from their lands. Nearly, 1,068 mobile towers in ten districts became dysfunctional.

What followed was a chaos of the kind that gets the common man’s life off the track.

A friend living in Srinagar was extremely worried about his son and a physically challenged brother who had gone to Baramulla in north Kashmir to take up a short-term work assignment. “I got panicky when their phones did not ring,’’ he said. Somehow he managed to get in touch with them through a BSNL landline at the house and a physical search after three days.

The police had always maintained that the Lashkar-e-Islami was a front for the once largest and omnipotent terror group, Hizbul Mujahideen.
For some strange reason, the government of Mufti Mohamad Sayeed kept quiet for the first week. It only woke up after the wily separatist leadership had started using this development to their advantage.

Sayeed Ali Shah Geelani, the aging separatist leader who openly swears his loyalty to Pakistan, quickly termed the mobile tower attacks as a handiwork of the Indian counterterrorist agencies. Sensing a public backlash against the move, Geelani alleged that Lashkar was floated by the Indian establishment to create confusion among and defame the separatists.

Geelani, whose writ runs over the pro-Pakistan terror groups in Kashmir and who is also a favourite of the regime in Islamabad, had even managed the Islamabad-based United Jehad Council (UJC) to take an anti-India stance on the issue. UJC, a Pakistan-controlled conglomerate of the terrorist and political groups, claimed that Laskhar-e-Islami was not part of it, and hence the mobile tower attacks were the work of the Indian establishment.

It is no secret that the UCJ is a handmaiden of Pakistan’s ISI as its leaders are feted and looked after by the notorious spy agency. Its leaders move in luxury vehicles, some of them even have escort cars, and live in luxury. Thank to the ISI. Would, it, therefore, take any independent decision? The UJC, headed by the moulvi-turned-terrorist leader Sayed Salauddin, coordinates between the ISI and terrorists on the ground. All financial aid flowing to terrorist and political groups must pass through the scrutiny of the UJC in Islamabad.

The separatists also took advantage of defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement that “you have to neutralise terrorists through terrorists only.” His statement was construed as a nod for the creation of an anti-insurgency group in Kashmir supported covertly by the Indian army and security establishment.
Such an experiment in the past had indeed helped the forces deal a blow to the pro-Pakistan groups. The rise of Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen headed by Kukka Parrey was attributed to this phenomenon.

However, with insurgency under control and Islamabad under pressure from international community to cut down on its support to the terrorist groups, the army has no need to float another such outfit. However, it is a fact that security forces have managed to track down many terrorists in their dens by making use of mobile tracking technology.

The mobile towers episode has sent a reminder to people in Kashmir about the fragility of the peace that prevails in their lives now. They had to really struggle for getting on board the mobile revolution that has changed the face of India.

Security concerns, misuse of technology by militants were some of the concerns that had delayed the coming of mobile companies in the state till 2003. Today, there are an estimated 6 million mobile users in Kashmir and hundreds are employed in this industry.
How long  can  the  Kashmiri separatists continue to play these double games?

Khosa is an independent journalist and writes on Kashmir, gender and social
issues. jayakhosa@gmail.com
Twitter @AashaKhosa

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