In what could cripple communication services in Srinagar, people who had provided land to the BSNL to put up cell phone towers in the state capital took a decision to shut them down Monday night.
This came after militants attacked a cell phone tower in Srinagar’s Habbakadal area Monday, injuring a civilian and forcing recharge vendors and cell phone operators to shut shop.
The attack is the latest in a series by the hitherto unknown outfit, the Lashkar-e-Islam, which recently issued a warning to mobile phone operators to close down operations in Kashmir.
Following the attack, in which a grenade was lobbed towards a cell phone tower, people on whose lands towers have been erected met the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) general manager in Srinagar and told him they would shut the towers located on their premises. “He (the GM) said, it is your discretion. He said that if we feel it is necessary for our safety, we are free to close it,” one person from the delegation, who did not wish to be named, said.
Recharge vendors in the area also shut down their shops and removed all signs from outside. “I have closed my recharge outlet,” said Rayees Ahmad from Hazratbal. “I earn less than Rs 100 from this every day; why should I get myself killed?”
Cell phone companies have already shut down operations in north Kashmir, where only BSNL services remain partially available. Last week, unidentified gunmen attacked a BSNL franchise shop in New Colony in Sopore, killing an employee and injuring two others. They also killed a 62-year-old man who had erected a mobile tower at his house in Dooru Sopore.
Police claimed the Lashkar-e-Islam is a front of the Hizbul Mujahideen, though the Hizb has so far denied it, saying it is the “handiwork of Indian agencies”.
Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who condemned the attacks, has asked Syed Salahuddin, chief of the United Jihad Council — an umbrella group of militants — to find out “what this Lashkar-e-Islam is”.
“One possibility is that militants have managed their own communication system and now want to hit our system,” said a senior police officer. “Earlier, even they were dependent on our system for communication.”
Security sources suggested that “a small group of militants that have branched out to operate alone” may be “responsible for this act”, which has “far-reaching security implications”. An official said that “the fear psychosis generated by the series of attacks on the mobile phone infrastructure will have serious impact on the overall situation, especially at a time when tourist season as well as Amarnath yatra is about the begin”.
Cellular communication was introduced in Kashmir in 2003, following years of opposition by the Army, which saw the service as a security risk. However, once cell phones were introduced, it became a handy tool for security agencies in counter-insurgency operations. This is the first time that militants have attacked cell phone operations in this manner.