The Sopore Shadowhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/print/the-sopore-shadow/

The Sopore Shadow

This affluent town of apple orchards was the militants’ hub in Kashmir,home to Hizbul Mujahideen,Tehreek-e-Jihad-e-Islami and Jamat-e-Islami. While stone-pelters elsewhere in the Valley are off the streets,here militancy is making a quiet,disturbing comeback Muzamil Jaleel investigates why this has happened and how this could be the government’s biggest challenge next year.

The clock in the room had struck midnight. Superintendent of Police Altaf Khan had returned home 15 minutes ago from a dinner meeting with senior officers in neighbouring Baramulla town on December 5,2010. “It was a Sunday and I was out all day for meetings. I was exhausted and I went up straight to my bedroom,’’ he recalls. “I was reading in bed when I heard a thud’’. A big bang followed and Khan knew he was under attack. He hurriedly picked up his rifle that he always keeps next to his pillow.

“I crawled out to the corridor and saw dust falling everywhere. Then a rocket hit the house. I slowly opened the main entrance to the top floor of my house and took position,’’ he says.

Khan’s four personal guards and eight other policemen who form his escort,too took position. After an hour of fierce fight,the militants’ guns finally fell silent. “I was alive and it was a miracle,’’ says Khan.

A tin fence divides the compound of Khan’s rented residence with a crowded Sopore neighbourhood,Iqbal Nagar. The militants had taken position in a house under construction in Iqbal Nagar. Khan says investigations revealed that the militants had been waiting for his return that evening. “I am sure they had spent weeks to plan this attack. And they knew where I used to sleep. They only attacked that one window. I was lucky to have changed my bedroom a week ago and nobody knew it.”

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Once the militants watched Khan’s cavalcade return,they waited for the guards to retire to their rooms. The first thud that Khan heard in his bed was in fact a grenade fired from a UBGL (Under Barrel Grenade Launcher). “Then they fired two rockets from a shoulder held RPG (Rocket Projectile Gun),aiming at the window. Then they fired indiscriminately and the bullets made a sieve of my clothes hanging inside.’’

This was one of the biggest attacks in Kashmir in recent times in which militants had targeted a senior police officer’s official residence. Though militant activity returned to Sopore last year—spurring the government to carve out a special police district for the town—the intensity of this particular attack,its timing and the use of heavy weaponry was a clear sign that Sopore was back to being the hub of militancy it was in the nineties.

In fact,the police have a list of 63 top militants active in Sopore,among them foreign militants belonging to the Lashkar-e-Toiba,Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Apart from them,there are new recruits and local boys too: the police put their number at around 200 and growing. According to a recent report compiled by the police,23 boys are missing in Sopore town alone and police say they have all joined militant ranks.

The new wave of militancy and the re-deployment of thousands of army personnel,paramilitary and police forces in Sopore have once again turned the spotlight on the town.

Sopore is Kashmir Valley’s

apple town. Its apple merchants have brought much affluence to this north Kashmir town that’s part of Baramulla district,about 55 km away from Srinagar.

Sopore’s fruit mandi,which does trade in over a crore-and-a-half apple boxes annually,is the second largest in Asia. The town,sources in the government say,still contributes the largest share of taxes to the state’s coffers. Sopore’s prosperity is reflected in Nowpora, an upscale neighbourhood whose elegant houses and fleets of cars have earned it the label,‘Chotta London’.

But the apple town is known also for being a separatist stronghold with a substantial support base for the Jamat-e-Islami. Before the advent of militancy,Sopore was,in fact,represented for three terms by Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani in the state Assembly. One of the top-most pro-independent Kashmir leaders and founder of Mahaz-e-Azadi (Front for Freedom),Sofi Akbar,too came from Sopore.

It is Sopore’s hardline roots that have time and again affected its development. Its residents say successive governments in Srinagar have prevented the development of this affluent apple town because of its anti-establishment and separatist leanings.

As a result,development initiatives have simply fallen by the wayside. For instance,the Sopore bypass has been under construction for the past 22 years and is still nowhere near ready. A bridge on the Jhelum that was commissioned two-and-a-half decades ago too is incomplete. The foundation stone of Sopore’s 200-bed sub-district hospital was laid in 1984 and its Out Patient Department was finally inaugurated in 2008 but the rest of the hospital is still under construction.

The town also battles frequent power cuts and is fed unfiltered water that comes straight from a canal. The government has sanctioned a water filtration plant but that remains on paper. Sopore is also waiting for the girls’ college it was sanctioned five years ago after a private girls’ college run by the Anjuman-e-Moinul Islam,a religious and educational body,was gutted in 1993. In recent years,the government has set up 17 colleges across the Valley but it appears to have skipped Sopore.

Ironically,since 1996,the town has been represented by members of the ruling coalition,who have won only because of the consistent poll boycott by the major stakeholders in this town and its adjoining villages.

In the nineties,when militancy began in Kashmir,Sopore fast became its hub. It was in Sopore that one of the first major pro-Pakistan militant outfits,the Tehreek-e-Jihad-e-Islami (TJI) led by Abdul Majid Dar,set up base.

The strategic importance of Sopore—it links Baramulla,Kupwara and Bandipore—made it a favourite haunt of militant groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen,which found substantial support in the town and its adjoining cluster of villages.

In 1993,Afghan national and Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbadeen Hikmatyar’s bodyguard,Akbar Bhai,lived and operated in Sopore for over two years. Akbar Bhai was killed in a fierce gun battle with the Border Security Force (BSF) on August 7,1993. His killing encouraged the Army to enter the town and launch an operation to flush out militants. Finally on November,26,1993,the Army entered Sopore and launched one of the biggest-ever combing operations in the history of Kashmir’s counter-insurgency. And for the first time,tanks rolled out in the Valley. Sixteen people,most of them militants,were killed in the gunbattles that followed. Though thousands of troops swooped down on Sopore,they could not enter the congested Kraltang neighbourhood where militants,armed with heavy weaponry,had taken position on roof tops.

The Army,however,took over the town,shut it for a week and subsequently set up a network of bunkers to establish a permanent foothold. The Army left soon after the operation was called off and the BSF was once again deployed.

In 1994,security agencies in Kashmir set up Ikhwan,a counter-insurgent militia. Though Ikhwan was successful in other parts of the Valley,it could never enter Sopore. Ikhwan sent its five members who entered Krankshivan colony in Sopore to set up base,but all of them were killed during the first night itself.

Since the security agencies failed to establish their writ in Sopore,they began to employ an iron fist strategy and dispensed what they called “collective punishment’’. Between 1990 and 1995,Sopore was burnt down four times in retaliatory action by security forces. The BSF set Sopore’s Aarmpora neighbourhood on fire on September 19,1990,soon after militants attacked a BSF convoy. Eighty-three houses and 50 shops were gutted in the fire while three civilians were killed in the BSF firing.

Sopore,however,was completely destroyed on January 6,1993,when the BSF retaliated against the killing of one of its men by militants in the main market. Fifty-three civilians were killed when the BSF opened fire and sprinkled gunpowder on the market and its adjoining neighbourhoods. According to government estimates,300 shops and over 100 houses were razed to the ground. The government had ordered a CBI probe into the incident which is still pending.

The militant movement in Sopore gradually started waning and in 1995,when a local Hizbul commander Kuka LMG was killed in an encounter,the movement suffered a serious setback.

In the decade that followed,Sopore remained relatively calm. But the calm was short-lived. In the summer of 2008,the separatist upsurge that followed the agitation over transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board culminated in fresh political churning across Kashmir. By the time the Valley erupted in protests over the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian in the summer of 2009,Sopore had already shed its veil of calm.

In the last years,militant attacks have gone up considerably in Sopore. On January 15,2010,four militants attacked the Sopore police station in broad daylight. The encounter,which killed one policeman and a civilian and injured four policemen,was the seventh such attack in Sopore that fortnight.

It was one of the many signs that pointed to militancy’s return to Sopore. In January,the J&K Police had confirmed the presence of 25 top militants active in Sopore alone while putting the adjoining 14 villages of the Zaingeer belt that connects Sopore town to Bandipore,as the new militant hub in north Kashmir. That attack on the police station shook the entire security establishment and the government decided to carve out a new police district for Sopore. On January 20 last year,Altaf Khan took charge as the SP. Apart from the police,the counter-insurgency grid in Sopore is manned by two Rashtriya Rifle battalions,one territorial army battalion,detachments of para troops and two battalions of CRPF. An RR battalion and two CRPF battalions too have a presence here.

In recent months,security has been beefed up in Sopore and while the J&K Government is in the process of removing bunkers of security forces in Srinagar city,a new army camp has been set up in Pazalpora in the Zaingir belt neighbouring Sopore. This heavy militarisation,however,hasn’t deterred militants who have strengthened their bases inside Sopore town and Zaingir. In fact,after the stone pelting incidents that shut down the Valley for months subsided,the police have detected substantial local recruitment by militants in Sopore.

The police say 28 militants,most of them foreigners,were killed in operations since January 2010 while nine civilians were killed in police and security force firing. The police and the Army has killed three among the four top commanders based in Sopore.

On February 24,2010,in a major encounter in Sopore,an army captain and three paratroopers were killed when they tried to storm a house where militants were holed up.

On June 21,2010,Lashkar commander Zubair was killed when militants attacked a police party in Batpora in Sopore. The reaction from the militants was so fierce that for a few hours after the attack,Sopore looked like a battlefield.

Though the police and army have stepped up pressure on militants in Sopore,there are reports of militants entering the town almost every week. Security agencies have also failed to nab Abdullah Unny—one of Lashkar’s top-most commanders in Kashmir who operates from Sopore. Police say Unny has identified and trained new overground workers and made inroads into new areas. In the beginning of 2010,the Lashkar was back in the Sopore-Rafiabad belt in full strength besides being a driving force for Lashkar cadre elsewhere in the Valley. Unny,police say,has turned Sopore into the first stop for Lashkar militants who enter Kashmir.

With both the police and the militants keeping their ears close to the ground,a hide-and-seek game has begun in Sopore. “If you want to know what will be the temperature of militancy in Kashmir,check the rise of mercury in Sopore,’’ says a police officer. “The battle is already on in this town. Let’s see what happens,” he says.

‘Sopore is asking for things it should have got 25 years ago’ Bashaarat Masood

Sopore’s lack of development has upset many of its residents,including Mohammad Ashraf Ganaie,the National Conference legislator from Sopore.

“We are far behind (in development). Today we are asking for things that we should have got 25 years ago. This is because Sopore was not represented (in the Assembly) in a proper way. It was always represented by high-profile politicians,be they from Congress,National Conference or some other party. They were more concerned about their leadership than this town. That’s why this town was neglected,” he says.

The businessman-turned-legislator says the neglect is unjustified. “We run the fruit industry. We give the highest revenue to the state. Our wealth is distributed across the state. But we are being neglected.”

But Ganaie says it’s not just the government,people too have to take the blame for the situation. “In July,when some senior citizens met the Special Commissioner appointed by the government (to bring peace back in the town),their houses were attacked by the people,” he says. “I don’t say that all the people don’t cooperate but yes,some of them don’t.”

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However,Ganaie says he is positive that development will finally come to Sopore. “I have raised the issue of the bypass,hospital and mini-secretariat with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah during the recent board meeting. The government has already released Rs 31 crore for the development of the town. But because of the prevailing situation,we were able to spend only Rs 3 crore so far.”