Burhan-like Outreach, Family Links & Easy Location: Why Pulwama Remains Militants' Heaven Since 2000
The officers part of counter-militancy operations in Kashmir believe that Pulwama district has become a sort headquarter of the current militancy.
Security forces conduct search operations in J&K's Pulwama. (PTI/file photo)
When the indistinct radio first started filling in the police control room of Srinagar on the chilly afternoon of February 14, it appeared to be a usual attack on the paramilitary convoy. The ready patrolling party of the Special Operations Group (SOG) rushed their Rakshak—an armoured car—and jumped near the scene. This reinforcement party was the first to sense the gravity of the attack.
While running towards the bus, which was still burning, they were actually passing over human flesh. Small parts of human remains were scattered all over the highway tarmac.
The young recruits in the counter-insurgency wing, who are trained to kill militants, were shocked. They usually work on the intelligence inputs, besiege militants—usually in a residential house—and raze the structure using explosive devices. They are even experienced in handling the stone-pelting mobs. But this was new for them.
“It appeared to me as if the explosive, which is used to destroy a structure during an encounter, has been put under the bus,” said a cop who was part of reinforcement party on February 14 the CRPF convoy en-route Srinagar was attacked. “I have seen militant attacks but that was something I couldn’t comprehended for a long time.”
A car-laden explosive was blown close to CRPF bus by a suicide-bomber near Lethpora on Jammu-Srinagar Highway in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The body parts had to be collected and there was hardly a body—among the 40 CRPF personnel who were killed in the attack—which was intact. It was the deadliest strike on the forces in Kashmir valley and came to be known as Pulwama attack.
The attack got Pulwama into the limelight. A war-like situation erupted between India and Pakistan. The countries even locked their jets into dogfights. The attack is certainly the deadliest strike that happened in Pulwama, but apart from that, the area continues to remain challenging for the forces.
Part of the restive south Kashmir—which consists of four districts—Pulwama is the most precarious for the forces.
This time, as per the police and army sources, around 130 militants are active in the four districts of south Kashmir. Among them, 44, the highest number, is active in the Pulwama district.
For the last five years, the most number of attacks on the forces have also taken place in the same district. The highest number of grenade and IED attacks have taken place in Pulwama. From 2015 to this year, as per the government data, out of the 19 IED attacks in the Kashmir valley, 7 have taken place in Pulwama. Similarly, in these years 90 grenade attacks, government data states, have taken place in Pulwama district, which is highest of all other districts. In all other districts of the J&K, 157 grenade attacks have taken place in these years. By this data, 36 per cent of the total attacks in the last five years have taken place in Pulwama alone.
In fact, the district topped the number of civilians killed last year.
But why Pulwama?
After the February 14 attack, former police officers who had served the area at the time when militancy erupted in Kashmir, recalled how they tried to operate in the district but seemingly didn’t succeed completely.
The back of militancy in Kashmir was broken by the 2000 but the Pulwama district was still emerging as a challenge. In the autumn of 2000, the government created another police district within Pulwama. It was called Awantipora, named after a small town on the old Jammu-Srinagar Highway. In the south Kashmir, only Pulwama has two police districts.
“There was a strong militant network in Pulwama and it became an operational necessity to bifurcate the district into two police districts,” said a police official.
The bifurcation was mainly made by the highway, which passes through the district. Mostly, the area on the western side of the highway was put under Pulwama police district and the eastern sides in the Awantipora police district.
The militancy was mostly controlled but after the Burhan Wani became prominent, the district again came into limelight and the militancy later spread to other parts of south Kashmir.
Wani was from the Tral area, which falls under Awantipora. He is attributed for starting a ‘new wave’ of militancy in Kashmir and making it popular. He shun the anonymity and presented himself before the public by using the internet extensively. The social media became a new tool for the militants of his time.
Wani did start a new age of militancy in Kashmir, but police officers who are expert in counter-insurgency say, it was the old network that was intact in Pulwama.
“In Pulwama district (including Awantipora) the network which was being used by militants in 1990s was not completely broken,” said a police officer, citing, “If you see Burhan’s case. There was always someone among his relatives who were active militants since 1990s.”
The police officer says that before Wani became a militant in 2010, his cousins were already active in the ranks from a few years. There connects the thread. “In the district, the Tral area was still active in the militancy activities,” said a police official, who considers that it was this network which helped the militancy grow in south Kashmir.
But other than that it is the location of the district which makes it more complicated. It is in the centre, a transit place.
Pulwama district connects to Srinagar and Budgam districts in north and in the south it connects to Anantnag and in the south-west, it borders Shopian.
“Pulwama is actually connected to the entire south Kashmir and parts of central Kashmir, which gives it a strategic location,” said a top police officer who doesn’t want to be named, adding, “And the important stretch of the highway passes through it.”
The officers part of counter-militancy operations believe that Pulwama district has become a sort headquarter of the current militancy.
“If any militant movement has to happen from the north side to the south side of the Valley, it will pass through Pulwama. Even when foreign militants enter south Kashmir they have to go through Pulwama by default,” the police officer told News18.
The militants, police officers say, find Pulwama as the best location.
“It has many accesses. There are a lot of apple orchards which help them hide and whenever they want to come out and attack it is easy for them as compared to other places,” the officer believes.
Over the past few years, south Kashmir has emerged as a militant hotbed and most of these militants are local.
When you have local militants, it involves other local people who work as their over ground workers and it becomes really difficult to break the entire network,” said a police official presently posted in the south Kashmir.
Also, the presence of militants in Pulwama is more worrying compared to other places.
“If a militant is active in forest areas or in the stays in the rural area, he can cause less damage than the militant who is near the strategic locations,” said a police official. “In the Pulwama district, the militants can target some important military and paramilitary bases. They remain a continuous threat on the highway.”
Behind the seething Pulwama, some officials also believe that the area is easily accessible for Pakistani militants who actually supply the weapons and explosives.
Before the February 14 attack, in January 2018, a Jaish suicide militant had stormed a CRPF installation in Lethpora and killed five CRPF personnel.
For militants, Pulwama is an unsurpassed place to carry out attacks and sustain, says a police official. “But we are also devising multiple strategies to make it a militancy-free zone,” he said, adding “it is going to be a herculean task.”
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