Troop Build-up, Alarming Orders Spread Panic in Kashmir; Curtailment of Amarnath Yatra Adds to Anxiety
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Srinagar: A mood of foreboding has developed in Kashmir over the last week. A flurry of developments have given rise to a common fear among locals, officials and political leaders alike: something is afoot. They just don’t know what.
Already concerned over the Centre’s decision to deploy 10,000 additional soldiers last week, they were driven to the edge on Thursday by reports of the government airlifting 25,000 more troops to the restive state.
What was more concerning was that no one in the state administration or in New Delhi was coming up with a clarification or explanation for the development.
Cocktail of Confusion
Fuelled by the confusion and misinformation, several theories took root among locals, with most speculating this was part of an effort to repeal Article 35A and Article 370, which has remained one of the major poll planks for the BJP and has the potential to intensify unrest in Valley.
Article 35A gives “special status” to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir and also defines the “permanent residents” of the state, while Article 370 limits the Parliament's power to make laws concerning the state.
Despite alarm bells, government efforts to quell the rumours were inadequate and, in fact, only fanned panic.
Officials said the troops were deployed to strengthen the counter-insurgency grid and prevent any law and order situation in the Kashmir Valley. But everyone was asking one question: Why will there be a law and order situation?
The importance of the earlier deployment order coming just a day after National Security Advisor Ajit Doval concluded his two-day Kashmir visit was also not lost on anyone.
Perhaps the most surprising order came on Friday afternoon as the government directed Amarnath pilgrims and tourists to leave the Valley immediately “keeping in view the latest intelligence inputs of terror threats”.
The direction came some time after the Army, police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) held a joint press conference in Srinagar, saying that additional troops were deployed to give some rest to the already stretched paramilitary.
Before the additional troops were sent, Jammu and Kashmir had already seen deployment of an additional 40,0000 paramilitary personnel due to the Amarnath Yatra.
After the Amarnath Yatra advisory was issued, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) also advised airlines to remain ready to operate additional flights from the Srinagar airport if the need arises.
Bracing For Trouble
The official responses have done little to calm the frayed nerves of the panicked populace, partly due to communiques themselves suggesting that security agencies were bracing for trouble in the Valley in the coming days.
A letter from the Railways Police Force’s assistant security commissioner for Budgam, Sudesh Nugyal, asked employees to stock ration for at least four months, store drinking water for seven days, and completely fill up their vehicle tanks to deal with the issue of law and order for a long period as there is a “forecast of deteriorating situation”.
It created a flutter in the region and was shared widely on social media, including by former chief minister Omar Abdullah who questioned the motive behind such a missive.
The officer was transferred and a clarification was issued that the communication was without any basis and the official had no authority to issue it.
The clarification didn’t help much as soon another order, this time by the Jammu and Kashmir Police asking its five Superintendents of Police in Srinagar to immediately submit details of mosques falling in their respective areas, alarmed people.
Rush outside a fuel station in Srinagar as panic-stricken Kashmiris stock up on essentials. (Photo: News18)
The growing anxiety compelled Governor Satya Pal Malik to come up with a statement. He said the situation was “normal” and the “orders [circulated on social media] in Kashmir were not valid”.
“Everything is fine and everything is normal. Rumours in Kashmir spread like wildfire and people shouldn’t pay any heed to it. A small incident happens in Lal Chowk, I get news at Governor’s House that a blast has occurred. Such is the rumour-mongering in Kashmir,” he said.
But in the absence of any trust between the locals and the administration, residents, fearing trouble, started stockpiling essentials.
A National Conference delegation, led by party president Farooq Abdullah, also met Prime Minter Narendra Modi on Thursday and urged him not to take any steps that might affect peace in the state.
On Thursday evening, news that the Centre was flying in 250 companies of paramilitary troops to Kashmir triggered uncertainty again. Moreover, the presence of CRPF at entry and exit points of Srinagar city was spiked. The security at several shrines, mosques, and courts was withdrawn.
Reacting to the additional troop deployment, former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti took to Twitter and termed it as a psychological operation by the government.
“First the avalanche of private orders about stocking up supplies that somehow made their way into public domain. And now news like this will create panic & distress. So far, GOI’s resorted to military might & psychological warfare like techniques vis a vis J&K. Neither will work,” said the Peoples Democratic Party chief in a tweet.
Amidst the prevailing uncertainty in the Valley, tensions flared up along the Line of Control as well as Indian and Pakistani armies exchanged heavy artillery firing. Some reports suggested that the nature of shelling was unusual.
Locals of Tangdhar said they had witnessed such an exchange after a long time. The sound of shelling reached residents in Kupwara town, over 70 km from Tanghdar sector. They are drawing parallels with the build-up to the Balakot strike conducted by the Indian Air Force post the Pulwama terror attack on February 14.
The situation has increased apprehension, and even some top officials in the administration are clueless. “Ketham gasse (something is going to happen),” a bureaucrat posted in Srinagar secretariat said.
Long queues were also seen outside fuel stations. “Everyone is saying that something big is going to happen and advising one another to pile up stocks,” said a Srinagar resident at a grocery shop in Lal Chowk. People had a war checklist in their hands. Baby food, medicines, water, salt, ration were some of the words mentioned in one such list.
Amid the panic, the administration of Srinagar district assured the people that it had enough stocks and asked people to avoid hoarding.
"In #Srinagar district we have sufficient stocks of all essentials including food, fuels and medicines. Roads are open, replenishment is routine. People are requested to avoid hoarding and panic shopping," Srinagar District Magistrate Shahid Choudhary said in a tweet.
In a late-night order, the Srinagar administration suspended all course work at the National Institute of Technology (NIT). "This is for the information of all the students of the institute that the class work for all courses stands suspended till further orders. The notice stands issued in accordance with the instruction received from the district administration Srinagar," said the order signed by the registrar of the institute.
To allay any confusion regarding the closure of schools in the state, Kashmir Divisional Commissioner Baseer Ahmad Khan said no such order has been issued and requested people to not pay heed to such rumours.