J&K: ARMY UPS THE ANTE
Well before the sun crept over the snow-covered heights surrounding the Kashmir Valley on May 4, close to 4,000 soldiers—the operational strength of more than four battalions—swarmed into some 20 villages of Shopian district. Residents were told to assemble at the centre of each settlement while armed troopers wearing flak jackets carried out house-to-house searches. The entire sector was cordoned off. “It is like there’s a war on,” said a resident of Darazpora, one of the villages being rummaged in the dawn-to-dusk operation. Even as they withdrew, groups of soldiers conducted reverse sweeps—random, surprise checks of already searched premises.
The tense, 12-hour operation in Shopian signals a meditated shift in the army’s approach in the Valley. Army officers say it’s a key part of a new strategy to regain control of the hinterland. This, after months of stone-pelting protests and the recent spurt of audacious militant attacks—including the killing of Lt Ummer Fayaz, a 22-year-old army officer, who was abducted from his cousin’s wedding in Shopian’s Batpora Matribug village on May 10.
Officers say that largescale ‘area search operations’ may be the only tactical alternative available to army units in Shopian, Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama—the four southern Valley districts most affected by militancy.
“Hard intelligence-based small team ops,” says an officer, “are no longer feasible both because ground-level intelligence has dried up and civilians are coming out of their homes to protect militants.”
The Shopian operation was a much amplified version of the single-village cordon and search carried out at the peak of militancy in the 1990s. Officers who served in the Valley then say CASO was “instrumental” in hunting down terrorists and ensuring they remained in the forests. “CASO also helped gather intelligence from residents,” says an officer. Army officers refer to this combing of dozens of villages at a time as “population control measures”. As much as to discourage militants from setting up hideouts in the villages, it is designed to deter stone-pelting civilians. It seems to be working. Of the 20 Shopian villages searched on May 4, residents offered resistance in just two locations. “There were minor clashes, but the sheer numbers of men in uniform must have been overwhelming. The villagers backed off,” a J&K Police officer said.
CORDON & SEARCH Army op in Shopian