India Today - - UPFRONT - —Asit Jolly

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

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