The file clips that television channels kept showing during Sunday night’s attack on armed forces camps in Baramulla did not begin to do justice to what was actually happening. Those who saw it at ground zero say that it was like Diwali.
The divisional headquarters is right across the river from the Rashtriya Rifles and Border Security Force camps that were attacked. Apparently, army men opened up with whatever they had, firing from all directions. Some of those who heard the gunfire from up close say they must have heard the sound of no less than 3,000 bullets, and perhaps a dozen much louder blasts — no doubt from mortar shells.
Firing began when the armed men were apparently spotted lurking in the dark on the river bank. Later, covering fire for the attackers also came from an adjacent house.
The army held back from trying to surround the attackers from behind during the two-hour encounter. One reason was to avoid collateral damage: residential houses have come up over the past few years almost right up to the perimeter of those camps, which are near the eastern end of Baramulla. The Old Town is down the river to the west. Over the past couple of decades, the city has spread in this direction and to new colonies south of the river such as Sangri.
The attackers apparently descended from the hills to the south of Baramulla Old Town. From that vantage, they could have either gone towards the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) camp at the stadium beside the highway from Baramulla to Handwara, or towards this RR camp at the eastern end of the city.
There has been speculation, probably unfounded, that the attackers crossed the river — possibly from the Khawaja Bagh locality, which is spread along the bank of the Jhelum a little upriver from the camps that were attacked.
The relatively upper crust southern portion of Khawaja Bagh, uphill from the national highway, contains huge mansions. Relatively more congested parts of Khawaja Bagh are spread along the river, below the highway. Some residents of the city speculate that militants might lurk in that area.
It is true that they could theoretically have crossed the river from there to the camps that were attacked. But that is a very unsettling thought. For, they could surely have attacked the Divisional Headquarters on the same side of the river even more easily. And the office of the Senior Superintendent of Police and the residence of the Deputy Commissioner are also a little further downriver along that bank of the Jhelum.
The reason Khawaja Bagh is in focus is that militants had attacked an army convoy on the national highway right at Khawaja Bagh exactly a month before the lethal attack on the Uri Brigade base. Some city residents are convinced that those militants had come out of some of the bungalows in Khawaja Bagh. They must have conducted recce operations from there over the previous few nights.
Army convoys used to move at night during those first few weeks of this year’s unrest in Kashmir, in order to steer clear of stone-pelting mobs. The army has been under strict instructions not to shoot in response.
On one occasion, a convoy commander (Major) ran up and down his long convoy to prevent his angry troops from firing back while they were being pelted further along that highway on the outskirts of Srinagar. On at least two occasions, convoys remained on the highway between Anantnag and Srinagar for several hours at night, facing angry demonstrations without firing back. Several CRPF convoys have reversed or turned away at high speed to avoid stone-pelters on arterial highways.
The August attack on the convoy at Baramulla had resulted in a 15-minute shoot-out on the highway in the dark. Several army personnel were casualties. The attackers got away, although a Quick Response Team jumped out of a vehicle just ahead of the vehicles that were directly under attack, and put up a brave fight.
The next day, the Corps Commander, Lt-Gen Satish Dua, ordered that convoys should move during the day and should shoot at the legs of any stone-pelters who tried to stop them.
As anger rises in the army’s ranks following the Uri attack, the brass are going to find it increasingly difficult to impose restraint.