Army, police, CRPF storm Srinagar's Lal Chowk to 'cordon and search' in joint operation

As a small cavalcade of heavy-duty bulletproof vehicles with red flags abruptly halted in Lal Chowk in the heart of Srinagar city on Saturday morning, pedestrians and shopkeepers were taken aback by the sight of forces taking over the marketplace carrying rocket propelled grenade launchers, as if an encounter was about to break.

Haji Inayat, who owns a footwear shop, does not remember the last time when the army, police and CRPF came together to carry out cordon and search operations in Lal Chowk. When he saw troops moving from one corner to another in this historic place, he knew something was wrong. "I was frightened when I saw them running. They looked fierce, emotionless, as if militants were around the corner and an encounter was about to break out," Inayat told Firstpost, outside his shop in Lal Chowk.

A deserted Lal Chowk. Sameer Yasir/Firstpost

A deserted Lal Chowk. Sameer Yasir/Firstpost

Pedestrians were frisked and vehicles were randomly checked, not just in Lal Chowk but also in other parts of the city.

According to sources, the Jammu and Kashmir police has been tracking militant footprints in the city more frequently than earlier. Hizbul commander Sabzar Bhat was also tracked by the agencies from Srinagar and later killed. But what surprised many was the presence of such a large number of troops in the heart of the state's summer capital.

Residents and shopkeepers have all said that such an operation was taking place after a long time. Such operations were hitherto confined to north and south Kashmir, with the latter especially emerging as a militant stronghold.

"I don't remember the last time there was such a huge deployment of troops here, although a CRPF vehicle is always present near the clock tower. It reminds one of the old days when such operations were a common occurrence," Mir Imran Ali, another shopkeeper, told Firstpost.

Witnesses and army officials said the search operation continued for about an hour, during which security personnel searched houses and commercial buildings in the area, following a tip-off about the presence of militants there. "It was as if they were going to tell us — now shut your shops, gather in the main square, and get ready for an identification parade, as used to happen in the early 90s. The situation is no different today," said Shakeel Ahmad, who owns a hosiery shop in Lal Chowk.

Lal Chowk, named so by Leftist Sikh intellectual BPL Bedi after Moscow's famous Red Square, is the commercial hub of Srinagar city, and is constantly thronged by thousands of people from all parts of the Valley. And although paramilitary soldiers man different entry and exit points to the market and are omnipotent,

a name given to it by a leftist Sikh intellectual, BPL Bedi, after the Red Square of Moscow, is the commercial hub of the Srinagar city thronged by thousands of people from all parts of the valley. Although omnipotent paramilitary soldiers man different entry and exit points to the market, cordon and search operations were nearly forgotten.

However, Saturday's operation didn't yield any results and the forces had to leave without tasting success. It was still an ugly reminder to the people of the violence that has rocked the Valley since 9 April, leaving it on the edge.

Lal Chowk is not immune to such ugly manifestations of violence. On 1 April, the city centre descended into chaos following rumours that suspected militants had taken position inside a hotel here. As security was beefed up and forces took positions, the city stood on the edge.

Shopkeepers downed their shutters and shoppers ran for cover after the rumours gained currency and panic gripped the area. However, it later turned out that a “mentally-challenged” person created a scene inside a hotel which triggered the rumours.

CRPF spokesman Rajesh Yadav said they had information on Saturday that militants were present in Lal Chowk and around the Bund area. The operation was called off after no contact was established with the militants but the situation remained tense in the area for a long time.

"There was information about the presence of militants in the area, which is why we had launched 'cordon and search'," Yadav said. He said there could be more cordon and search operations in coming days.

On the ground, the usually crowded marketplace wore an eerie look. A shopkeeper, after noticing a large presence of troops, shouted towards policemen near the Yatri Niwas in Lal Chowk, "Have you come to kill Zakir Musa," referring to the Hizbul commander from south Kashmir.

Although the forces had to beat a hasty retreat, the scare and silence created by their sudden appearance prevailed, symbolising the political uncertainty and violence that has choked life in the Valley. "Memories of encounters breaking out in Lal Chowk had slowly faded away from my memory but it seems those days are making a comeback," Ahmed, the hosiery trader said.

Updated Date: Jun 11, 2017 16:50 PM

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