Out of charge: In North Kashmir, terrorists wage a mysterious war against telecom operators

Sopore: On Tuesday evening, unknown gunmen barged into the house of Ghulam Hassan Dar, in Duru village of Sopore, and killed him. Dar's only fault was that he had rented out a patch of land to a telecom company for setting up a mobile tower. The company gave him yearly rent and also employed another man for the tower's maintenance.

This was not the first such incident in Sopore. Early on Monday morning, three unknown gunmen drove in a number-less car to Sopore's Shah Fasil Market, pulled over outside a Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) franchise office and fired, injuring three people.

While the gunman managed to flee from the scene in broad daylight, one of the injured, Mohammad Rafiq Dar, 24, sole breadwinner of a family of eight, died on way to a hospital in capital Srinagar.

 Out of charge: In North Kashmir, terrorists wage a mysterious war against telecom operators

Representational image. Reuters

Another among the injured is fighting for his life at a hospital.

Few days before the Monday's attack on the BSNL franchisee, suspected militants lobbed a grenade at a mobile tower. No one was injured and the police failed to get any clue about the attackers.

The audacious attacks have followed after a series of threats by 'Lashkari Islam,' a little known militant organisation, against the cellular companies operating in the restive Sopore town, some 50 kilometres from Srinagar.

The issue has not only been made mysterious by the inability of the police to trace those who have been issuing threats to mobile companies or the grenade hurler or the murderer of Rafiq and Dar, it has also spread fear and panic which has resulted in shutting of all the cellular companies in north Kashmir.

Although the J&K police has blamed Lashkar-e-Islam for the attacks, the organisation is not known to have any presence in Kashmir. On Tuesday, Pakistan-based Hizbul Mujahideen blamed the "Indian forces" for carrying out the attacks.

"These attacks by Indian forces are meant to defame the freedom struggle of people of Kashmir. Our sympathies are with the family of Rafiq and two others who were injured in the attack," a spokesperson of United Jihad Council said in a statement.

The posters of 'Lashkari Islam' have been appearing in the town from the last two months, threatening the people associated with telecom companies to stop working or be ready to face consequences.

"Because of these cellphones companies, our commanders and militant brothers have been arrested or killed. We warn all the people associated with the telecom companies to stop working for them and land owners who have provided land for the towers must dismantle these towers. We also warn shopkeepers, who recharge cell phones, to stop the work in seven days and wind up all the operations. If not, they will be killed," one of the posters read.

Two days after these posters appeared, people in old town of Baramulla, some 15 kilometres from Sopore, also saw these posters pasted outside their doors. Seeing one such poster outside his home, one of the major distributors of a private cellular company in the town, removed the signboard of the telecom company on his shop. Later, he received resignations letters from employees.

"We have shut the entire operation. I can't put lives of nearly four hundred people at risk. So I even removed the board of the company," a distributor of Airtel in Baramulla told FirstPost, requesting anonymity.

More than 2000 people are directly or indirectly associated with six major cellular companies operating in north Kashmir.

These days, it is almost impossible to recharge mobiles phones in Bararmulla or Sopore town and their peripheries. All the cellular companies have stopped recharging pre-paid phones which are used by the majority of people in Kashmir, leaving more than 60,000 subscribers in a lurch.

"I travelled nearly 55 km to Srinagar to recharge my prepaid phone. Imagine I had to spend Rs 1500 for a recharge of Rs 500, because my work depends on phone," Tanveer Ahmad, a medical representative with a pharmaceutical company, said.

Early this month, two unknown gunmen entered into the office of an Airtel distributor's showroom in Sopore and snatched cellphones of every one present inside. The gunmen, according to eyewitnesses, demanded a device which they claimed had been installed by them on a nearby tower in Badami Bagh.

When the staff members told the gunman that they had no knowledge about the device, the militants thrashed all of them, but returned their phones before leaving the showroom. All this happened in broad daylight in Sopore, where security agencies have much more presence than any other town of Kashmir.

Police say the same group of militants later went to Vodafone office and later to Aircel where they sought information about the missing device, "They snatched a laptop and I-card of an employee, beat the manger of a showroom. They threatened the employees that if the device was not returned, all of them will have to face the consequences," a senior J&K police official said.

Following the threats, all the six major cellular companies operating in Kashmir shut their shops in Sopore. Surprisingly, none of the cellular companies registered any complaint against the unidentified gunmen whom they described as 'militants'. But the cops nevertheless took cognisance of the matter and started investigations.

"The militants have also lobbed a grenade on a tower recently. Since the first incident, all the cellular companies have shut their shops. We are investigating the matter," Superintendent of Police, Sopore, Abdul Qayoom told FirstPost, refusing to share any details regarding the identity of the suspects and the use of the device installed by militants on the towers.

Top sources in J&K Police told FirstPost that the device is an Internet booster, an expensive gadget, used by militants to improve the communication system which is difficult for security agencies to detect. "Militants hardly use radios or cell phones these days. Communication is happening on Voice Over Internet Protocol. That needs faster speed and they may have installed these devices to raise the internet speed," an intelligence officer said

But the officer believes that the reason behind continuous harassment and attacks by 'Lashkar Islam,' which has never been heard of in Kashmir, is a sign of 'frustration'. Sopore is relatively peaceful and militancy-related incidents are at an all-time low.

"Do you think that tomorrow if a company says their equipment has been found, they will come and collect it? No! These attacks and threats are meant to send out a signal that 'We are here'. It is out of frustration," the officer in Srinagar said.

However, the cost of the peace is being paid by the blood of ordinary people who want to improve the quality of their lives. The failure of the police to nab the attackers in these places, where they have the best intelligence networks, only deepens the mystery.

Updated Date: May 27, 2015 08:36:20 IST