The department of telecommunication's (DoT) fresh directive, which puts every customer seeking second mobile SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card in Jammu and Kashmir under police scrutiny, is likely to end decade long dirty mobile-phone tracking war in this militancy-ridden state.
Ever since mobile service was allowed in Kashmir in 2003, eight years after rest of the country, it became a major tool both for militants as well as for the counter-insurgency grid of security forces.
Lashkar-e-Toiba's operational commander Abdullah Unni and Jash-e-Muhammad's Qari Hamad earned sobriquet of being chameleons for frequently changing their mobile SIM cards. "Abdullah Unni must have used more than 30 SIM cards during his operation in north Kashmir's Sopore area. He would call at a particular mobile tower and switch to another SIM card to escape detection," said a senior counter-insurgency official on the condition of anonymity.
Unni, a foreigner, survived for more than six years in a state where a militant's life is not more than six months as per security forces records. Similarly, Hamad employed two dozen SIMs to give the police a slip. Both militants were killed in two separate encounters in 2011 after constantly being tracked on mobile phones.
To break in into militants ranks, the police used a counter trick. In 2010, the police succeeded in planting SIM cards into militant ranks through moles for easy detection. The messages, which many a times were floated by the police, pitted militant commanders against each other. The first victim of such constructed militant rivalry was a foreign militant of LeT! Numan, who is suspected to have been killed by a colleague in north Kashmir's Uri area in 2010 after discovering message from a police officer in his mobile phone.
Buoyed by the success of pushing SIM cards into militant ranks, the police would arrest or kill a militant at will. "Most militants had girl friends and would talk for hours together on known SIM cards, making it easy to zero in on them," said another police officer, part of operations in south Kashmir.
The police penetration through SIM cards can be gauged from the fact that police constable Mukhtar Ahmad Sheikh, a resident of Srinagar, succeeded in planting 22 SIM cards into the LeT ranks; the SIM cards were later found from slain militants involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attack by the National Investigating Agency (NIA).
The SIM card tracking war became ugly when Sheikh, along with two other constables, switched sides and started helping the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2012. The breakthrough in the 2012 militant-police nexus was made when the NIA tracked SIM cards of the three constables and found suspicious conversation with militant commander in south Kashmir.
Of late, according to police, militants are changing tactics too. Qari Yasir, operational commander of Jash-e-Muhammad, active in Lolab-Kupwara in north Kashmir, has procured dozens of SIM cards in advance but succeeds in remaining anonymous to the security forces' on-ground moles by using phone in forest areas and not populated locations.
The SIM card wars are now likely to be impacted on both sides with fresh DoT's directive for Jammu and Kashmir. On Tuesday, the DoT in New Delhi issued the letter to telecom operators asking them to refer to police the application forms of Jammu and Kashmir customers already having one active mobile connection.
The TSP (Telecom Service Providers) will not be able to provide second SIM in the state without police verification from February. In case the police fail to submit its reply within next 10 days, the Telecom operator can issue the second connection.
"It is a good exercise that will help us maintain a data of those using multiple SIMs and can easily be tracked in case of any suspicion," said the police officer.
But the police admit that planting SIM cards into militant ranks at district level too will be affected by the latest direction.