Bullets whizzed from the front while stones and invectives flew from behind when soldiers battled 50 hours to flush out terrorists from the 15-acre campus of a government training institute in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pampore.
Tales of secessionist rebels regaining public support in Kashmir found credibility on Sunday and Monday as hundreds of residents in the saffron-rich Pampore region came out on the streets to defend the rebels.
People chanted slogans for Kashmir’s azadi or freedom and threw stones and brickbats at soldiers fighting terrorists firing from positions inside the Entrepreneurship Development Institute campus. The gunbattle ended on Monday after security forces gunned down three suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists. The country lost five brave soldiers and a civilian in the standoff.
All along, as the battle raged, people ignored orders to stay away from the besieged campus.
When the standoff ended, more men and women were on the streets shouting slogans in support of the slain rebels.
“We have witnessed extreme forms of violence from both sides in the Valley since 1989. We have seen how thousands of people would protest and carry the body of slain militants on their shoulders. But people actually attacking government forces during a gunfight is very unusual,” said former Reuters correspondent Sheikh Mushtaq, who has reported from Kashmir for more than 25 years.
The trend has emboldened terrorists. A CRPF officer echoed the predicament of the security forces: “Should we save our heads from stones or fire bullets at militants?”
The Pampore people’s reaction was reminiscent of similar scenes at Kakapora village last week when security forces engaged three Lashkar terrorist in a fierce gunfight. Residents allegedly entered the house and helped two terrorists escape. But two civilians and a rebel died, prompting a pan-Kashmir shutdown.
“How will one deal with common people wanting to help militants near an encounter site? If one acts against people, there is outrage across the Valley and if one lets them do what they are doing, we would be giving the militants the upper hand during an encounter,” a police officer said.
Since January 20, five such instances have been reported. Anti-India protests have spiked too.
“For the past decade, violence in Kashmir has come down drastically ... But there has been a spurt in public support for militants, particularly during a gunfight,” former BBC correspondent Altaf Hussain said.
Kashmir Valley was caught in the biggest pro-freedom demonstrations in the summers of 2008, 2009 and 2010 since militancy erupted in 1989. The government responded by arresting hundreds of youth, mostly charged with throwing stones at security forces.
“In the 1990s militants would run away to save their lives. Then a stage came when a militant was ready to kill or die for the cause. Now the problem is getting more complicated. The common people are openly putting their lives at stake and saving militants,” said political scientist Noor Mohammad Baba at the Central University of Kashmir.