New Delhi: While militants have renewed their attacks on communication towers and their owners in Jammu and Kashmir in a bid to cripple mobile operations in the State, intelligence agencies believe the service is now too widespread to be impacted by such sporadic strikes. Moreover, as the crackdown on Hizbul Mujahideen in the wake of the attacks in early June had shown, the Government and people of Jammu and Kashmir want their communication system to work without any hindrance.
Talking to The Wire, a former Military Intelligence officer said this is not the first time that cell phone towers have been targeted anywhere in the country. “Even in Nagaland and Mizoram, the militants used to target these towers and take away the solar panels installed for powering them to make improvised explosive devices.”
On Friday, two youth entered the office of Aircel at Karan Nagar in Srinagar and asked the staff to leave. They then set off a grenade in the premises. A little later, a Vodafone showroom was similarly attacked about 500 metres away. And then in a third attack, a grenade was hurled at a BSNL tower in Shaheedgunj area of the city.
These attacks came after a nearly two month lull. Militants had in late-May and early-June attacked mobile towers in North Kashmir. These attacks were attributed to a hitherto little-known organisation, Lashkar-e-Islam, suspected to be the North Kashmir arm of Hizbul Mujahideen. The attacks had caught the State administration off-guard and completely disrupted operations in the northern areas of Sopore, Handwara and Pulwama for a few days.
Claiming that the security forces were using these towers to intercept their messages and kill their cadre, Lashkar-e-Islam had issued a diktat to the phone companies to shut down their operations.
It put out posters that read, “Due to these cellphone companies, our commanders and militant brothers have been arrested or killed”, and cautioned “all the people associated with the telecom companies to stop working for them and tower site owners to dismantle the towers.” The outfit also warned shopkeepers to stop recharging cell phones lest they be killed.
To show its seriousness of purpose, gunmen, suspected to be of the outfit, attacked mobile vendors in Sopore town and adjoining areas. The attacks began on May 25, after security forces seized a “repeater”, which had been installed by the militants for their own communication, from a tower in Sopore. The militants, suspecting that the tower owners have given them away, subsequently went on a rampage.
They killed a man and injured two others at a shop which sold BSNL SIM cards and recharge coupons. The following day they shot dead a man in Dooru village on the outskirts of Sopore for installing a cell phone tower on his property. A mobile tower was also damaged in a grenade attack in Handwara.
With the militants challenging the writ of the government, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed directed greater deployment of police for the protection of the cellular towers and those owning and operating them. He said as the functioning of government, banking, tourism, education and other vital sectors was now dependent on Internet connectivity, the State would not allow people to be pushed into the stone age. The Union Home Ministry also urged the State to come up with an action plan to deal with the latest threat.
That the militants had picked on the wrong target soon became clear when hardline Hurriyat Conference chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani also came out openly to decry the attacks on mobile towers and people associated with the trade. “Attacks on telecom towers and the people associated with the industry are condemnable. Telecommunication has become a lifeline and cannot be choked in anyway,” he said at his residence in Hyderpora.
Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Yasin Malik also aired his disapproval of the attacks when he urged Syed Salahuddin, chairman of United Jihad Council and chief of Hizbul Mujahedeen, to see if an arm of Hizb was indeed involved in the attacks, as was claimed by the State police.
What the militants forgot while attacking the mobile installations and people associated with the business was that their actions were contrary to what the people of the State want.
Though mobile operations began in India in July 1995, cellular mobile services were only approved nearly a decade later for Jammu and Kashmir and the North East, in February 2003. Ironically, while the people of these regions wanted the service, it were the Defence and Home Ministries that were opposed to the idea as they feared that the militant groups might use the network for their own communications.
But finally under pressure from the Ministry of Communications and the Standing Committee on Communications of Parliament, the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the decks for mobile services in these border States in 2003.
So, as an Army officer said, disruption to mobile services would not hamper their operations in Jammu and Kashmir in any way. “We have our own communications system. But we want the cellular services to operate for general peace and tranquility in the State.”
As for securing the towers, which number 2,903, the security agencies have their task cut out. But in the absence of public support, they believe the militants would not be able to do much harm.
Director General of Cellular Operators Association of India, Rajan S. Mathews, told The Wire that he had met with the Chief Minister in June to discuss the ways and means out of this crisis. “We came to know that after a ‘repeater’ installed by the militants to enhance the signal strength of their communication devices was removed from a tower, they suspected the involvement of tower owners in the act and began carrying out their attacks.”
Mr Mathews said with each tower costing Rs.15 lakh, there was much at stake in the State. “Those associated with the business want security. For the people to communicate, mobile services are very essential now. The satellite services are prohibitively expensive. So additional personnel are being deployed for securing the towers.”
Pointing out that the Central and State governments have taken necessary action, he hoped that the people’s voice against these attacks would ensure the continuation of mobile operations in the State.