NEW DELHI: It’s every soldier’s nightmare. What do you do when some of the very people you are sworn to protect gang up against you?
In a clear change of tactics, the same people who organised the stone-pelters of Srinagar have now mobilised or coerced locals to harass the military during anti-insurgency operations and encounters. Following the killing of Hizbul militant Burhan Wani by security forces in July last year, a trend of civilian mobs surrounding encounter sites and attacking the forces has been gaining momentum in Kashmir.
At least 25 militants managed to flee in 12 encounters, where 2,000-strong crowds pelted stones on security forces. Faced with this situation, the Army too is too is redrawing its tactics. Local commanders are now focusing on a more structured approach to deal with this trend in close co-ordination with the local police and paramilitary forces.
On Wednesday, Army chief General Bipin Rawat issued a stern warning that those hampering the operations will be dealt with ‘harshly’. He also warned that local boys who have picked up guns and others displaying Pakistani and ISIS flags will be treated as anti-national elements and the security forces will go after them.
Elaborating upon the worrying phenomenon of surging crowds, officials said most of these incidents took place in densely populated areas of South Kashmir, where crowds of 3,000 to 4,000 were rushing to encounter sites, making it difficult for the police and paramilitary contingents to control them without using disproportionate force.
Explaining the tactics adopted so far, sources said while the Army engages the terrorists, the police and para-military, including the CRPF, lay the outer cordon to control the crowds. But given the large number of people, the law enforcement agencies are hesitant to use tough measures, and at times allow some to breach the cordon.
“Once they come close to the site where the firefight is on, the Army is also cautious and willy-nilly the crowd helps the militants escape in the resultant confusion,” an officer said. The latest incident took place in Kulgam, where three militants escaped and four Army personnel, including a Major were, killed.
Only last year, the Army had changed its tactics, with small teams conducting anti-terror operations and getting out of the area quickly after informing the police. However, such operations are possible only in rural areas where the population is sparse. While in crowded areas like Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian, the Army now conducts joint operations with the police and paramilitary, sources said.
Anticipating a turbulent summer, officials said the Army will adopt steps like warning crowds through loud-hailers from coming too close to the encounter site and sensitising the public about these measures through interactions.