Srinagar: Fear has returned to Jammu and Kashmir. Heightening of tensions around the country`s Republic Day on Jan 26 is nothing new in this border state. Yet the upsurge in guerrilla attacks mounted by Pakistan-based militant groups has caused apprehension among the locals of a return to the bad old days.
The fact that security forces engaged militants in seven gunfights in just a fortnight this month indicates that the levels of violence have already risen. College teacher Mehmood summed up the general feeling among the people when he said: "I don`t know the reasons for the upsurge in militant activities, but the fact is that I have asked my children to return home much before it is dark."
"My daughter wanted to buy things at the Sunday market and I had to tactfully persuade here not to go out. One never knows when and where the next attack would take place," school teacher Shabir Ahmad said, echoing the same sentiment.
The authorities say they are fully geared to meeting the challenges that lie ahead.
Defence Minister AK Antony first spoke of the possibility of further reducing Indian Army troops in Kashmir and then had to warn that 2010 "may prove to be a crucial year as forces inimical to stability and peace in J&K would make all-out efforts to neutralise the gains of 2008 and 2009, when the state witnessed considerable improvement in the security situation".
"The incidents of the first week of January in the Valley are indicative of the shape of things to come," the defence minister said, referring to the terrorist siege in Srinagar`s Lal Chowk area that lasted some 23 hours before the security forces gunned down the two fidayeen attackers.
Lieutenant General JS Jaswal, the general officer commanding the army`s Northern Command, echoed Antony when he said 2010 could witness more strikes by separatist guerrillas as infiltration from across the borders continued to be supported by Pakistan.
Kashmir`s police chief, Kuldeep Khoda, warned that militants could strike around Republic Day and said the security forces had been put on maximum alert across the state.
"We are ready to tackle every threat. We have accepted this as a challenge and we are fully geared up to deal with it", Khoda maintained.
He told a local media outlet here that in 2008, there had been 708 violent incidents while in 2009 these declined to 499. In 2008, 76 grenade attacks had been carried out by the militants while in 2009 the number fell to 56, he added.
The police chief, however, accepted that infiltration bids from across the border had increased in 2009 as compared to 2008. In 2009, 110 infiltration bids were made by the militants in comparison to 60 in 2008.
All this is of immense concern to civilians.
"The people are scared. They are scared of the fact that most firing exchanges between the militants and the security forces ultimately involve the lives and property of the civilians", said the editor of a local newspaper here who did not want to be named.
"We had some tourists in the Valley but after the Lal Chowk incident, almost all of them left," said Zahoor Ahmad, 31, a taxi driver.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, however, has a different take on the situation in the state.
In a statement issued in winter capital Jammu, he said that the media hype given to gun battles between the militants and the security forces was responsible for a fear psychosis being generated here, which would do immense damage to the tourist industry and thereby the economy of the state.
"The attack in Lal Chowk was not a fidayeen attack. It was an encounter and the media unnecessarily gave such hype to the incident," the chief minister said.
Be that as it may, this is of little comfort to the common man, who generally has had to bear the brunt of terrorist instigated violence in the last two decades of insurgency in the state.