Apple Town Sopore Sees Cold War Between Separatists, Militant Cadre

10 June 2015
The Tribune (Chandigarh)
Azhar Qadri

Srinagar: Fifty kilometres down the highway from Srinagar to the frontier Baramulla district, a bend at Sangrama leads to Sopore - Kashmir's famed 'apple town'. It is in Sopore - a town on the banks of the Jhelum, surrounded by apple orchards and with a lengthy history of support for separatism - that an unprecedented cold war has erupted between militant ranks and the separatist camp, which can forever alter the militant landscape in the region. Last month, unknown gunmen walked into showrooms of several telecom companies, lowered their shutters and interrogated employees about a missing communication device that was fitted to transmission towers. The incident initially seemed innocuous to the rest of the region, where business went on as usual, but a series of incidents that followed - bombing of transmission towers and killing of individuals linked to telecom companies, most of them taking place in Sopore - caused a massive shutdown of mobile communication services. The shutdown, originating in Sopore and quickly spreading to the entire Kashmir valley, also exposed a revolt within Kashmir's oldest militant group and a simmering cold war in the separatist camp as the rebel militant group Lashkar-e-Islam and hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani - both having ties with Sopore - were engaged in a bitter war of words and accusations. Militant rebel group: Geelani lashed out at Lashkar-e-Islam and termed its attacks in Sopore and elsewhere as 'terrorist acts' while Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin accused it of being an 'India-sponsored group'. The turf war between the old guard of separatists and the rebel group continued as Lashkar-e-Islam asked Geelani to verify the role of his party members in the killing of militants, following which a worker of Geelani's party was killed by unknown gunmen in Sopore town. The loose sequence of interlinked events that began in Sopore over the past one month has again turned the spotlight on the town, where insurgency has a history of reviving itself after every hiatus. Police sources believe the militant rebel group, Lashkar-e-Islam, is headed by veteran militant commander Qayoom Najar of Sopore and its operatives have bases in the town and in the adjoining villages. Spurt in militancy: The state government had to declare Sopore an independent police district in January 2010, when the town witnessed a sudden increase in militant activity. In the next 18 months, nearly 40 militants, including wanted commanders, were killed by security forces in the town. Sopore has remained a geographically strategic location for militants from where they access the Line of Control. Weapons and intruders sneak in from across the LoC and link up with the rest of the region, including Srinagar city, which is at a distance of 50 km. The town has an overtly militant-sympathetic population which provides a hospitable environment for insurgents to operate and hide. Most police officials, who have worked in Sopore, agree that the town is hostile to security forces with incidents of protests, including stone-throwing, against police and paramilitary personnel occurring with a frequency that is not seen elsewhere in north Kashmir. Long history of separatism: Sopore has had a long history of separatism. Its most prominent separatists include Sofi Mohammad Akbar, who had rebelled against National Conference founder Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah when the latter agreed for an accord in 1974 with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a year later dissolved Mahaz-e-Raishumari (Plebiscite Front). Akbar rejected the accord and founded Mahaz-e-Azadi (Freedom Front). Other faces of separatism that have emerged from Sopore include two former chairmen of separatist amalgam All Parties Hurriyat Conference Syed Ali Geelani, who now heads his own faction, and Abdul Gani Bhat. Sopore was also home to Manzoor Ahmad, alias Usman, the last Kashmiri fidayeen. Usman died in a firefight at a Srinagar hotel in January 2010, when top commanders of most militant outfits, including Noman of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Abdullah Unni of Lashkar-e-Toiba, operated from Sopore town and its vicinity. * Sopore, 50 km from Srinagar city, has remained a geographically strategic location for militants from where they access the Line of Control. * The town has an overtly militant-sympathetic population which provides a hospitable environment for insurgents to operate and hide. * state govt had to declare Sopore an independent police district in January 2010, when the town saw a sudden increase in militant activity. * Shutdown of telecom services exposed a revolt within Hizbul Mujahideen and a cold war between militant ranks and the separatists.