Kashmir’s Handwara town, the epicenter of fresh unrest in the Valley, on Tuesday saw heavy machines dismantling four concrete army bunkers at the town square after more than two decades, putting a spotlight on army’s presence at the heart of Valley’s district headquarters despite the ebb in militant violence.
As the curfew was lifted on the eighth day in Handwara, after assurances to remove army bunkers and act against those behind civilian killings, locals unfurled a huge banner naming the town square as ‘Shaheed Nayeem Chowk’. Nayeem Qadir Bhat, known cricketer, was among five civilians who died in security forces firing in Kupwara district since Tuesday last. Protests were fueled by allegations of molestation bid by a soldier on a local girl, who denied it later.
“We will hand over the bunkers to the local municipality. It was a two-decade old demand to remove it. Unfortunately, several civilians lost their lives. But I will ensure that no youth will be booked under the Public Safety Act (for the protests) as has been the tradition,” MLA Handwara Sajad Lone told the crowd who had come to witness the dismantling of the bunkers.
People have welcomed the dismantling of four structures, housing the army at the centre of the town. However, the local administration believes the army needs to do more.
“We have written to the army and the superintendent of police to reassess location of other three-four army installations near crowded market places, which puts civilians’ lives in danger. Because conditions are changing on a daily basis in Kashmir,” Deputy Commissioner, Kupwara, Rajiv Ranjan told The Hindu.
The confrontation between locals and the army on April 12 in fact have renewed focus on the soldiers’ presence in crowded places and towns across Kashmir valley, despite militancy numbers less than 200 across J-K.
Most times the violent street protests see the army, instead of police and paramilitary, as its first target. In fact, one youth in Natnussa and one woman in Langate, quite far away from Handwara town, died in the army firing because they apparently feared the protesters will trespass their boundary.
Unlike south Kashmir, Handwara has been peaceful for a long time now and participated in the polls in large numbers.
South Kashmir’s Tral, Anantnag, Shopian and Kulgam towns continue to see heavy presence of the army. Similarly, Bandipora, Pattan, Baramulla, and Kupwara towns in north Kashmir have army installtions and bunkers near the district headquarters.
“The peak of militancy may be over but people still remember how soldiers residing in these bunkers used to behave. Even dogs were unleashed at civilians in the dead of night for fun,” alleged MLA Langate Engineer Rashid.
“How could people forget the dark era of the army? People will continue to forced the administration to remove these army bunkers,” said MLA Rashid, who alleges he was forced to work as a porter by the army in 1990s.
One held, eight suspended in Handwara case
Meanwhile, the police have arrested one youth, who, according to the 16-year-old Handwara girl, “assaulted, dragged and confronted” her when she alighted from the restroom located near the army installation.
“The youth is being questioned. Another accused is yet to be arrested,” said Superintendent of Police, Handwara, Ghulam Jeelani.
Eight government employees of Kupwara district have been suspended following allegations that they provoked people. “Eight employees have been suspended. There are reports of their involvement in protests. Two, they were also absent from their duties,” said DC Kupwara Mr. Ranjan.