Within minutes of a joint press conference by top officials of the army, CRPF and Jammu and Kashmir Police, held at the headquarters of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps on Friday, 2 August, Principal Secretary Home Shaleen Kabra issued a “security advisory” – one that has no precedence in the 30 years of insurgency in the state.
Kabra’s one-sentence advisory, quoting “latest intelligence inputs of terror threats, with specific targeting of the Amarnath Yatra” and “prevailing security situation in the Kashmir Valley” coupled with their “interest of safety and security” called upon all the tourists and pilgrims to “curtail their stay in the valley immediately and take necessary measures to return as soon as possible”.
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This, obviously, led to virtual panic across the Valley as thousands of Kashmiris thronged to ATMs, fearing an impending crisis that seemed to be knocking at their doors.
Within hours, there were long queues outside petrol stations and grocery stores.
Few seemed to pay heed to assurances offered by government functionaries – from Governor Satya Pal Malik to Divisional Commissioner Baseer Khan and deputy commissioners all saying that there was no need to panic.
Nisar Ahmad Wani, Director of Tourism, Kashmir, had left his office for his residence, in Chanapora neighbourhood of Srinagar, to see off his relatives in a village in Pulwama, whose departure for Hajj was scheduled on Saturday.
Under the divisional commissioner’s orders, he was called back to his office and asked to arrange for transportation of all the 5,000-odd tourists, staying at different hotels and houseboats in Srinagar, besides those staying at tourist resorts in Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg.
Even in the thick of the Kargil war, in 1999, none of the tourists had been asked to leave the Valley.
As directed, Wani and his team hired hundreds of private buses and light motor vehicles. By midnight, the Valley was cleared of all the 15,000 pilgrims and around 5,000 tourists.
It was reminiscent of the days when, at the outbreak of militancy in January to April in 1990, thousands of Kashmiri Pandit families had been “evacuated” to Udhampur and Jammu by the governor’s administration.
Invariably, in all of its clarifications and assurances, Governor Malik and his administration maintained that shifting of the pilgrims and tourists was prompted by “intelligence inputs” suggesting plans and possibility of major suicide strikes on the tourists and the pilgrims.
The governor asserted that this was the “most vulnerable” group and it was the duty of his government to ensure safety and security of all tourists and pilgrims.
Significantly, the panic on Friday spiralled at a time when war-like preparations were underway and over 28,000 fresh paramilitary personnel were being carried by convoys and Indian Air Force transport planes from New Delhi and other places to Srinagar.
One of the well-placed CRPF officers revealed to The Quint on the condition of anonymity that the actual number of paramilitary personnel being ferried to the Valley, over the last eight days, had touched its target of 1,80,000.
This kind of build-up is unprecedented – arguably in all street turmoils and emergency situations including all elections from 1996 to 2019.
Senior officers in police, paramilitary forces, army and security agencies, who spoke to The Quint on Friday and Saturday, maintained that nobody in Jammu and Kashmir had an idea of what was imminent.
Some of them said that they had been asked to remain prepared for a turbulence that could be ‘potentially challenging.’
“We have been told that it could be a turmoil of high intensity – post-Burhan Wani strike of 2016 multiplied by 10,” said an officer who claimed that nobody had an idea of the disaster looming ahead.
“Everybody here is making conjectures and speculations. I am sure, nobody below Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval would be knowing anything,” added the officer, who revealed how an exhaustive contingency plan had been prepared and some sort of a “war room” had been set up at the Police Control Room in Srinagar.
According to him, there was a possibility of a total Internet and telephone shutdown.
“Not more than 350 cellphones and around 2,000 specially arranged satellite phones, mostly in possession of senior government functionaries, would remain functional”, said an officer.
Officers of the J&K Police, holding close liaison with the Central intelligence agencies, claimed that the extraordinary security arrangements had been put in place only after it became clear that a large number of meticulously trained IED experts and Pakistani jihadists had managed to sneak into the Valley with the specific mission of attacking the Amarnath Yatra.
“We have plugged all loopholes and we are sure that we would wipe out this fresh drove of the terrorists, as we have eliminated their ace commanders and cadre in the last two years,” said an officer.
Politicians and journalists, nevertheless, have been whispering about the “strong possibilities” of the Modi government’s “plan” to either break the State into three units and make Kashmir a Union Territory or abrogate Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India – granting special status to J&K, defining the ‘Permanent Residents’ and restricting the right to inherit or acquire an immovable property only to the State subjects.
Some people are even speculating a military operation against Pakistan. They refer to closing down of some colleges and universities and orders to the students to immediately vacate hotels.
Reports on Saturday said that almost all the students of Jammu and other states have been provided buses and sent out of the Valley.
As regards to the speculation of trifurcation of the state and reducing Kashmir to a Union Territory, legal and constitutional experts are almost unanimous in saying that even during Governor’s and President’s Rule, neither President of India nor the Parliament were empowered to take such a decision.
A former Law Secretary, who is now holding a different statutory position, told The Quint that scrapping 35A was easy for the Government of India.
According to him, just a Presidential Order on the recommendation of the Union Cabinet could scrap Article 35A, more so when the State was under President’s rule.
As regards to the abrogation of Article 370, the former Law Secretary said that a number of central laws and amendments had been already applied to Jammu and Kashmir during the current tenure of Governor Malik.
He said that, normally, no central law or constitutional amendment would apply to J&K without a formal recommendation to the President from the representative state government.
“You must have noticed that, in the last few months, a number of such laws and amendments have been straightaway applied to J&K. Article 16(4) A, which grants reservation in promotions to government employees and another insertion, that grants 10 percent reservation in government jobs and admissions in colleges and universities to Economically Weaker Sections, have been straightaway applied to J&K without the recommendation of the representative state government. It is clear enough that if the Government at the Centre wants to abrogate or amend Article 370, they can do it through the same legislative route. They will simply need two-third majority in both Houses of the Parliament,” said the former Law Secretary.