Kashmir’s northern areas are facing a major breakdown of telecommunications after suspected militants asked mobile companies to end their operations and attacked people associated with mobile service providers.

The process started on May 24, when two hand grenades were hurled at a mobile tower in Sopore. One grenade exploded but did not cause any damage.

The next day, unidentified men opened gunfire at a mobile franchisee outlet, killing 26-year-old Rafiq Akbar, who sold mobile handsets. Two others were injured in the attack.

On May 26, unidentified gunmen shot dead Ghulam Hassan Dar inside his house. Dar had rented out part of his premises for a mobile tower. Another man who rented out space for a mobile tower in Pattan was also shot at, but he survived.

The impact 

All the incidents have occurred in Kashmir’s Sopore district. But a large part of the northern areas of the region – Pattan, Baramulla, Bandipora, and Handwara – have been affected. Private mobile service providers have shut down their operations while their outlets have remained closed for almost a week now, with concerns rising among people associated with the industry.

Only the government-run BSNL has continued its service.

A resident of a village in Handwara said that mobile networks in the towns were “totally down” with partial connectivity remaining in the villages.

Who is responsible?

On Saturday, director general of police K Rajendra told the media that the militant group Hizb ul Mujahideen was responsible for the attacks. The Hizb, along with other Pakistan-administered Kashmir-based militant groups, however, has previously denied that they have conducted these operations.

The attacks were preceded by posters put up early May by a previously unknown group calling itself Lashkar e Islam. The notices ordered mobile service providers to wind up their operations and franchisees to shut their businesses.

Late on Saturday night, there were reports of another grenade attack on a mobile tower in the adjoining Kupwara district. No loss of life was reported. But significantly, similar threatening posters have begun to appear in south Kashmir.

Seeking a motive

News reports had earlier suggested that the attacks could be associated with the fact that communication devices placed by militants on mobile towers had been removed by mobile operator companies. North Kashmir deputy inspector general Gareeb Das refused to divulge any details about the devices “until investigations are concluded”.

Another theory suggests that the security agencies have used mobile telephone services to keep a track on insurgents, leading to many militant commanders and cadres being killed.

Das did not comment on how mobile telephony has helped the security establishment against the militants, or how efficiently the militants have been able to use it, even as he pointed out that the government had curbed mobile services at various times in the past over security concerns.

“Let us draw a bottom line,” he said. “Mobile phones have become absolutely indispensable for the public. Let no one deprive them from this facility regardless of how it is used by the security or the militants.”
What happens next?

Though mobile telephone was introduced in India in 1995, these services were not permitted in Jammu and Kashmir until late in 2003 because of the government’s security concerns.

The security crackdown that followed demonstrations in 2008 included major curbs on mobile services. Last year, the restrictions were partially lifted but roaming facilities on pre-paid mobile telephony continue to be prohibited.

“We are seeking cooperation of telecommunication companies and their franchisees," Das said. "It is the job of the security establishment thereafter to take care of the scale and nature of the security required. We have already taken several measures in this regard.” No group can enforce a ban on telecommunication, he said.

At his press briefing on the weekend, director general of police Rajendra had also said that the services would be “restored as soon as possible”.

The assurances, however, seem to not have satisfied either the operator companies or their franchisees.

“It had been at least two weeks since the threatening posters had started to appear when my brother was killed," said Wasim Akbar, the elder brother of Rafiq,  who was shot dead in Sopore. "The government had enough time to make sure the franchisees who decided to continue their businesses were provided security.”

He added: “The police didn’t arrive soon enough at the spot even after the incident. Maybe my brother could have been saved.”

Akbar denied that his brother had received any direct threats. “He wasn’t even an employee at the mobile operator franchisee,” he said. “He worked for the mobile handset business belonging to the owner of the franchisee.”

He concluded: “We had hopes for his future. But we lost him at such a young age.”

A poster by the Lashkar-e-Islami warns people associated with the telecommunication business to close down their operations.