The old town of Baramulla, in North Kashmir, has shored up its defences. Their transformers have been circled with sandbags, piled on platforms constructed around the base. Next to the nest of metal and wire, streetlamps glimmer in the evening.
Baramulla district – like much of the Kashmir Valley – has been on the boil since the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces on July 8. Since then, the Valley has seen street protests and clashes, with security forces killing more than 90 and injuring thousands.
The walls and shop shutters of of Baramulla's old town pledge support for the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashker-e-Taiba. Its pro-freedom rallies ring with chants for azadi.
For months, it had been a fortress, sealed off and left to its mutinies. The old town lies on the banks of Jhelum river, connected to the rest of the Baramullah city by bridges. At first, residents said, the police did not cross the Jhelum, choosing to open fire from the other side of the river. That destroyed the transformers along the river bank. When the police started entering the old town, transformers further inside were also damaged.
Plunged into darkness
The assault on transformers started in August, about a month and a half into the protests, said Zafar Iqbal, part of the Bagh-i-Islam mohalla committee in the old town. “The police used to shoot bullets, not one but five to six, into the transformers,” he said. “They would plunge the houses into darkness and then enter the locality. They came in with pellet guns. We went to the divisional commissioner but he had no answer.”
About a month ago, the mohalla committee decided to set up the sandbags around the transformers. Some of the transformers had been repaired privately, Iqbal said, but some were still not working.
The police, however, said they did not target transformers, though some had been damaged. “It is not deliberate,” said a police official in Baramulla district. “There is a law and order problem. When they pelt stones and we fire pellets, some may be damaged in the crossfire. Most of the transformers damaged were along the link road [running along the riverbank]. They have all been restored now.”
Across Kashmir, transformers have become a focal point of the face-off between security forces and protestors. According to reports, officials of the Power Development Department admitted that dozens of transformers had been destroyed in three months of unrest. The tally in neighbouring Budgam district, says this report, stood at 37 by the end of September. In South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, at least 20 transformers had been destroyed with bullets by the mid-September.
Residents of the affected areas claimed security forces struck transformers before conducting night raids. Others claimed it was a form of collective punishment – bringing a hostile population to its knees by cutting off an essential supply like electricity.
In Kashmir, where power cuts lasted hours until a decade ago, electricity is precious. Over the last few years, transformers have multiplied across the Valley and now almost every mohalla has one. Localities are mapped around them. Turn left at the transformer, people giving directions will tell you; look for the green gate two houses down from the transformer.
But in many mohallas, these landmarks now come with sandbags.