Saturday, January 18, 2020 | 10:40 PM

Frightening past bunkers: A spectre returns to Srinagar

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The bunker, clearest symbol of military omnipresence in Kashmir, is making a comeback to the streets of Srinagar. Now occupied by paramilitary CRPF soldiers, many sandbag bunkers have been established on road edges and pavements, especially in downtown areas. Their re-emergence in the city has rekindled that sharp sense of insecurity from which residents of Srinagar had in recent years begun to feel free of.

Majority of these new bunkers have come up in the old city. At Rainawari, a small rectangular bunker, covered with fish net, has been established at a street intersection along the city’s oldest graveyard, sprawled over 700 kanals of land. Only the barrel of a gun pokes out from a slit made in one of the sandbags.

Besides the bunkers, the intensified presence of policemen and CRPF soldiers armed with assault rifles on the roads, as soon as dusk falls, indicates the threat of militant attacks in the city. The resurgence of militancy in Kashmir has slowly but steadily made its way to Srinagar, its erstwhile bastion. This year, militants have stormed two security installations in Srinagar, and three gunfights have taken place, claiming the lives of seven militants. Of them, four were killed within the span of this past fortnight.

It is learnt that the establishment of new bunkers, besides the intensified security measures, was a decision taken at high-level security review meetings. Inspector-General of CRPF Ravideep Sahi told Srinagar-based Kashmir Reader that “bunker nakas” have been established at several places in Srinagar for the “safety and security” of people.

“But things are under control in Srinagar,” Sahi claimed. “We keep deploying nakas depending on sensitivity of areas.”

Militancy in the urban pockets of Kashmir was unprecedented at the peak of armed militancy in the 1990s, when the valley was almost overwhelmed with militants (unverified counts suggest about 20,000). The city’s downtown then was swarming with militants.

The establishment’s defence against militancy was to set up more than 1,500 bunkers across the valley. Srinagar was blanketed with above 200 bunkers, majority of them concentrated in downtown. From these bunkers, Russian-made AK-47 or Kalashinikovs were first arrayed before the Kashmiri public in 1988.

The bunkers were sprawled over roads and abandoned properties. Their appearance was distinctive: spools of razor wires laid around and covering of nets to repulse grenades. While some bunkers were double-storied, almost all including small makeshift ones were equipped with facilities such as kitchen, washroom, and retiring room. All of these outposts were manned by soldiers, initially of the Border Security Force (BSF) and subsequently of the CRPF.

The fear of attacks on the ubiquitous bunkers would often make people skip the roads and take other routes. Over the next few years, muscular counterinsurgency operations had cleared most urban pockets, including Srinagar, of militants and pushed them to rural fringes. This marked a dramatic change in situation on the ground, prompting the authorities then to order the phasing out of bunkers.

During a relatively calm phase in the Valley, when Srinagar was declared as zero-militancy area, armoured vehicles replaced sand bunkers. These vehicles were stationed at vital junctures at entry and exit routes to the city.

In the subsequent years, until the killing of Burhan Wani on 8 July 2016, data compiled by the previous Mehbooba Mufti-led government suggested that only four bunkers existed in the Valley’s 10 districts. The process for dismantling bunkers had intensified after the 2010 public uprising in which 120 civilians were shot dead. 

Although nowhere close to the number as well as the size of bunkers that existed in the ’90s, the new bunkers that have emerged in the city after almost eight years after have brought back the old fears. The immediate fallout has been a decline in people out on the streets after dusk.

CRPF IG Ravideep Sahi denied that the new structures were actually bunkers. “They are not bunkers but nakas,” he asserted. “They can’t be called bunkers because we don’t stay in them.”