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Cops grab wrong end of terror trail

New Delhi, Aug. 20: This is a story about snapshots. This is also a snapshot of a story.

Police in Uttar Pradesh arrested a photo studio owner on Friday, branded the Islamic seminary at Deoband a school for terrorists and launched a manhunt for suspected militants after confiscating photographs of youth sporting battle gear and wielding guns.

Today it was revealed that the youth were in fact members of a counter-terrorist force sponsored by the army. The overenthusiastic Uttar Pradesh police had jumped on counter-terrorists in their quest to find terrorists.

The incident makes every male who looks youthful, sports a beard and wears salwar kameez a suspected terrorist.

If ever there was an incident to typify the siege mentality of security forces, this is it. The event is not without its shades of black humour. Now, the army is calling the police of Uttar Pradesh “stupid” and is alleging that they have “made a mountain when a molehill did not exist”.

The youth in the photographs are members of a special militia raised and supported by the army for counter-insurgency operations in Poonch and Surankote of Jammu and Kashmir. They are either members of village defence committees (VDCs) or “special police officers”.

The army and the police in Jammu and Kashmir encourage the formation of VDCs in their battle against militants. The VDCs also serve as a platform to mobilise local support against insurgents. Some VDC activists are also given recognition as “special police officers” for intelligence gathering and counter-insurgency purposes.

In the present instance, the photographs were taken by a junior officer of the army in early July. The officer handed the roll to his company commander, Major Amit Agarwal. Agarwal was serving in the Poonch-Surankote region and was training the militia. The belt is a sensitive area where the army is pro-active in counter-infiltration measures.

Two years ago, the army had launched Operation Sarp Vinash and destroyed militant hideouts in the higher reaches of the zone with the aid of VDC members and SPOs (special police officers).

The photographs were clicked after a minor operation when the combatants were relaxing. Agarwal had gone home to Deoband on leave and had left the roll of film with his sister, Vandana. Days after Agarwal had returned to his posting, Vandana decided she would get the film developed. The photographs revealed youth holding INSAS rifles/carbines ' standard regulation weapons in the army ' and local youth in salwar kameez. Some of the youth were also bearded.

An overenthusiastic photo studio owner was shaken by what the negatives revealed and called the police. The police, in turn, arrested him and, because the studio is in Deoband, immediately created a fictitious link with a terrorist network and the Islamic seminary, Dar-ul Uloom.

Army officers of the Northern Command in Jammu were surprised when the photographs appeared in newspapers this morning. In Deoband, Vandana and her family also met the police and narrated the sequence of events as they saw it. And, in Delhi, army headquarters, a little embarrassed, has rushed in to clarify what is what between Surankote and Deoband.

After the photographs were found, Uttar Pradesh police said they had “sealed” the borders of Muzaffarnagar district and had arrested photo studio owner Pradeep Tyagi. The inspector-general of police of Meerut range, Rajkumar Viswakarma, and the superintendent of police, Muzaffarnagar, D.K. Chowdhary, were convinced yesterday that they were on the verge of busting a big terrorist module.

After busting the module, there would be medals in store. And cameras would capture them, click, click.

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