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Python in bush? Call a platoon
- Fear of terrorists lurks as Jammu celebrates

Chowki-Chowra on the Rajouri-Jammu Road, Aug. 31: A frail old man at this little village on the road to Jammu strode defiantly past a barricade of concertina coil and demanded of the army captain here this afternoon that he be given the right to shoot a snake.

The army is here to take out militants. But in Jammu and Kashmir, the fear of a terrorist lurking behind every tree often means that the army has to spare a platoon for a python.

Traffic on the road to Jammu is blocked. This is the first of some 14 barricades the army and the security forces have erected, ringing Jammu in cordon after cordon, after the Amarnath shrine board activists decided to take out a victory rally to celebrate the compromise thrashed out by the government.

All traffic headed towards Jammu is stopped. Passengers with the ability to sound more convincing than others are quizzed and their credentials are established before they are let through.

Here at Chowki-Chowra, about 25km short of Akhnoor just after the Kalidhar Ranges, this barricade has been erected because of yet another tip-off — or false alarm.

Apparently, four gun-toting men have been seen in a white Santro on Old Akhnoor Road, headed towards Jammu, the soldiers at the barricade say. “If you want to go on and risk being caught in a crossfire, it is your choice,” they throw a challenge.

It is time to mull ugly options.

Since the breach of the international boundary in Khanachak earlier this week, the army has been flooded with such tip-offs.

In the headquarters of the 26 (Tiger) Division in Jammu day before yesterday, the commander, Major General D.L. Chowdhary, sleepless after the night in Chinnore where the terrorists had taken women and children hostage, was still coping with his demanding bank of telephones late into his second insomniac night.

Minutes ago, the colonel general staff at the division headquarters, Colonel Navneet Kapur, who is coping with an even larger telephone bank, complained: “Even if people go out for a crap at night, there are some who think it is suspicious movement.”

Confusing the movement of the bowels with the stealthy ways of militants is the routine here these days because of fears that some of the criminals are still at large. In two months of protests, Jammu has broken a dubious record that Bengal may claim to have notched up in 60 years.

Businesses have been shut, traffic is stalled, supplies of essentials are running so short that even the army is often forced to forage. And then came the incident at Chinnore after the infiltration through the international boundary.

The paranoia is somewhat justified. If militants were to attack the victory celebrations in Jammu today, where rallyists defied curfew orders, it would lead to a communal conflagration, security forces fear, and so they have put up cordon after cordon.

There is as much reason for the army to protect protesters in Jammu from terrorists as there is reason for police in Jammu town to lathicharge protesters and keep peace.

Earlier in the morning, shortly after news that the stalemate in Jammu was broken, Amarnath shrine board supporters came out in Rajouri and Naushera and Sunderbani shouting Bam Bam Boley to the beat of drums and the crackle of Diwali fireworks.

To top it all, the army has to accommodate requests such as the one from the old man here in Chowki-Chawra. To say the least, Captain Rana is taken aback. But shopkeepers and neighbours gather around and insist that the man be given the right to use his licensed weapon in legal fashion.

“It is very big, Sir,” he told Rana. “Bigger than the one we saw last week and this fat.” He brought the fingers of his two hands together at waist-level and pushed out the elbows.

“Hunh!” said the captain. “Okay, how many shots do you need to fire?”

Gunfire is spooky in these parts these days.

“Only two at the most, Sir,” the man said.

“Okay,” said the captain giving his assent. The old man crosses the road back to his house and minutes later emerges carrying a gun sheathed in a nylon cover, waves at the captain and starts walking along the stalled traffic that is snaking uphill.

Then Rana has second thoughts and decides to check out the old man’s story for himself. He gets into his Tata Sumo vehicle mounted with jammers to immobilise improvised explosive devices, calls his troops inside and asks some of them to follow him in another car.

That is how the fear of a terrorist lurking behind every tree came to mean that the army has to spare a platoon for a python.

Fifteen minutes later, Rana and his men are back at the checkpost. “Okay, you can move on,” he says. “But take the Akhnoor bypass, I hear there is firing in Malpura.”

A decision is made and we head towards the first of 13 more cordons to Jammu town.

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