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India's Struggle With Separatists Goes High-Tech

With restrictions on communication eased, cellphones and the Internet provide help in heading off violence in Kashmir and Jammu.

March 28, 2004|Dilip Ganguly | Associated Press Writer

SRINAGAR, India — For years, Indian troops fighting Muslim separatists in Jammu and Kashmir got tips about a pending attack or a militant hide-out from locals who slipped hand-scribbled notes into innocuous gray boxes scattered around towns.

But now that Indian authorities have eased communications restrictions in the disputed region, troops employ the airwaves to solicit information -- and, they say, to save lives.

Signs imploring "Call us for Help," with white phone numbers on a blue background, adorn sandbagged bunkers and roadside security posts across the state. Almost all Indian security officers in Kashmir now carry cellphones. Often, they hand out the equivalent of business cards with their e-mail addresses.

Security officials say that after fighting what appeared to be a no-win war for the last 14 years, providing easier access for Kashmiris to mobile phones, land lines and the Internet has paid off in fewer militant attacks and lower death tolls.

"There was a time when the boxes were one of our major sources of intelligence gathering," said S. Srinivasan, who heads the intelligence wing of the Border Security Force, the main paramilitary group that has fought the militants in a conflict that has killed more than 65,000 people.

"But we have changed with the times," he added, sitting in his office in a fortified camp. "Now we get intelligence tip-offs by landline phone, cellular phone calls and even e-mails. Much of our success is due to better intelligence-gathering that is directly linked to better communication."

Since 1989, more than a dozen Islamic militant groups have been fighting to separate Jammu-Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, from Hindu-majority India. The largest such groups are based in Pakistan.

Until August, India's military and federal intelligence agencies had opposed extending mobile phone networks to Jammu-Kashmir, fearing that militants could more easily communicate with one another.

The state's well-educated populace was also far behind other developed parts of India in receiving digital phone lines, Internet access and adequate power to make computers run.

But after pressure from a new state government elected in late 2002, the federal Indian administration gave in and allowed cellphones. The move was aimed at showing that the state's residents are treated the same as the rest of India.

The national government's telecom monopolies also upgraded landline service in the last decade to allow more private telephones and public phone booths.

Now, officials say residents weary of bloodshed, and distrustful of the mostly foreign militants who kill alleged collaborators, are using those tools to help the government stop violent attacks.

According to government statistics compiled by Associated Press, there were 808 civilian fatalities in 2003, down from 967 in 2002. Casualties among security forces also dropped, to 381 in 2003 from 521 in 2002.

At the same time, fewer numbers of alleged militants were killed by Indian troops -- 1,526 in 2003 versus 1,747 in 2002 -- but Srinivasan said the 2003 killings included more than a dozen guerrilla commanders, often resulting from tips.

Among them was Gazi Baba, whom authorities identify as the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad, an Islamic militant group accused of being one of two that had carried out the 2001 raid on India's Parliament.

Since the communications restrictions in Jammu-Kashmir were lifted in August, Indian government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd., the Himalayan region's lone service provider, has activated more than 16,000 cellphones, but there is still a long waiting list.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam also delivers Internet access for $11 for 100 hours of use. Now 15,000 Kashmiris have home Internet connections and nearly 85,000 visit cyber cafes, said Rishi Chawla, India coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Global Internet Policy Initiative.

These numbers are low compared with the rest of the country, but it's a start.

Inside Border Security Force headquarters in Kashmir, phones are manned by specially trained personnel who can speak Kashmiri and Urdu -- the common tongues of Kashmir -- not just India's national language, Hindi, as in the past.

Some callers are reporting other kinds of trouble -- not militant activity. But Srinivasan said that as part of the Border Security Force's campaign to win hearts and minds in Kashmir, such pleas for help also get a response.

If so, that is a significant strategy, as accusations of brutality and harassment are commonly leveled by Kashmiris at the security forces. Only rarely have troopers been prosecuted in such cases.

Srinivasan said the growing use of technology has also forced changes in his style and routine.

"Earlier, I would look at the paper files first to know what, when and how to do it today," he said. "Now I also log in."

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