On Wednesday, just about two hours past noon, four armed militants stormed the Wahibugh branch of Elaquai Dehati Bank in Pulwama and took off with at least Rs 3 lakh in cash. Just over an hour later, a second armed robbery occured at Jammu and Kashmir Bank's Nehama Branch. Authorities are still trying to ascertain the sum of money militants looted.
It is clear that amid intense unrest and a police clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir, desperate militants have found with a new way to terrorise Kashmir and fund their activities: stealing money from banks and ATMs and looting guns from security personnel.
Spike in bank robberies since demonetisation
Over the last few months, particularly since demonetisation (November 8), there has been a significant spike in case of bank and ATM robberies. The usual drill being, a group of armed militants barging into a bank, firing shots in the air and taking off with whatever money they can collect.
Based on India Today and PTI reports from the past seven months, militants have looted more Rs 1 crore from banks and ATMs in 13 such incidents -- all of them concentrated in South Kashmir. Most robberies have occurred in the wee hours of weekdays, and the most common targets have been banks in Pulwama (4) and Kulgam (3). Other districts targeted by militants include Anantnag (2), Shopian (2) and Budgam (1).
Graphic: Vishakha Saxena
Over the months, security personnel have managed to foil one case of armed robbery, when militants opened fire at CRPF jawans guarding an ATM in Anantnag district. The security personnel managed to overpower one of the attackers, but others managed to flee from the spot. One CRPF jawan was injured in the firing.
The incident occurred on April 28, just a day after three soldiers were killed in a suicide attack on an Army camp in Kupwara.
Adding guns to the mix
Two days ago, militants attacked a Jammu and Kashmir Bank cash van and shot dead seven security personnel in the Damhal Hanji Pora area of Kulgam district. Five policemen and two bank security guards were returning to the bank's district headquarters after delivering cash at a branch, when they were attacked.
Though the amount of cash looted remains unclear, police found the attackers had taken off with five service rifles belonging to the deceased cops.
Eventually, militant outfit Hizbul Mujhadeen claimed responsibility for the attack. According to a report in the Hindustan Times, Hizbul spokesperson Burhanuddin said, "we didn't attack the vehicle with intent to loot the cash. We have enough cash," hinting what the attackers were really targeting were arms and ammunition.
The recent spike in incidences of theft of arms and ammunition in Kashmir has been far more than bank robberies. They began especially after the killing of Burhan Wani on July 8 last year.
Up until January 2017, 66 weapons -- including 17 AK rifles, 23 SLR rifles, 14 INSAS rifles, 6 pistols, one .303 rifle, one carbine, 3 UBGL thrower and one Taser gun -- and over 7,000 rounds of ammunition had been looted by militants and mobs in Kashmir Valley, as per the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The biggest arms robbery took place at the DH Pora Police Station in South Kashmir's Kulgam district, just a day after Wani was shot dead, where militants managed to get their hands on 35 weapons and 5252 rounds of ammunition. In many other cases the militants simply snatched weapons off police posts and police guards. Even policemen guarding political leaders fell prey to militants.
The sheer number of weapon-thefts and snatching have forced Jammu and Kashmir Police to consider installing computer chips in firearms to trace them.
Funding the terror machine
While cases of weapon-snatching were on the rise, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Zakir Rashid Bhat, who was reportedly close to Wani, went on to record a video message urging Kashmiris to snatch weapons and join the terror outfit. "Anyone who wants to join us, he should snatch a weapon and join us. We welcome them all wholeheartedly," Zakir was heard saying in the video in October last year.
Days later, another Hizbul video surfaced, showing 12 militants brandishing stolen police rifles. Of these 12 militants, 9 appeared to be fresh recruits.
Then, on November 25, five alleged Overground Workers (OGWs) of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) were arrested from Pulwama as police claimed to have busted a module responsible for looting nearly Rs 14 lakh from a bank in Budgam.
Despite multiple such arrests and raids on terror hideouts, cases of weapon thefts and snatching and bank robberies have continued to pile on. In March this year, Jammu and Kashmir Police even had to issue an advisory to its units to prevent weapon snatching.
And with the anniversary of Wani's death approaching in just two months, it is possible that we may see many more such cases.
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