Srinagar: Banks have become a soft target in Kashmir for the terrorists who are ever in need of cash to carry forward their nefarious designs. But what has rattled the bank authorities and administration is the frequency of the heist.
Although bank robberies by gunmen started in Kashmir in the early 1990s with the outbreak of the armed separatist struggle, their unprecedented spurt in recent months has rattled everybody -- to the extent that the army and the police launched a huge crackdown on Thursday, searching at least 20 villages in the Valley's Shopian district.
The first bank robbery took place in the mid-1990s in Maharaj Gunj area of Srinagar's old city when gunmen looted Rs 40,000 from a J&K Bank branch.
Another daylight robbery took place in Anantnag town, again in the mid-1990s in which gunmen looted over Rs 1 crore from a J&K Bank branch.
"The insecurity haunting bank staff and customers forced the managements of all banks operating in the Valley to shut branches in inaccessible, largely unsecured areas during mid-1990s," said a senior officer of a public sector bank here.
"These remote branches were clustered together to operate from safer places in towns and cities. As the security situation improved, the clustered branches were re-located to their original places in villages and other far-flung areas," he added.
This was the period when all the bank staff belonging to Kashmiri Pandit community had migrated out of the Valley.
A special recruitment drive was started by the State Bank of India during the mid-1990s to augment its workforce by recruiting local youth.
As things started improving towards late 1990s and early 2000s, bank robberies had stopped in the Valley.
The recent spurt in robberies dates back to the last six to eight months and the audacity with which they have taken place has shocked everybody.
The Valley's largest regional rural bank, the Ellaquai Dehati Bank has most of its over 50 branches located in villages and remote areas of Srinagar, Ganderbal, Badgam, Pulwama, Anantnag and Kulgam districts.
"Our branches both in cities and villages are operating without any security," said a senior officer of the Ellaquai Dehati Bank.
"Since the objective of a rural bank is to provide banking facilities to the middle and less privileged sections of society, our bank plays a major role in the rural credit delivery system.
"During the last eight months, there have been three unsuccessful nocturnal theft incidents at our branches in which the thieves attempted to unsuccessfully break open the cash chests.
"During the last one week, two daylight robberies have taken place -- one in Kulgam district on Tuesday in which Rs 65,000 was looted at gunpoint and the other in Pulwama district where Rs 4.92 lakh were looted on Wednesday," he added.
The most serious threat because of the daylight robberies is faced by the J&K Bank that has the largest presence in the Valley's cities, towns and villages.
"We have over 200 branches in rural and far-flung areas of the Valley. Our cash dispensing vans, secured by armed guards belonging both to the bank and the state police, move on an almost daily basis dispensing cash to branches in the Valley," said a top official of the J&K Bank.
"Given our presence and reach, we are the most vulnerable in a situation like the present one," he added.
The official sounded cynical when asked whether demonetisation had a bearing on the spurt in bank robberies.
"I don't see any link between demonetisation and the spurt in bank robberies. It is essentially a security issue. When a free-for-all situation occurs like the one we see in south Kashmir areas, the rule of law is naturally the first casualty," he said.
On Monday in an audacious attack, gunmen killed five policemen and two guards of the J&K Bank in Kulgam district. On Wednesday gunmen robbed Rs 1.30 lakh from a branch of the same bank in Pulwama district.
"It is the people's money and trust that is being looted. I appeal to the youth to help restore normalcy in the Valley so that peace returns," Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said on Wednesday when she visited the family of a bank guard killed by militants on Monday.
"Securing each bank in the remote areas by providing guards to every branch in these areas needs manpower which is difficult to arrange at present," said a top officer of the state police.
"But we have started area domination in vulnerable areas so that an overall sense of security returns to these areas," the officer added.
More than 3,000 security personnel drawn from the army, police and the paramilitary forces started a massive search operation in Shopian district on Thursday involving over 20 villages.
Militants have been known to move about freely in these areas during recent months.
Security force officials said the Shopian operation was the largest such by the security forces since last year's unrest, which started in the Valley in July.
It is, however, a moot point whether such operations are able to instil confidence among the banking staff to carry on daily operations and at the same time send out a message to the militants that the Valley's banks are not up for grabs.