Lethpora Lessons

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By Khursheed Wani

In Kashmir, a gun battle connected 2017 with 2018. Apparently routine, the encounter actually demonstrates the drastic changes on ground zero.

As 2017 was drawing to a close, a group of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) militants forced their entry into a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp at Lethpora, a highway village almost equidistant from Pampore and Awantipora. During the dead of a subzero night, they scaled a protection wall and walking a long distance to take positions inside a vast garrison. The standoff continued for two days and resulted in the death of five CRPF men, one of them due to cardiac arrest, and three JeM Fidayeen.

Since, 1999, there have been countless Fidayeen attacks in Kashmir, starting shortly after the Kargil war drew to a close. These attacks changed the militancy scenario, especially smashing the counterinsurgency network established with the help of Ikhwanis. The initial attacks on a BSF camp in Kupwara, a Rashtriya Rifles formation in Beerwah and XV Corps headquarters in Srinagar, resulted in heavy casualties.

The common thread in these Fidayeen attacks was the involvement of non-local militants, mostly from Pakistan belonging to Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) and JeM. It took more than two years for the security establishment to develop a mechanism to counter these attacks. However, since the attackers always carry an innovative and surprise element and they are ready to die, the security resistance does not work every time in stopping them. The lethal Uri attack in 2016 fall occurred due to this surprise element.

What makes Lethpora attack unique is the involvement of at least two local Fidayeen militants in it. Fadreen Khanday from Hayun (Tral) and Manzoor Ahmad Baba from Drubgam (Pulwama) had recently joined the JeM and reportedly accompanied dwarf ‘divisional commander’ Noor Muhammad Tantray, who was killed in an encounter at Samboora, barely 5 km from Lethpora.

After Tantray’s killing, several cordon and search operations were conducted in the area to track down the militants who fled from Samboora. An alert was sounded in the area about a possible militant strike and if media reports quoting unnamed police officers are to be believed, the particular CRPF camp was specifically cautioned.

Fardeen, 16, joined militants shortly after his neighbourhood friend Aqib Molvi was killed in a fierce encounter in March 2017. His policeman father had named him after a Bollywood actor. Before he set out on his “mission”, Fardeen recorded a video that reflects the transformation of a youngster into a hardcore fighter. This is perhaps the first video of a Kashmiri militant recorded few hours before he embarks on a job that he is sure he will not return from.

For those who are pained to see the plight of suppressed youngsters in Kashmir, Khanday’s case is a matter of introspection. A youngster who should have been waiting for his Class XI results chooses to take an extreme step. Since the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016, scores of youngsters have joined militant ranks and a lot of them are slain.

Off late, the state government has embarked on a policy to wean youngsters away from militancy or encouraging them to return if they have already chosen the path. It requires deeper analysis as to why despite these announcements, youngsters like Khanday have graduated from being routine militants to becoming Fidayeen.

The second incident of violence occurred in Sopore where unknown gunmen shot dead Arif Sofi, a medical representative at his Unsoo village on January 3 evening. Arif’s death reflects another facet of the quagmire the Kashmiri youngsters find themselves caught in.

2017s Last Gun Battle: The Complete Story

Arif is the son of a veteran separatist worker Muhammad Maqbool Sofi, who has spent more than seven years in jails for his political beliefs and association with People’s League. A ruling BJP leader claimed that Arif was a member of their party evoking a quick rebuttal from his family. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was among first people who expressed sorrow over Arif’s killing saying that killing human beings in every form is cowardly and against humanity. Hundreds of local residents took part in Arif’s funeral amid pro-freedom slogans.

Arif’s unfortunate death reflects the conflict that the Kashmiri youngsters are grappling with while manoeuvring the rigmarole of life. Whether he was a BJP worker or not may become a point of discussion and his separatist father will spend the rest of his life in explaining his credentials. This is a unique tragedy that Kashmir conflict has inflicted on many families. It suits the people who perpetuate the conflict industry for their own vested interests, regardless of the blood of youngsters spilt on the streets.

Fardeen Khanday and Arif Sofi have died in diametrically opposite situations. There are no comparisons per se but their passing away reflects the sad situation where young Kashmiri youngsters’ chests are showered with bullets. This state of affairs smothers. Ironically, there is nobody around at the helm of affairs to ponder or bring about a positive change on the ground.

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