Blood and Virus

After the mourners violated the social distancing norms in Sopore, security grid has silently started official burial of the slain militants in Kashmir to avoid larger gatherings, reports Shams Irfan

Riyaz Naikoo delivering a speech in a militant funeral in 2017. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

On the morning of May 6, after extensive searches using hundreds of men, earthmovers and modern technology, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen Commander Riyaz Naiko was finally located. He was hiding in a house in his native Beighpora village in Pulwama.

Naiko, 35, a mathematics graduate, who taught in a private school, first came to prominence after he took over Hizb’s command in late 2016. He joined militancy in 2012 but was little known outside his immediate small group of OGW’s.

However, after the killing of Burhan Wani and his immediate successor Yasin Itoo, Naiko was elevated as Hizb’s Operational Commander. This helped him consolidate his position among militant ranks immediately. His tenure, however, proved to be difficult as most of the Hizb’s top rank was killed in “Operation All-out”, leaving the outfit in an existential crisis. Also, Naiko’s had to tackle defection of Hizb cadre to other outfits like Zakir Musa led Ansar-Ghazwatul-Hind (AGH) and Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK).

But Naiko shot to prominence when he, along with his deputy Saddam Padder, successfully managed to get a Lashkar-e-Toiba militant Naveed Jatt out of police custody.

After his dramatic escape Jatt posted happily with Naiko, Padder and others in a series of pictures shot somewhere in south Kashmir. This helped Naiko blur the organizational boundaries between Hizb, Lashkar and Jaish cadre.  

In September 2018, Naiko masterminded the abduction of eleven policemen. Since then he has been on his toes, as cordon and search operations (CASO) became a new norm in his native village.

On May 6, he was finally killed after a brief gunfight. In the aftermath of Naiko’s killing, mobile network and internet services were snapped across Kashmir valley. It was like being transported back to post-August 5, 2019, Kashmir.

The same day two militants were also killed in a gunfight in Shaar-Shaali area of Khrew in Srinagar outskirts.

This made the Coronavirus related lockdown deadliest 45 days in Kashmir in terms of causalities and gun-battles. Also, new tactics and a new set of rules of engagement came into practice in Kashmir’s hot turf.

Bloody Start

On March 18, Kashmir reported its first Coronavirus case from old city Srinagar. A complete lockdown was imposed across Jammu and Kashmir on March 23.

Just four days later, first in a series of civilian killings by unidentified gunmen took place in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, took place.

On April 4, first gun-fight under lockdown took place in DH Pora of Kulgam in which four local militants were killed.

Smoke billows out of the house that was damaged in an encounter in which top militant commander Riyaz Naikoo and his associate were killed at Beighpora-Awantipora in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

The same day another gun-battle was underway in Keran sector of Kupwara. It left five militants and five army men dead, marking one of the deadliest encounters since lockdown. Despite a family from Shopian claiming one of the slain militants their kin, they were buried in Baramulla, as was the norm with “unidentified” militants since 2014.

But the next gunfight was about to change the set norms of handling militants and civilians killed during encounters.

Social Distance

On April 8, after 14-hour siege of Arampora village in Sopore, Sajjad Nawab Dar, 23, a local Jaish-e-Mohammad militant was killed in a gun-battle.

Given the strict lockdown measures put in place to fight Coronavirus, Sajjad’s body was handed over to his family for a quiet burial. But that didn’t happen.

Within no time, mourners from nearby areas started to pour into Saidpora, Sajjad’s native village to participate in his funeral. The crowd soon swelled beyond anyone’s control.

It was the first major militant funeral since the lockdown came into effect on March 23. There were guidelines in place to maintain social distance as people were advised to stay at home. Mosques across Kashmir were shut to stop congregational prayers. Coronavirus had literally brought life to a standstill.

Still, people in hundreds came out to participate in Sajjad’s funeral. The pictures of his body being carried out of his home for burial by hundreds of mourners instantly became viral.

The same evening Sopore police lodged an FIR against those who participated in Sajjad’s funeral for ‘defying social distancing’ rules.

DGP Dilbag Singh receiving the ceremonial guard of honour by a contingent of Armed Police

According to media reports, police maintained that they had sought written surety from Sajjad’s family that they will adhere to social distancing norms during funeral and burial. Also, they will not allow a larger gathering of people in any case. But since 2014, militant funerals witness massive outpour of people and emotions, making it difficult for deceased militant’s family or his relatives to control.

The same evening, 33 new people tested positive for Coronavirus in Jammu and Kashmir, taking the tally to 158 cases. It was the highest single-day jump since the first case was detected in Srinagar.

Red Zone

A day after Sajjad’s funeral, a 65-year-old man from Gund-Jehangir village of Hajin, died of Coronavirus. He became the third person to die of the virus in Kashmir valley.

The days that followed saw a number of villages being declared Red Zones, their entry and exit points sealed with barbed wires, iron poles cast in concrete, and guarded by police and CRPF. People were literally booked for stepping out of their homes. It became an offence to go out.

Once bustling towns and villages instantly fell silent. The world had changed indeed. But what remained unchanged was the sound of guns in Kashmir.

On April 17, two separate encounters took place in Kishtwar and Shopian in which four militants were killed.

Unlike Dachan (Kishtwar) where bodies of two slain militants were handed over to their families for burial, those killed in Shopain were secretly buried at an undisclosed location in Baramulla. This was done despite two families from Shopian claiming the dead militants as their kin. But their claims were not entertained as police didn’t reveal identities of the militants. Interestingly, one of the militants killed had made a phone call to his brother before the gun-fight started.

In an ideal situation, such a ‘last call’ would have been proof enough for the families to claim their kin. But Coronavirus has given officials an option to undertake a bold policy shift.

Army personnel rushing towards site of encounter in at Beighpora area in Pulwama district on Wednesday, May 06, 2020 in which top Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Riyaz Naikoo along with his associate were killed. KL Image By Bilal Bahadur

In pre-Coronavirus days, often senior police officers would take to social media to announce the start of a gun-battle between militants and forces. They would keep people and media updated in regular intervals until the operation would conclude. But it was perhaps massive gathering at Sajjad’s funeral that changed the dynamics.

That is why, in case of both Kishtwar and Shopian encounters, only the progress of the gun-battle was updated on police’s twitter handle. No other detail was provided.

Only after the encounter was over in Kishtwar, police’s official twitter handle announced that the two militants killed there were the same ones who had killed an SPO four days back.

But it said nothing about militants killed in Shopian. Usually, after a gunfight, police would release an official statement listing charges and cases filed against the deceased militants. This too has changed. With a focus on surviving one of the worst pandemics in living history, these changes in tackling militancy went unnoticed largely. The families of militants, who were killed after Sajjad, are not getting the dead bodies of the slain.

The Change

The first major policy change in the handling of militant bodies came in 2014 after thousands attended the funeral of Lashkar-e-Toiba Commander Abu Qasim’s funeral in Kulgam.

He was the last non-local militant who was buried in a village graveyard by natives. His successors, including Abu Dujana and Naveed Jatt, and all other non-native militants, were since then buried at undisclosed locations in north Kashmir.

However, despite their secret burials, their identifications were never kept secret. Instead, their killings used to be announced enthusiastically by top officials through different social media platforms. It was done in case of Riyaz Naiko whose killing was announced on Twitter by at least two senior cops.

But, in case of all other encounters, the set policy seems to have changed for the time being.

Since Sajjad’s funeral, there were eleven gun-battles, one attack and one shoot-out across Kashmir, in which 26 militants and 04 civilians, and 08 members of various counter-insurgent forces were killed.

Apart from Riyaz Naiko, no other militant was officially identified. In all official communications, the deceased were addressed as “unidentified”. In some cases these communications maintained: identifications are yet to be ascertained.

Just like Naiko, who is said to be buried in Sonmarg, all other militants and at least three civilians were buried at different locations across Kashmir. But what will happen once the Coronavirus lockdown is lifted?

Is it going to be a long term policy, which a section of right-wing media often demanded, or a mere quick fix to maintain social distance in times of Coronavirus, only time will tell?

As of now, blood and virus seem to follow each other in Kashmir.

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