By Khursheed Wani
On August 9, three militants armed with two automatic rifles and a pistol, were passing through Wonibatu, a Tral village, that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had renamed Gulabbagh in 1981. The inhabitants of the area had begun their daily chores. Scores of vehicles carrying government employees and private sector workers had left for their work places in Srinagar, Anantnag and Pulwama. Morning assemblies in local schools had just ended and children were settling in classrooms. The lone degree college in the town was filled with students, many of them waiting to write exams. The marketplace was bustling with activity, a sight occasionally visible in the forlorn town. Workers with a macadam plant were ready to restart black-topping work on a vital road that had remained unattended for decades.
Suddenly, the militants were spotted by cops. There was a brief exchange of fire and the trio was killed. Locals said their bodies were perforated with bullets, virtually mutilated. A video clip shows their corpses were encircled by soldiers and cops before subjecting to indiscriminate firing. Two of the militants belonged to Tral villages and the third was from Trich, near Pulwama. Chaos engulfed the entire area soon after the encounter finished.
The cellphone services were immediately snapped as people began pouring onto the streets. At Nowdal village, native place of one of the slain militants, cops and paramilitary men sprayed pellets on protesters. As the norm has been for several months since army chief Gen Bipin Rawat declared the protesters would be dealt with like militants, another youngster was hit directly. He died on way to hospital. No matter he turned out to be the son of a former soldier, his avoidable killing was part of a deliberate policy. It is anybody’s guess what happened to the normal life after the killings in the expansive town and its adjacent areas, surrounded by mountains from three sides.
Such encounters where lame-duck militants were bumped off in brief shooting have been quite common. The youngsters, who joined the militant ranks after the killing of Burhan Wani, have generally been emotional freaks rather than fighters or military strategists. Their brief survival is only due to public support but whenever their location is exposed, the heavy military machine doesn’t leave any escape route for them.
The Wonibatu encounter turned out to be very significant. The police declared that the militants were affiliated with Zakir Musa led Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind outfit, which is the new entry in Kashmir’s 28-year-long insurgency. Projected to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, the outfit has spoken against Pakistan and “contactors of Jehad from across the border”. Their supporters have disallowed draping coffins of slain militants in Pakistan’s national flag. Before the killing of these three militants at Tral, Zakir Musa also claimed in an audio message, Abu Dujana, a popular Lashkar militant and his local aide Arif Lelhari, had also joined his group. He said Dujana’s family in Pakistan had been targeted for his switch-over.
Hizbul Mujahideen added a new twist to the Wonibatu encounter. Its spokesman Burhanuddin told a local news gathering agency CNS that the three slain militants were returning to Hizb fold when they were intercepted and killed. The trio was previously with the Hizb but when their local commander Zakir Musa, who had taken over reins of the outfit after Burhan Wani’s killing, closed ranks with the Hizb, they also followed suit. In fact most of the Hizb militants in Tral, except one or two, remained loyal to Zakir Musa. There is no evidence whether the trio was going to rejoin their parent group but the Hizb statement issued after their killing points towards the chinks deepening in the militant ranks.
The scenario again brings to fore the group clashes, infighting and territorial domination, which was seen by the people in Kashmir in early 1990s. Dozens of militants, their sympathizers, family members and common people became victims of such rivalries. This infighting was one of the main factors responsible for emergence of counterinsurgent groups like Ikhwan ul Muslimoon and Muslim Mujahideen. The latest version of these clashes was witnessed in Sopore pocket of north Kashmir two years ago when Hizb deserter Abdul Qayoom Najar heralded a revolt by founding now-defunct Lashkar-e-Islam outfit. Najar is believed to have gone to Muzaffarabad and patched up with the Hizb leadership.
= Ironically, the situation in Kashmir has come to such a pass where the doors for dialogue and reconciliation have been closed. The militants, howsoever ill-equipped or less trained, have embarked on a path where they look forward for death rather than life. The government has incentivized their killings. Bringing them back to families is more of rhetoric than a practical option. If it was so, the Wanibatu encounter should have ended in capturing the trio rather than killing them in a one-sided fight. Worse, the separatist leaders have only fuelled the division in militant ranks rather than finding a reconciliatory option. Musa’s statement against Hurriyat leaders and Pakistan found him out of any favour.
(The author is a senior journalist)