Guns and Graves

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Though 2018 was the deadliest year in a decade, and the new recruitments are down, Shams Irfan sees it premature to write an obituary of Kashmir’s new age militancy

A destructed house during an encounter in Mujgund.
KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

At 2:30 am, on December 31, 2017, while half of the world was still up to welcome New Year with hope and style, three young Jaish-e-Mohammad boys, including, Fardeen Ahmad Khanday, 17, and Manzoor Ahmad Baba, 24, stormed a CRPF Group Centre situated in Lethpora village, some 20 kilometres south of Srinagar, triggering a 36 hour long gunfight.

As the dust settled at Lethpora, the first day of 2018 saw thousands of mourners rushing to Fardeen’s house in Nazneenpora, Tral and Manzoor’s small house in Drubgam, Pulwama. It opened a window for a bloody year ahead.

While the frequency of encounters between the militants and the counter-insurgent forces increased, such gatherings at slain militants’ homes became a routine. Invariably, each gun battle ended with huge collateral costs in terms of civilian deaths and loss to property. But despite 57 civilian killings near gunfight sites in 2018, people are continuously risking their lives to help militants escape from encounters.

Funeral of Manan Wani

In April, four protestors were shot dead by the army after thousands of people stormed a gunfight site in Khudwani, Kulgam to help two local Lashkar militants escape. This was perhaps the first instance where militants actually managed to escape from the battlefront, but at the cost of huge civilian causalities. These killings, however, hardly kept people away from the gunfight sites. In fact, managing civilians near encounter sites have emerged as the biggest challenge for the counter-insurgency grid. However, despite condemnation and repeated reminders about standard operational procedures (SOPs), there was no let down in civilian causalities, thus adding fuel to the fire.

These killings further fuelled the anger against the government, prevalent since Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016. This anger often gets channelized during mammoth civilian and militant funerals.

In 2018, the phenomenon of militants appearing at both civilian and militant funerals almost became a regular affair, attracting thousands of people from far-off places. These funerals are seen as the ‘new political process’ where the “sentiment” spreads and even recruitments take place.

There are instances where youngsters have actually joined militant ranks after attending a civilian or militant’s funeral. Manzoor Ahmad Baba, disappeared and joined militant ranks after attending local Jaish-e-Mohammad militant Waseem Ahmad Ganie’s funeral in November 2017, at Drubgam, Pulwama. In May this year, a PhD scholar Waseem Ahmed Rather from Quimoh, Kulgam, joined militant ranks after attending his childhood friend Adil’s funeral. Adil, who quit CRPF to become a teacher, was killed by government forces during clashes near encounter site in Badigam, Shopian.

But emotionally charged civilian and militant funerals are not the only reasons for youngsters to pick up a gun and join militant ranks. There were numerous other reasons like continuous harassment by police and army for being a militant’s friend or relative; deadly maze of Public Safety Acts (PSA); being part of the over ground network, which plays equal role in pushing young boys to extremes.

In June, 2018, family of Syed Rubaan told a Srinagar based newspaper that army raided their house in Nazneenpora, Shopian, and put an AK47 rifle around their younger son’s shoulder and clicked his pictures. Ruban was first picked up by the army after his close friend Farooq Ahmad Hurra joined Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in 2016. He was accused of being in touch with Hurra. According to family, even after Hurra was killed by army in 2017, Ruban was continuously harassed. Interestingly, after two months of Hurra’s killing, Ruban’s cousin Syed Naveed, a policeman, fled with four AK47 rifles and joined Hizb. This added to Ruban’s woes as he was continuously questioned. However, a few weeks after army clicked his pictures with an AK47 slung on his shoulder, Ruban left home and joined little known Al-Badr militant outfit.

Officials said more than 200 youngsters joined militant ranks in 2018, against 126 in 2017, and 88 in 2016. Over 30 boys joined militant ranks during the holy month of Ramazan, when PDP sponsored ceasefire was in place. “But there is a slowdown in recruitments after back-to-back encounters took place since October,” said a police officer who wished to remain anonymous.

Funeral of Dr Sabzar.
KL Image by Shah Hilal

For instance, in November, only eight people, mostly youngsters from south joined militant ranks, and in December, so far, only one boy has picked up the gun.

The security grid attributes this slump in recruitments to the killing of top militant faces like Saddam Padder, Sameer Tiger, Dr Manan Wani, Naveed Jatt, Dr Sabzar and Azad Malik in 2018. “After the killing of Burhan’s group, there was a notion that no new face could emerge in militancy now. But then, we had Sameer Tiger, Manan Wani, Naveed Jatt etc.” said a senior journalist who wishes not to be known. “Like Burhan, they too used social media to reach out to people.”

Despite over fifty complete internet shutdowns in 2018 in Kashmir, social media has remained a favourite platform for militants to stay connected with masses and announce their joining of ranks. Before Burhan’s second death anniversary on July 8, around 15 young boys took to social media to announce their joining of militancy.

Also, after the formal media was booked for publishing AMU PhD scholar turned militant Manan Wani’s open letter, Hizb released his second letter via widely used social media application WhatsApp. This helped Hizb reach out to people without getting through the existing formal media channels.

In a new trend, militants also started releasing pictures of weapons snatched from a different location in Kashmir on social media. Within minutes of killing four policemen at Arhama, Shopian, militants put their “catch” on the social media.

In August, militants kidnapped eleven policemen and their relatives from across south Kashmir within a span of just 24 hours. Within hours, their videos were released online, where they were seen asking police top brass not to harass militant families. So far, no one has been identified for uploading these videos. Interestingly, militant commanders like Riyaz Naikoo and Sameer Tiger used social media to communicate with security-grid, whenever any militant family was harassed. This informal channel of communication helped both sides to stay in “touch”.

But apart from communication, militants used social media to name and shame a number of alleged “informers” whom they captured from time to time.

In November, militants abducted five people from Shopian and Kulgam belt and took them to undisclosed locations where they were questioned about their links with the army on video. Later, militants killed Huzaif Ashraf, 19, by slitting his throat on camera. The shocking video of his execution was later shared on the social media with an obvious purpose.

These executions were followed by militants suffering huge causalities in back-to-back encounters in October and November.

Funeral of Sameer Tiger, a Hizb militant, who was killed in an encounter at Drubgam in Pulwama on April 30, 2018

According to Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), between January and November, 234 militants, 142 armed forces and police personnel, 144 civilians were killed in Kashmir, making it one of the bloodiest years in a decade.

However, huge militant casualties, notwithstanding, it is too premature to write an obituary of post-Burhan Wani ‘new age militancy’, as presumed by sections within the security grid. “No doubt this was the deadliest year for militants and successful for us, but it is not over yet,” said a senior counter-insurgency cop who wished not to be named. “We have forced militants off the ground and into hidings, but they are not gone. Given massive public support, they have the capacity to regroup and make a comeback, which we are trying to thwart at all costs.”

With bloody year nearing to an end, everyone in Kashmir is keeping his fingers crossed hoping for a miracle and a ray of hope.

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