Tense Separatist Block

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As the separatist camp has gone silent after the mass crackdown, there is an increasing number of militant casualties being reported in Kashmir. The emerging concern, however, is local youth joining the ranks and buried at far off places, reports Tasavur Mushtaq

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Mirwaiz delivering sermon at Jamia Masjid Srinagar. (PIc Mohammmad Iqbal)

In February 2019, National Investigation Authorities (NIA) conducted raids on top separatist leaders. The search operation, officials said, was linked to the agency’s investigation in the alleged terror-funding case. Later, when the sleuths reported the recoveries, it varied from “incriminating material to hi-tech internet communication set-up.” In protest, Kashmir remained closed for two-day shutdown on separatist call, who termed it “pre-planned psychological crackdown”.

The coordinated action by the NIA and Enforcement Directorate (ED) led to “tighten the noose around Kashmiri separatist leaders involved in terror funding and inciting people to wage war against the state and foment trouble in the valley.” The authorities started investigating at least a dozen cases of “terror financing” under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). After rounding up lower and middle rung leaders, the government acted tough on the prominent separatists.

Hurriyat Chairman Syed Ali Geelani

Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chief Muhammad Yasin Malik was arrested a week after a deadly Pulwama attack from his Maisuma residence. Later he was booked under Public Safety Act (PSA). As Malik was produced in court in Delhi against a production warrant, he was arrested inside the court by NIA in the alleged “J&K terror funding case.”

Besides this, Malik is facing charges of kidnapping and murder for being allegedly involved in abducting Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of the then Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in 1989, and killing of four Indian Air Force personnel in the early part of 1990. In between Malik’s JKLF was banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Considered to be moderate, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was first time summoned to NIA headquarter in Delhi for questioning. The case insiders said was lodged in 2017 regarding “terror funding.” Initially reluctant to go, he later presented himself before the investigating officials for at least three consecutive days. At least seven other separatist leaders were arrested in the same case, including Mirwaiz’s spokesman Shahid ul Islam. 

Syed Ali Geelani’s doctor son, Naeem Geelani was summoned by NIA to Delhi to probe cases related to “terror funding.” His other son, Naseem Geelani too was grilled by the sleuths several times for the “terror funding” case. The ED also quizzed Geelani’s son-in-law, Altaf Shah alias Fantoosh in Tihar jail regarding a “terror-funding the case involving Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) chief and 26/11 Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed.”

Hardened Stance 

For the first time in the last three decades, the government withdrew the security cover of separatists. The message from the north block was “to go after separatist leadership”, said a police source.

Earlier, Delhi as per the sources in the security grid “treated separatists with caution and occasional outreach.” In 2004, the then deputy Prime Minister from BJP held talks with separatists led by Mirwaiz Umar. But now the situation seems changed, particularly post abrogation of Kashmir’s special status. A new home ministry guideline for foreign diplomats included “not meeting anybody who is indulging in anti-national activities”.

A senior police officer on the condition of anonymity said, “there had been a huge impact on the ground since the crackdown on the separatist camp.”

Following the abrogation of Article 370, Jammu and Kashmir Police chief Dilbag Singh said as many as 504 separatist leaders, who had been detained were released after they signed a bond of “good behaviour”. He also said out of the 350 separatist leaders and stone pelters who were sent to jails in other states, only 50-60 continue to remain behind bars and the rest were released.

A 2017 photograph showing some of the detained separatists jointly offering prayers in the premises of a Srinagar police station.

Giving numbers DGP Singh said a total of 5500 youths were detained and all of them were let off after three-four days following counselling and taking assurance from their parents that they would not indulge in any violent acts like stone pelting in future. However, he said, cases were filed against 1,200 other youths for indulging in violent acts.

As per the data, post-August 5, around 400 cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) were registered and around 300 people were booked under the Public Safety Act.

Geelani Quits 

After being part of Hurriyat Conference for nearly three decades, Geelani in June 2020 quit the conglomerate he aspired to lead for the rest of his life. In a four-line letter and an audio message, ailing Geelani announced his resignation. 

In a detailed letter that accompanied the resignation video, he talked about different issues “compelling him to quit”. He mentioned “indiscipline, lack of commitment, and corruption” as reasons for his decision.

Fragile and at the fag end of his life, Geelani with his resignation ruffled feathers across the border. His exit triggered a new debate in Kashmir and reduced Geelani to “an individual fighting for an ideology.”

Many in the separatist camp attribute Geelani’s resignation to different reasons, but the security grid believes “there was an increasing pressure across to act after the abrogation and voices were getting shriller to sideline the ailing leader.” In his letter, he accused his constituents of hatching “conspiracy and resorting to lies against him” and also teaming up with the Hurriyat chapter in PaK, that had targeted him.

The Militancy Scene

On the military front, in Kashmir nearly 150 militants were killed in first seven months of 2020, including top militant commander Riyaz Naikoo and his close aide Junaid Sehrai, Burhan Koka of Ansar Ghazwat-Ul-Hind and Bashir Koka of Lashkar, along with Jaish IED expert Abdur Rehman alias ‘Fouji Bhai’ of Pakistan. Compared to 157 militants killed in 2019, police officials see it as “a great success.”

Among the militant deaths, 15 were killed in operations in north Kashmir, while 10 were killed in Srinagar and the rest were all from south Kashmir. The security officials claim “militancy has been nearly wiped out of south Kashmir.” 

A police officer told Kashmir Life that militants have failed to inflict any casualties on forces personnel. “Ninety-nine per cent of encounters were executed cleanly without any collateral damage,” he said.

However,  a retired police officer said that “many of those killed in gunfights were recent recruits to armed groups, suggesting local militancy is still thriving.” In the first two weeks of June alone, 32 militants were killed in the twin districts of Shopian and Pulwama. With this, local militants accounted for more than 88 per cent of militant deaths in counter-insurgency operations. However, the police chief told media that recruitments to militancy has been a record low in 2020. 

File image of encounter site in Shopian (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Security experts also expressed concern over “local youth joining militant ranks”. Writing in The Hindu  Vappala Balachandran, former Special Secretary, in the Cabinet Secretariat said, “J&K police is pathetically trying to connect the alarmingly high number of militants killed this year with their elevated operational efficiency to justify the Union Home Ministry’s claim that Article 370 abrogation had brought peace. However, the serious increase in insurgency despite the heaviest deployment of security forces in recent memory after the August 5, 2019 lockdown would be evident with the killing of 89 militants, mostly local, this year compared to 29 during the second half of 2019”.

According to data available, 17 foreign militants were killed in Kashmir till July end this year. Comparing it with the previous year, the number has nosedived by almost 50 per cent. 

In another significant change, the first time in the last three decades, there is a change in protocol. The bodies of slain militants are not being handed over to their families. Instead, they are buried at far off places under police protection with minimum presence relatives.

The official version of not handing over the bodies is attributed to the current Covid-19 crisis. “We will not be handing over the bodies to (militants’) families till this pandemic is gone. If we allow for identification at encounter sites and permit burial at their native places, huge gatherings might spread infection of Covid-19,” said Inspector General of Police, Vijay Kumar.

“After the encounter ends, dead bodies of killed terrorists are being brought to Srinagar and post mortem and lifting of DNA samples are being done,” said Kumar, adding “If the bodies cannot be identified in Srinagar, the families would get another chance at the burial site. If they identify the bodies in the presence of a magistrate, we allow them to participate in burial as per religious practices.

In  Sopore police registered an FIR against people who gathered at the funeral of a Jaish-e-Muhammad militant for violating Covid-19 protocols and government directives vis-à-vis social distancing.

The procedure of burying local militants came to the fore when two families from Shopian claimed that the two bodies buried in the Gantamulla (Baramulla) were Asif Ahmad Dar and Rahil Hamid Magray who were killed in a gunfight with the forces in Dairoo area Shopian. 

Under the new protocol, families of slain militants have to prove that the slain young men were their members and that is a challenging task.

Apparently this led to another crisis on August 2, when suspected militants waylaid a soldier Shakir Manzoor, destroyed his vehicle and kidnapped him. A resident of Reshipora village in Shopian, the young man was deputed with the Balpora camp in the same region. His family and almost the entire village was searching him for days and the father eventually started asking for his dead body for burial.

“An unverified militant audio has claimed that a slain soldier’s body would not be returned to his family in view of pandemic protocol and pointed out that the security forces cite the same reason while dealing with bodies of killed insurgents,” the Kolkata newspaper The Telegraph reported. “If true, this will be the first such tit-for-tat action by militants for the security forces’ refusal to return bodies of insurgents killed in encounters to their families citing Covid-management measures that prohibit large gatherings.”

And now a July 18 encounter in Amashpora village of Shopian is being disputed by three families of Rajouri who allege the slain trio were not militants but their family members who had got to earn livelihood in Shopian. Police and army said they are investigating the case.

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