Srinagar: Kashmir is simmering after two civilians were shot dead and at least 25 were injured, the majority of them by bullet wounds. Tensions rose in the Valley on February 12, following an encounter in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district in which four militants and two army personnel were killed.
Soon after the encounter, South Kashmir, which was the epicentre of the five-month-long uprising last year, was seething with anger once again as thousands of people marched towards Kulgam to participate in funeral prayers for the civilians – one of whom was caught in crossfire and another was part of protests – and prayers for the militants. Though clashes had broken out early on Sunday morning, the situation deteriorated after security forces, as per eyewitness accounts, “fired into the crowds to break up the protests which were gaining momentum”. Of the 25 injured civilians, 17 had bullet injuries of which ten were wounds above the waistline, as per the police report. The fresh civilian killings triggered a wave of protests in south Kashmir with the opposition demanding a probe into the killings while separatists have called for a march to Kulgam on February 14, which could be the first major challenge for the government this year.
Security forces cordoned off the Nagbal locality in Frisal, a village of Kulgam, following information about the presence of militants, late on the evening of February 11. “We came to know that a civilian was also inside the house in which militants were hiding which forced us to halt the operations till Sunday morning. Then we took the help of a local Auqaf committee to urge the civilian to come out but the militants kept him hostage,” said R. Chakravorty, the commanding officer of Sector 1 of the Rashtriya Rifles, while briefing the media about the encounter in Anantnag. “Finally our jawans entered the house and as they were leaving with the civilian, militants fired upon them, leaving the civilian and two army men dead on spot.”
During the subsequent gunfight, four militants – two from Hizbul Mujahideen and two from Lashkar-e-Tayyaba – were killed. The slain civilian was identified as 38-year-old Ashiq Reshi, the son of Abdul Majid, who owned the house. The locals, however, contested the official claims, alleging that Reshi was used as a ‘human shield’ by the forces. “He (Reshi) and his brother, Muhammad Shafi, were taken along by the forces inside the house. Only Shafi managed to come out alive,” said one eyewitness.
As the news about the encounter spread, youth from the adjoining villages in Kulgam, Anantnag and Shopian district rushed to the spot to help the militants escape, triggering massive protests, which were met with bullets, pellets and teargas shells. At least 25 civilians were injured, including 22-year-old Mushtaq Ahmad Itoo of Sirgufwara. Itoo was hit by a bullet in the abdomen, succumbing to his injuries at a local hospital.
“The worry is that whenever an encounter takes places these days, the youth are ready to risk their lives to try and break the cordon to save the militants. We often see youth from far off places getting injured near an encounter site and this tells us about the situation in the Valley,” a police official from South Kashmir told The Wire. This phenomenon of civilians trying to force their way to break the siege has become a regular scene at every encounter site and has been worrying both state and central forces.
What added to the concerns of the security establishment this time were the videos of the encounter and clashes which were virtually broadcast in real time on Facebook. In one of the videos, youths are seen washing away blood from a road. “Ye hum India ko kehna chahte hai ki kaisa zulm kar rahe hain Kashmiri bhaaio ke saath…Meherbani karke is video ko share kariye (We want to tell India about the kinds of atrocities we are being subjected to…Please share this video),” the voice of an unknown person narrates while explaining that the blood was that of a civilian. In another video, a young man, laying flat on the ground, is seen screaming that he has been hit by a bullet. These videos went viral on Facebook, attracting the attention of people from all corners of the Valley.
New challenges and bigger worry
A top police official acknowledged that every time a local militant is killed it leads to resentment, which sometimes inspires Kashmiri youth to join the militant ranks. His claim is supported by the official report on the surge in local militancy. The report states that there were 180 militants active in Kashmir before the unrest in summer 2016. The number has now reached between 280 and 300, most of whom locals. Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti recently told the state assembly that 59 local youth had joined militant ranks following the killing of Burhan Wani on July 8 last year. They have either joined the Hizbul Mujahideen or the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, which have been operating in coordination in Kulgam and other South Kashmir districts.
At the same time, however, the security forces have intensified anti-militancy operations since December last year and most of the militants killed in these operations have been locals. As per the report, 10 out of 15 militants killed since January this year were locals, with security forces finding it hard to implement a new counter-militancy strategy wherein there are directions to forces operating on the ground to try and persuade the local militants trapped in encounters to surrender.
When Kashmir was in the middle of unrest in October 2015, then chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed had asked the police to work towards bringing local militants back into the political mainstream, saying that instead of killing local militants in encounters, the police should “bring them back home”. During the recent assembly session in Jammu, Mehbooba reiterated the directions to the forces for adopting the new anti-militancy strategy, which is believed to be the fallout of Wani’s killing; at least 96 people were killed and over 15,000 injured by the forces to quell the uprising that followed his killing.
Though there was some initial success with the new strategy – at least six youths who taken up arms after the unrest surrendered at the site of encounters with the help of their families – officials argue it was “very difficult and risky” to follow every time.
“Militants usually refuse the offer to surrender and instead open fire. In such a situation we are left with no option but to retaliate,” said an official.
But the fresh spell of protests in South Kashmir comes at a time when a separate state police report has reportedly warned that the Valley could see another uprising after March, while terming the “united Hurriyat leadership” of Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer and Yasin Malik a “threat to peace”. The opposition has already been warning the government against “trying to push Kashmir into another 2016 like unrest,” referring to the “provocative” statements about abrogation of Article 370, granting citizenship rights to West Pakistan refugees and separate townships for Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley by the BJP. “We are ready to handle any law and order situation,” Kashmir’s director general of police S.P. Vaid told The Wire.
The immediate concern for the government would be ensuring peace in the next few days as further loss of civilian life can trigger wide protests across the Valley.