Srinagar: At around 6 pm on Thursday (November 2) a group of young boys spotted the body of a young man with his throat slit in an orchard in Kiloora village, three km from Shopian town. Panic gripped the area, and when the police arrived on the scene, the slain person was identified 30-year-old Gowhar Ahmad Bhat, BJP’s Shopian district youth president.
Bhat, who worked as a coordinator for the National Rural Health Mission, had joined the BJP in 2014 and was elevated to the position of youth president in January 2016.
Police blamed militants for the killing. “We are looking into all angles. But it looks like that militants are involved in the killing,” superintendent of police, Shopian Shriram Dinkar told The Wire.
Hailing from Bongam Shopian, Bhat was an active member of the party and had played a key role in organising the recent youth-wing rally in Srinagar, said BJP spokesperson Altaf Thakur.
The rally, which was attended by more than 2,000 party workers, was addressed by the party’s youth wing president Poonam Mahajan. It was the first time in history of Jammu and Kashmir that the BJP youth wing had held such a rally in the summer capital, Srinagar.
“Tragedy strikes at BJP. Gowhar Bhat, district youth president in Shopian in Kashmir, killed by terrorists. Met me just three days ago in Srinagar,” BJP’s national general secretary Ram Madhav tweeted soon after the killing. “Body found with throat slit. Price we pay in our fight against terrorism. Deep condolences. These sacrifices make our determination stronger.”
1/1Tragedy strikes at BJP. Gowhar Bhat district youth president, shopian in Kashmir killed by terrorists. Met me just 3 days ago in Srinagar
— Ram Madhav (@rammadhavbjp) November 2, 2017
2/1Body found with throat slit.Price we pay in our fight against terrorism.Deep condolences.These sacrifices make our determination stronger
— Ram Madhav (@rammadhavbjp) November 2, 2017
No end to the killings
Bhat’s is the latest political killing in South Kashmir, where security forces have launched ‘Operation All Out’ against militants, killing around 171 militants this year alone, including 11 top militant commanders.
The deputy inspector general of police, South Kashmir, S.P. Pani told The Wire that 32 civilians, including political workers, have been killed by the militants in South Kashmir this year – the highest in more than a decade.
A senior police official said while eight to ten person killed were affiliated to different political parties, others were ‘non-political’ persons.
Bhat’s is the first killing of a BJP leader.
The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which claims South Kashmir as its stronghold, has faced the most number of casualties, including the killing of its Pulwama district president Abdul Gani Dar and some party workers.
Former law officer, advocate Imtiyaz Ahmed Khan, who was associated with opposition National Conference, was killed by militants outside a local mosque in April this year in the same district as Bhat.
Thirty-year-old Ishtiyaq Ahmad Wagay of Bijbehara town in Anantnag district was also killed. His bullet-ridden body was recovered earlier this year from Alamgunj village in Shopian district.
Days before his killing, a video in which Wagay was interrogated, apparently by militants, had gone viral on the social media. During the interrogation, Wagay says that he was asked by one Farooq and Saleem Mala to act as an informer or else they will “shoot me”.
On October 16, militants shot dead PDP worker and former sarpanch, Muhammad Ramzan Sheikh of Homhuma Shopian. Sheikh’s had resisted and in the ensuing scuffle, one of the three militants, Shaukat Kumar, who had barged into the house, was also killed.
In August, PDP worker Muhammad Ismail Parray, a 24-year-old student and a cable operator, Hilal Malik, were killed by militants within less than 24 hours.
Later, on October 18, the body of Aijaz Ahmad Lone, a teacher from Gatipora village of Shopian, was found in a nearby village of Wathoo with his throat slit. Like others killing, no militant organisations claimed responsibility for this killing.
The fear grows
The killings have brought back the fear of the early 1990s, when political workers had become the target of unidentified gunmen.
Today, not only has the space for mainstream politicians shrunk, there is also a fear that these killings could trigger migration of political workers from rural pockets to safer places.
Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani has repeatedly issued statements to the local media condemning these killings and seeking an end to them. Since April this year, he has issued at least four such statements.
“In an armed confrontation between warring groups, the casualties are expected, however killing innocents neither serve any purpose for movement, nor does it suit to our ethical values,” a latest statement quoting Geelani was issued by his faction of Hurriyat on October 23, a day after a non-local vendor, Shakir Ahmad from Uttar Pradesh, and a woman Yasmeena were killed in two separate similar incidents in Bijbehara and Tral.
In another statement, after the killing of a former panch who was affiliated with the PDP, Geelani expressed “deep concern over the mysterious killings” in South Kashmir and said there was “no justification” for these killings.
According to the Jammu and Kashmir police, the killings are the “outcome of desperation” by militants following “successful anti-insurgency operation” launched by the forces across South Kashmir.
“They (militants) have got rattled and are now targeting those who are not protected. These killings will only alienate them as no civilised society can approve of such dastardly acts,” said DIG Pani.
The killings have now, on the one hand, cast a shadow on the by-poll for the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat, which were deferred in April this year after the security establishment feared that the exercise could lead to more violence in the region.
On the other hand, the recent outreach programmes by the state government, particularly chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, in different South Kashmir districts like Shopian and Pulwama in form of an awami darbar have also got eclipsed. These programmes were seen as an attempt by the PDP to reclaim lost ground after the 2016 summer uprising.
‘Midnight raids, another headache’
Adding to worries of the security establishment and political parties are attacks carried out by militants on houses of senior political leaders and political workers, warning them to give up their political affiliations or face bullets.
Last month, the militants lobbed grenades on houses of two sitting MLAs of the PDP, Aijaz Ahmad Mir and Mushtaq Shah in Shopian and Tral respectively. The residence of former National Conference MLC, Ghulam Nabi was also attacked with a grenade.
Similarly, militants barged into the house of PDP zonal president Peer Ashraf at Tral, ransacked his house and fired several rounds in the air before fleeing the spot.
The militants also barged into the houses of PDP workers Fayaz Ahmad Mir of Wachi and Abdul Hameed Bhat of Shopian. Both Mir and Bhat were held at gunpoint by militants and warned to quit politics. Two separate videos of incidents were later circulated on social media, apparently to send a message to other political workers.
In another video, Hizb commander Riyaz Naikoo is heard threatening a PDP worker at his house in Pulwama district. “This is first and last warning for you. Tell your bosses… that Riyaz Naikoo was here. Tell them, we can also ransack your houses,” Naikoo is heard warning the PDP worker at gunpoint.
In the video, Naikoo also warns workers of different political parties and policemen that they would be forced to “migrate” if ransacking of militants’ houses didn’t stop.
Following the incidents, several MLAs from both the ruling PDP and opposition National Conference urged security agencies to stop raids and harassment of the militants’ families.
“The security forces should stop harassing the families of militants. It has only landed our workers in trouble. When you ransack militants’ houses, they will react,” PDP legislator Shah told local newspaper Rising Kashmir on October 24, adding he had taken up the issue with the chief minister as well.
Following the growing attacks by the militants, the chief minister, on October 25, directed the police to ensure that families of militants were not targeted.
“The police should not attack the militants’ families the way militants do,” Mehbooba said in her address at Police Training School in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal.
The latest killing of a BJP leader and the raids on political workers’ houses show that the militants remain forceful in South Kashmir, despite the forces’ massive anti-insurgency operation. At least 95 youth have joined the militancy in Kashmir this year, a majority of them from South Kashmir.
“The attacks and killings of political workers, irrespective of the party they belong to, is a matter of great concern. At present the mainstream politics has shrunk at grassroots level in South Kashmir as we are not able to hold programmes and reach out to people,” admitted a senior PDP leader.