Behind the Upsurge in Militancy in Kashmir's Shopian

According to police records, 58 young boys were drawn into militancy in Shopian in the last 18 months. Of them, 21 were killed last year.

Shopian: Until April 1, many in Kashmir hadn’t heard the name Paddarpora, a nondescript village and one of the last in the southern district of Shopian. Today, it has made headlines in the Valley.

In a single day, the village buried three people, two of them still in teens, who had left home and joined militancy. “They were too young to die but they laid their lives for a cause. We will never betray them,” a group of villagers, mostly young boys in their 20s, pledged at the house of Rayees Thoker, one of the slain militants.

A few houses down in the same lane lived Gaaysul Islam and Ishfaq Ahmad Thoker, the other two militants. Aged between 19 and 24, the three were cousins were among 13 rebels shot dead by security forces in two separate gunfights in south Kashmir last Sunday, in one of the biggest anti-militancy operations in the past ten years.

While Ishfaq survived with the militants for 4.5 years, Rayees was the youngest recruit – he left home nine months ago.

Top officials from the army and J&K police have described the killings as a “major victory” against militancy. At the same time, the operations have brought into focus the militancy graph in Shopian.

‘The numbers kept rising…’

Nestled deep in apple orchards, Shopian sits in the lap of the Pirpanjal mountain range and is one of the more prosperous districts of J&K. The fruit industry drives the economy here – hence the name the ‘apple bowl’ of the state.

But today, it has emerged as a new hotbed of militancy in south Kashmir. People here openly espouse the separatist cause and young boys talk proudly of their “heroes” from the neighbourhood, who have joined the ‘tehreek‘, the resistance movement, or lost their lives in it.

The security establishment is wary of this reality, which is reflected in the statistics too. Before 2016, says superintendent of police Shopian, A.S. Dhinakaran, there were only eight militants in the district. But when popular rebel commander Burhan Wani was killed by forces in July that year, the district witnessed a dramatic rise in militancy.

“Their number kept rising and at one point in 2017 it was four times more than total militants in 2016,” the SP explained.

Crowds gathered at Burhan Wani's funeral. Credit: PTI/Files

Crowds gathered at Burhan Wani’s funeral. Credit: PTI/Files

According to police records, 58 young boys were drawn into militancy in Shopian in the last 18 months. Of them, 21 were killed last year. Prior to the Sunday encounters, there were 32 local militants from Shopian, the highest among all four districts of south Kashmir.

“There are 21 local militants still active here, both from Hizb and Lashkar,” Dhinakaran said.

A senior counter-insurgency official, however, said the actual number of local militants was “higher”, though he didn’t give the number.

Security agencies have categorised the entire district, with a population of less than three lakh people, into three zones – Zainapora, main Shopian and Keller belt. And, according to the official, it is Zainapora, consisting of more than 80 villages, which has seen more youth taking the plunge.

The district has seen more than 15 encounters in the last 18 months, but this has not stopped local youth from stepping into the world of militancy.

Not a single factor

Though officials within J&K police and locals ascribe different reasons to the trend, there is unanimity among them that Burhan Wani not only impressed young minds, but also swayed the mood in favour of militancy.

Even Dhinakaran acknowledged this factor. “This all happened due to the Burhan Wani problem,” he said.

Burhan Wani joined militancy in 2010, and it is believed that before his death, he spent “quite some time” in villages across Shopian, influenced by the Jamat-i-Islamia ideology.

The official said Shopian was always on the militancy map of Kashmir. But post 2005, the numbers started coming down, and at one point after 2010, fell to a single digit.

That is when Burhan Wani arrived on the Valley’s militancy landscape. “He (Burhan), along with another (slain) militant Waseem Malla, renewed militancy in the district,” said the official.

Before joining militancy in 2012, Malla was a regular face in the protests against the rape and murder of two women in Shopian in 2009. He was killed in an encounter along with Naseer Pandit, the policeman-turned-militant from Pulwama, on April 7, 2016.

Today, a majority of militants from Shopian, except for commanders like Zeenat-ul-Islam of Sugan and Saddam Padder of Heff, are those who have picked up arms after 2016. Ten of the 11 local militants killed in the encounters had left home in the last 10-14 months.

Relatives of a youth killed in a Shopian encounter. Credit: Reuters

Relatives of a young man killed in a Shopian encounter. Credit: Reuters

“Go out and find for yourself. The youth say the life Burhan and others lived is worth living than this zulum (oppression)… the sentiment runs deep in the district,” said Fayaz Ahmad Malik, father of another slain militant, Aitmaad Hussain. “We would suffer oppression silently, but they won’t; they have decided to stand against it.”

An orchardist, 45-year-old Malik from Amshipora village said Aitmaad, who had done an MPhil from Hyderabad University, had never shown an inclination towards militancy.

But on November 5, 2017, 26-year-old Aitmaad left home at 1 pm and within the next three hours, he uploaded his picture, posing with a rifle, on social media, announcing the path he had chosen.

There are other factors as well. Zubair Turray was an active member of separatist Syed Ali Geelani-led Hurriyat and would often participate in protests in the district. He was booked in more than a dozen cases of alleged stone-throwing and street protests and finally detained under the Public Safety Aact. But he escaped from custody and joined Hizb in May 2017. He was among the militants killed on Sunday.

“He was a political activist from a young age. But he was harassed continuously. This left him with no choice but to pick up the gun,” said an advocate at Shopian court who has been pleading cases of alleged stone pelters.

In the past five months, the district has witnessed ten civilian killings by forces during encounters and protests. So far, there has been no action in any case and the government’s silence has only added to public rage.

‘Encounters alone won’t end militancy’

Aijaz Ahmad Mir, the ruling People’s Democratic Party MLA from Wachi, one of the two constituencies in Shopian, described the militancy in the district as a “serious concern”.

“There is a sentiment. We can’t deny it and it can’t be suppressed by gun or force. Instead, resolution of the political problem is the way forward,” said Mir.

The district police chief underlined that a multi-pronged approach can wean away youth from militancy, adding that creating job avenues and bringing “fresh narratives” would supplement the efforts.

“Encounters alone won’t end militancy…the police are ready to support return of militants to mainstream life…,” said the SP.

The police’s offer coincides with a dangerous reality: the militants’ funerals have of late become fertile recruiting grounds in the Valley. According to the police’s own assessment, at least one or two youth take up arms after every militant funeral.

There are already reports that a local youth at Turay’s funeral displayed a gun publicly and disappeared. “The anger on the streets isn’t going to die down easily. Only time will tell what shape it takes in the coming days,” said the lawyer.

Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.