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New Delhi: If the events taking place over the past two weeks in Kashmir are any indication, militant activities are still being plotted methodically, timed with big events and major political developments – as a means of putting the Union government in a spot.
Over the past 12 days, a sudden burst in militant-related violence, coming on the heels of Union home minister Amit Shah’s three day Jammu and Kashmir visit, has gripped parts of the Union Territory, prompting the administration to beef up security.
Around six gun-battles, five attacks, two mystery murders – including that of a top ranking police officer and one civilian killing – appear to have upended what was a perfectly normal security situation for much of September.
A key aspect of Shah’s much anticipated visit to the Union Territory this week were his public rallies – his first in the region since Article 370 was repealed – where he sounded the poll bugle as well as assured the Pahari community of their inclusion into Scheduled Tribe status. Meeting this long pending demand is being seen as attempt to woo this small community ahead of assembly elections, whenever they are held.
On September 23, militants attacked two non-Kashmiri labourers near Ratnipora in the south Kashmir town of Pulwama. The victims were identified as Shamshad Sheikh and Faizan Qadri, both from Bihar. The duo was hospitalised and are believed to have survived.
On October 28 and 29, two explosions ripped through Jammu’s Udhampur town. Both explosions took place inside parked buses. Two persons were injured in the blasts.
On October 2, a policeman was killed and a CRPF assistant sub-inspector injured after militants opened fire on a joint patrolling party near the Pinglena area of Pulwama district. The slain policeman was identified as Javid Ahmad Dar of Wasoora, Pulwama, and the injured CRPF Assistant sub-inspector as Jai Deashmok.
A day later, on October 3, militants attacked a non-local bank manager in the Pattan area of Baramulla. However, the manager, identified as Vivek Kumar, escaped unhurt. He was posted at a Grameen Bank branch at Goshbugh village.
These attacks took place in the span of 12 days and were interspersed with at least six gunfights that security forces initiated across different parts of Kashmir on the basis of intelligence based tip-offs. At least 10 militants were killed during the gunfights.
The most shocking episode, however, was the killing of a high profile Indian Police Service officer, H.K. Lohia, who served as Director General of the Prisons Department of J&K. Lohia is alleged to have been murdered by his domestic help.
But the event took an interesting turn when the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba took responsibility for the killing, even though the preliminary investigation makes the police feel skeptical about the group’s claims.
A 1992 batch IPS officer, Lohia had been on central deputation before being reposted in J&K in February 2022. A 22-year-old domestic help, Yasir Ahmad, is a prime suspect in this case. CCTV cameras caught him running from the residence. But he managed to stay hiding for close to a day before police arrested him.
Police also recovered a personal diary from his possession which contains entries that appear to suggest Ahmad was struggling with his life. “My life 1% Happy 10% Love 0% Tension 90% Sad 99% Fake smile 100%,” an entry in his diary read.
In another incident, a soldier’s body with a gunshot wound was discovered at a camp in Boniyar in Baramulla district. The army soldier has been identified as Rahul Bhagat from Maharashtra. The identity of the assailants have not been established yet, nor is it yet clear if this was a case of death by suicide – a problem among soldiers posted in Kashmir.
On Tuesday, 25-year-old Aasif Ahmad, a civilian, succumbed to a bullet injury in Pulwama district. While the authroties claim the firing was accidental and that the policeman carrying the rifle was arrested, regional politicians took a dig at the administration, saying it was the “overcautious and paranoid security apparatus” that is responsible for Ahmad’s death.
“As if the harsh measures put in place causing grave inconvenience to the people in Kashmir weren’t enough, Asif from Pulwama paid with his life in the name of ensuring security for HM’s visit,” former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted.
Experts believe that it’s worrying but not surprising that despite sustained anti-militancy operations, militant networks are able to tap into their resources any time and launch actions to their liking.
“There is always a residual capacity to do some mischief,” said Ajai Sahni, a leading counter-terrorism expert. “And it is mobilised in particular times, especially when it is going to cause the greatest embarrassment to the state and its agencies.”
Describing the Union home minister as a “polarising figure”, Sahni said that this was a significant event for militants to plot as many attacks as possible.
In recent months in particular, militancy in Kashmir has seen a shift of sorts, with areas in Jammu that were generally deemed militancy free reporting frequent attacks. Earlier this year, there was a bomb blast at Salathia Chowk in Udhampur that left one person dead. A similar explosion on a bus in Katra carrying pilgrims en route to Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine killed four persons.
The attacks led several analysts to speculate on whether the ecosystem in which militancy thrives in the Valley has made it to Jammu.
During his address in Kashmir, Shah offered figures underscoring the decline of militancy in Kashmir after the reading down of Article 370. He said that while 4,766 militancy related incidents were recorded between 2006 and 2013, since the August 2019 move, only 721 such incidents have occurred.
Yet, many observers say the real threat may not have a lot to do with the scale of militancy at this moment but with new attributes that militancy has acquired over the past three years –with a substantial number of attackers turning out to be young individuals, often minors, who have no record of adverse history.
On top of that, police officials say, young boys start with the role of over ground workers or OGWs – an expression the security forces use to describe sympathisers and affiliates – and then suddenly slip into the shoes of a militant. This had led to the coining of a new term, “hybrid militancy.”
“Despite the low numbers to which militancy has been reduced, Pakistan is still able to pull strings and is in a position to escalate the situation anytime,” a counterintelligence official in Kashmir told The Wire recently.
Experts, however, point to the BJP’s polarising politics as something that compounds the problem further rather than helping it abate.
In recent times, directives such as the one to make pupils in public schools across Kashmir chant ‘Rahupati Raghav Raja Ram’ – a Gandhian hymn that speaks of ‘Ishwar-Allah’ but is seen as distinctly Hindu in both attributes and rendition – has stirred parents and the larger civil society.
Recently, the administration of the lieutenant governor also announced a public holiday on the birth anniversary of Hari Singh, the last Dogra ruler of J&K. The monarchy is an institution for which Kashmiris across the board, except for those historically tied to its patronage system, have no fond memories. It is known for its misrule and mistreatment of Kashmiri Muslims, mostly the peasant class.
In another decree, the J&K Waqf Board stripped the care-takers of Islamic shrines across Kashmir of their historical authority over shrine revenue which, some parties allege, constitutes an encroachment into the religious affairs of local Muslims. In a statement to The Wire last month, however, the Waqf Board denied such accusations and described its move as an act of reform.
In another controversial move, the Waqf Board has also announced it will build a cancer hospital at Srinagar’s iconic Eidgah ground – historically associated with political activities, including pro-independence demonstrations.
These steps appear to have deepened the general mistrust in Kashmir and fomented political anger, something that experts say tends to fuel the conditions that create impulses towards extremist acts.
“Anti-minority politics has become characteristic of this government’s way of functioning,” Sahni said. “The point is that if this was the only one current among many political currents in J&K, it could still have been accommodated. But they (the government) have suspended all other politics, neutralised traditional parties and there’s hardly any other political formation that has been able to garner some kind of traction. Obviously, there will be political frustration but then this is also a fact that at this juncture the security forces’ dominance is so complete that it is difficult to envisage something very major happening which would not be controllable,” he added.