As Elections Near, Security Forces Have Scaled Up Anti-Militancy Operations in Kashmir

In the last four months, 125 militants have been shot dead, a majority of them in south Kashmir.

Srinagar: When militants dropped the cloak of anonymity in Kashmir’s ‘new-age insurgency’, he chose to conceal his identity. So much secrecy surrounded him that at one point of time, he had “completely gone off the radar”, a senior police official acknowledged. In his native village of Braw-Bandina, people started to believe Adnan Lone had crossed over to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The family had not seen him since he left home almost four years ago, claimed a relative of his.

At the stroke of dawn when gunshots rang in Saffron town of Pampore on November 29, people knew what was coming. A brief encounter followed. By the time youth started to assemble at the gunfight site, forces had got the “biggest catch”.

Also Read: Why Educated Kashmiri Youth Continue to Join Militancy

Adnan, believed to be the “right hand” of operational Hizbul Mujahideen chief Riyaz Naikoo, was among two militants shot dead by forces. “He (Adnan) would have completed his engineering degree today. He was a bright student,” his father Ghulam Muhammad told The Wire at his house in Bandina.

He passed Class X and Class XII with a distinction. At 19, Adnan joined an engineering college in Jammu to “pursue his dream”. He “changed suddenly” and left home, never to return again.

‘Renewed offensive’

Adnan became the 37th militant to be killed by the forces in November, one of the deadliest months in recent years in the Valley, which recorded 48 killings. While political uncertainty has deepened in the region, and talks seem to be completely off the table, forces have intensified anti-militancy operations.

During the last ten days of November alone, 17 rebels including seven commanders of the Hizb and Lashkar-e-Tayyabba, were killed in seven separate gun battles. Among them were most wanted militants Naveed Jatt and Azad Ahmad Malik.

Data accessed by The Wire showed that in the last four months, 125 militants have been shot dead, a majority of them in south Kashmir, the hotbed of homegrown militancy, indicating a scaling up of anti-insurgency operations.

“An excellent synergy among police, army and CRPF coupled with flow of credible information is giving us desired results on ground,” said additional director general of police (ADGP) Muneer Khan.

The fresh offensive against rebels, a senior police official said, was aimed at eliminating the leadership and destroying organising capabilities. “These operations are a major success also because almost the entire cult has been eliminated. Some of those killed were active for the last four to five years and had a strong network on the ground. The focus is on tracking down organisers and top commanders. These are the two elements of Kashmir militancy which have kept it alive,” said the official.

The “hit-list” prepared by the forces earlier this year has now come down to single digits, said an SP-level police official from southern Kashmir. Naikoo, active since 2011 and the longest surviving militant, Zeenat-ul-Islam, Zakir Musa, Latief Ahmad Dar, Mohammad Ashraf and Sheikh Abbas are among those who have survived “Operation All Out” and the ongoing offensive.

Ajai Sahani, founding member and executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, termed the recent militant killings as “acceleration” in anti-insurgency operations, “based on human intelligence”. “That is leading to dramatic successes,” he argued.

File photo of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo.

‘Change in strategy’

Since his dramatic escape from police custody in January this year, Jatt has given the slip to the forces at least twice during gun fights. His deputy, Azad Malik, too escaped from an encounter in April this year. But the operation that led to their killing in the last week of November were “brief and precise”. “The success was the outcome of a new strategy,” confirmed the SP.

All seven operations carried out by forces during the last two weeks of November, which dealt a major blow to militancy in Kashmir, were planned during pre-dawn. “This strategy works two ways: there is a surprise element and there are also chances of less resistance from locals,” the SP said.

The ADGP agreed that the timing of these fresh operations was “an important element”. “Another important part of the strategy has been to ensure no or minimal collateral damage,” asserted Khan.

“Militarily,” said former R&AW chief A.S. Dulat, “the situation has improved in Kashmir after governor’s rule and in the last few weeks, anti-militant operations have been more successful.” But, he said, these operations can’t resolve the Kashmir problem. “This has to be supplemented with political initiative,” he argued.

A.S. Dulat, former special director of the Intelligence Bureau and former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing.

Recruitment ‘negligible’, protests down, says police

Addressing the media after the killing of Jatt, director general police (DGP) Dilbagh Singh said recruitment of local youth into militancy has “gone down drastically”. “It is almost negligible now,” he said, adding some “recent activities” of militants, including execution of two youth, who were accused of being police informers, were proving “counterproductive” for militants.

Another senior police official, said 31 local youth had joined the militancy in April. “This number is in fact the highest for any month during the past ten years,” he said. But he asserted that there has been a relative decline in recruitment during the past three months.

A separate report compiled by the J&K police in October this year, however, gives a completely different picture. As per this report, at least 164 local youth had picked up guns during the first ten months of 2018, much higher than the 126 recorded last year. The number is almost double the 88 recorded in 2016. In 2015, only 66 youth had taken up arms in Kashmir.

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Another aspect of the Kashmir militancy has been that at the end of each year, the number of active militant remains consistent. In 2017, at least 217 militants were killed – the highest in the past decade. The police admitted that around 250 to 300 militants were active. This August, a news report claimed that number of rebels operating in the Valley has crossed 300 for the first time in a decade.

“We have killed around 230 militants this year,” the DGP told the press conference on November 28. When asked about the strength of active militants, he said the number is between 200-250.

“That is the question. The number of active militants remains same despite killings…but if the situation is improving militarily on the ground, then it is good,” said Dulat.

According to Sahani, the increased militancy during the past three years was the outcome of political mismanagement in Kashmir. “The kind of decisions that the Centre has been taking on Kashmir… the talk about abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A, the polarising politics that the PDP and the BJP played during their alliance, have played a significant role,” he said.

However Sahani added that “marginalisation” of militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad in Pakistan and heavy loss of leadership and cadres to Lashkar over the years has brought Hizb, which draws its strength from within Kashmir, to the forefront.

“That is why local militants have outnumbered the foreigners. Lashkar and Jaish’s cadre was coming from Pakistan. As long as they had a principle role in Kashmir, local recruitment had dropped and Hizb had a secondary role. Now with greater emphasis by Pakistan on Hizb, the whole movement is shifting back to Kashmir and returning as a local movement,” said Sahani.

Army personnel standing guard outside a school in Kashmir. Credit: PTI

Another factor that has attracted young and educated youth towards the gun has been “glamorisation of the militancy” by slain militant commander Burhan Wani, who had emerged as the poster boy of Kashmir’s new age militancy before he was killed in an encounter in July 2016.

On the other hand, security agencies are counting a “decrease” in protests and stone pelting incident at gunfight sites as another ‘plus’ this year. “Law and order engagements and stone pelting incidents have come down (at encounter sites). This shows people’s cooperation with the forces,” the DGP said.

During last three encounters – one each in Anantnag, Shopian and Budgam – at least 32 people with firearm and other injuries were brought to Srinagar hospitals for treatment. Most of them were injured in clashes with forces at gunfight sites. One youth was also killed at an encounter site in Shopian district, indicating clashes and protests continue to be a challenge for the forces.

But ADGP Khan asserted that “ground situation is changing”. “We are consistently trying to engage with the people,” he said.

Eye on next year’s elections?

This acceleration in military offensive is also seen by political observers as a move to prepare the ground for conducting peaceful assembly and general elections next year. Though the violence-free municipal polls last month and ongoing panchayat elections have come as a big relief for government despite the threat from militants, holding peaceful elections next year is going to be a big challenge for the government and security agencies.

The government couldn’t hold by-elections to the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat after it fell vacant in April 2016, when PDP president Mehbooba Mufti left it to contest assembly elections and went on to become the chief minister. Since then, this seat is lying vacant.

Also Read: Why the Lowest-Ever Turnout in Kashmir Municipal Polls Should Worry Delhi

“While protests have been going on since 2016, their intensity has certainly fallen. One of the reasons is the fatigue that has crept in during last two years. At the same time, the militancy has received major setbacks in recent months. These two things will play a major role when the Centre takes a call on holding elections,” said political analyst Noor A. Baba.

“The future will entirely depend on the kind of politics that is played in Kashmir. The use of force is a necessary function against any insurgency movement. But unless political steps are taken for stabilisation of the situation, force alone can’t resolve any issue,” said Sahani.

He however, argued that the present situation will continue till the formation of the next governmnet at the Centre. “Recruitment will continue and killings too. This is a given. Then, it remains to be seen whether there is inclusive, stabilising or accommodative politics or Kashmir will continue to slide further into chaos and uncertainty,” said Sahani.

Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.