Behind the Spurt in Recent Encounters Lies the Flow of Recruits to Militancy in Kashmir

Ahead of Amit Shah's maiden visit to Kashmir and praise for his hawkish security policies, a fresh spasm of violence seems to have put a dampener over the NDA's promise to "establish peace" in the region.

Srinagar: As the Kashmir region gears up for a string of important events including the Amarnath yatra,  the new home minister’s maiden visit to the state and also assembly elections, a fresh blip in the security situation has called into question the government’s commitment to “establish peace” in the region just weeks after the BJP retained power in the Lok Sabha polls.

Newly appointed home minister Amit Shah has been lauded by both press and power circles as a hawk under whose aegis security policy would be toughened in Kashmir, and which would bring down the surge of militancy in the state. But if the situation of the past 12 days is taken into account, a fresh spasm of violence seems to have left the security forces reeling. At least nine men – five CRPF men, one J&K police cop and three army men – have been killed in a week.

During the same period, 11 militants were killed, four of whom were Pakistani nationals, suggesting a sudden spurt in the number of foreigners fighting Indian forces in Kashmir.

Since June 11, there have been eight big encounters. At least half a dozen youth have gone missing from their homes – possibly to join militant ranks – and attacks on the forces have suddenly gone up.

In at least three cases, the attacks been have led by highly trained Pakistani militants. Pertinently, a day before the parliamentary session, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called an all-party meeting in Delhi where the Congress raised the issue of assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Congress leaders reasoned that if both the panchayat and Lok Sabha polls could be successfuly conducted in Valley, there are no grounds for the government to dither over the assembly elections.

Previously BJP leaders have, through their statements, suggested that the polls will take place after the Amarnath yatra concludes. “We told the government that you are not conducting the polls there because the BJP government will not be formed. That is why you want to rule the state through Governor’s rule,” said Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.

The Union Cabinet has also approved the extension of president’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir for six more months, starting July 3.

Also read: What Does Modi’s Second Term Portend for Kashmir?

As per sources, the security establishment supports the deferring of polls as it fears the formation of a government by any regionalist party could hinder counterinsurgency operations. Last year, former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had insisted on a ceasefire during Ramzan as a peace gesture. But it soon backfired as the valley registered more than a 300% increase in the number of militant strikes. The police had come to view the Ramzan ceasefire very unfavourably.

Amit Shah is expected to visit the state on JUne 30 both in his capacity as home minister and to pay obeisance at the Amarnath shrine.

A rising casualty toll

Last Wednesday, five CRPF men died after their vehicle came under a heavy attack by militants in Anantnag district. It was the biggest attack since the Pulwama attack that left 40 CRPF personnel dead. The militants opened fire upon a joint naka party of the state police and the CRPF, which triggered a shootout.

Three of them died soon after they were taken to a hospital. Two succumbed to their injuries later.  A fresh investigation into the attack has also revealed that the militants may have used steel bullets made in China that tore right through the bullet-proof vests of soldiers. Security agencies believe the use of steel bullets was sought to inflict maximum casualties during the attack.

Militants also shot station house officer Arshad Khan of J&K Police. He suffered a bullet injury and underwent treatment for five days before he too succumbed to his injuries on July 17 at AIIMS in New Delhi. The Al Umar militant outfit had claimed responsibility for the attack but, as of now, the government has not taken the claim at face value and is investigating matters further.

Jammu’s atmosphere had grown volatile even before the Pulwama attack on February 14. Credit: Reuters

Just three days later, the security forces killed two militants, Irfan Ahmad Degu and Tasaduk Amin Shah, in Brawbandina village in South Kashmir. Both boys were locals hailing from Litter and Pampore areas of Pulwama and were associated with the Lashkar. This was followed by another encounter in Bidoora village of Anantnag during which army major Ketan Sharma died on the spot. A militant, who turned out to be a Pakistani national, also died during the encounter.

A strange intrigue unfolded during this time after Pakistan issued an intelligence warning about a possible IED attack in South Kashmir. The warning appears to have been motivated by Islamabad’s desire to avoid being greylisted by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global money-laundering watchdog.

Incidentally, just a day after India received the warning, an IED went off in Pulwama district on Monday earlier this week, killing two soldiers and injuring at least nine security personnel. The IED was fitted onto a car which detonated when a mobile bunker of 44 RR rode past it.

On Tuesday, however, the forces managed to kill two militants of Jaish in Bijbihara town of Anantnag. They were Sajad Ahmad Bhat who was the owner of the car used in the Pulwama attack of February, and Tawseef Ahmad Bhat, his close associate. During the encounter, a civilian, Nasir Ahmad Mir (20) of Achabal, South Kashmir also died.

According to the police, Mir was “probably hit by a stray bullet during an exchange of fire.” The killing of Tawseef and Sajad is believed to be a key breakthrough for the security forces. “It was under his (Sajad’s) supervision and area of work where the vehicle was laden with high-end explosives. Later the vehicle was handed over to Adil Dar, who rammed the same into the CRPF convoy,” the state DGP Dilbagh Singh told reporters, referring to the February 14 attack.

Also read: Spate of Gruesome Murders Raises Questions About Security in South Kashmir

“The same group of JeM militants was involved in the attacks that include one at Anantnag on June 12 that left five CRPF men and a police officer dead. In that attack, a Pakistani JeM militant was also killed,” Singh said, adding that the killings “will cause a dent to the Jaish network in the area. It will have a positive impact on the environment in south Kashmir. Security forces will continue to put in their efforts to create a peaceful environment in southern districts.”

Just a day later, however, militants struck again in Pulwama after they lobbed a grenade towards a police station but succeeded only in injuring eight civilians.

On June 22, army killed a militant believed to be a Pakistani national in Boniyar area of Uri along the Line of Control.

The series of encounters have also come at the heels of the army deciding to fine tune its operations to reduce “stop-over time of the terrorists on the move which at present is of 4-5 hours”. “They will either be forced to move out and commit mistakes or compelled to lie low,” an official told the press.

Adding to the crisis is the steady stream of young boys who are either finding their way across the border into Pakistan or simply vanishing from their homes and then showing up on social media with pictures of guns slung across their shoulders. On June 15, the army foiled an ex-filtration bid by four local youths Adil Ahmad Dar (22) from Yaripora Kulgam, Tahir Shamim Lone (19) from Kapren Shopian, Sameer Bhat (18) from Seer Dari village of Sopore and Naveed Parra (19) from village Tapper, in the northern Kashmiri town of Pattan.

Currently, under detention, the army has termed them “newly recruited militants”. Most worryingly, two of them are from north Kashmir, where the insurgency isn’t as intensified as it is in the south. On June 2, 25-year-old Umer Wani from Bandipora also went missing. His parents have appealed to him, through the press, to return home.

Awantipora: Army soldiers near the site of suicide bomb attack at Lathepora Awantipora in Pulwama district of south Kashmir, Thursday, February 14, 2019. At least 40 CRPF jawans were killed and dozens other injured when a CRPF convoy was attacked. Credit: PTI

Their fears are inflamed by fact that another youth from the north Kashmir town of Baramulla recently announced his entry into militancy after posing with an AK 47 rifle in a photo that appeared online. 20-year-old Adnan Ahmad Channa from Azad Gunj Baramulla is believed to have joined Lashkar and has been given the code name Safiullah Bhai.

Recruitment to militancy

On July 18, three more pictures of young boys – all from Pulwama – surfaced online suggesting that they may have joined the militant groups as well. In the pictures, Nazim Ahmad Dar from Kakpora, Pulwama, Irshad Ahmad Dar from Trichal, Pulwama and Rafiq Ahmad Dar from Samboora Pulwama, brandished their weapons.

While Irshad alias Abu Usama and Rafiq alias Abu Qasim have been active since June 1, 2019, Nazim alias Rehan Bhai has joined as recently as Monday. On June 11, Imtiyaz Ahmad Mir, a resident of Gulgam village in Kupwara went missing. His photograph carrying a rifle and announcing his alleged association with the Hizbul Mujahideen surfaced later on the Internet.

On Thursday, reports also said that a youth from Shopian – Muneeb, son of a clergyman, associated with the banned outfit Jamaat-e-Islami – may have joined the ranks of the Hizbul Mujahideen. On June 21, pictures circulated on social media purportedly showing Suhail Yousuf and Rafee Hassan Mir, clad in black shalwar kameez and camouflage bandoliers, carrying rifles.

The pictures announced that these two youth, hailing from Shopian had joined an al Qaeda affiliated outfit called Ansar Ghazwat-ul Hind (AGuH). On Sunday morning, reports about another youth named Shaan Bhat from Aswara Bijbihara in south Kashmir joining the Hizbul Mujahideen also emerged. However, The Wire couldn’t independently verify the claim.

Two of the recruits, Suhail and Rafee, were killed within 24 hours of having announced their entry into militancy, highlighting how slim the lifespan of a militant has become. They died alongside Showkat Ahmad of Rajpora Pulwama and Azad Ahmad Khanday of Bamnoo, Pulwama. All of them were affiliated with the AGuH.

Thus, during the last 12 days, reports of ten youth both attempting to and succeeding in joining militant groups have appeared.

Also read: Why Zakir Musa, Voice of a New Extremism in Kashmir, Survived as Long as He Did

In April this year, the police had prepared an internal assessment report which projected an optimistic picture with regard to recruitment of youth into militancy. The report said that recruitment to the militancy in Kashmir was at a two-year low with only 29 youths joining different groups as of April 25. Last month, the forces revised the figure to 40.

The police report said that during the corresponding period in 2017 and 2018 the recruitment was three times more. In 2018, the number of local youths joining militant ranks was 217, as per officials, though unofficial figures put the number higher at 300.

The recent spate of recruitment incidents, however, now seems portentous. In 2018, the decisive boost to recruitment came precisely after a series of back-to-back encounters. The most influential, in terms of supplying new recruits, was the one that occurred on April 1, 2018, in Dragud village of Shopian.

Immediately after the multiple encounters on that day when 14 people died, over 30 youth went missing from their homes and joined militant outfits. A senior police official told The Wire that it was impossible for youth to find avenues to join militant groups in the absence of OGW (over-ground workers) support.

“Militancy flourishes in an eco-system that itself sustains through OGWs, money from across the border and local support. Merely a desire for revenge doesn’t create militants. When we extinguish this ecosystem, the graph will naturally come down,” the official said.

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.