Kashmir: Militancy Remains a Zero-Sum Game, Two Years after August 5 Move

In the days leading up to Independence Day, several militant attacks took place in Jammu and Kashmir.

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Srinagar: On August 10, just days ahead of Independence Day celebrations in Kashmir, militants lobbed a grenade at Hari Singh High Street, a busy commercial enclave in the middle of the Srinagar city. The projectile was intended for the 40th Battalion of the Sashatra Seema Bal but landed elsewhere before exploding, injuring at least five persons.

Hot on the heels of this attack, security forces embarked on feverish searches around the city and succeeded in nabbing a youth in whose possession the police said two grenades were recovered.

The Srinagar attack was the seventh militancy-related crime in August so far. In July, Kashmir witnessed at least ten big encounters, making it the most violent month in 2021 so far.

Even as the government says that all parameters show declining levels of militancy in Kashmir, clustered and temporal escalations and frequent attacks targeting Srinagar city offer signs that the militancy still remains a potent threat, two years after the dilution of Article 370. One of the avowed objectives of this move was to all but extinguish terrorism in all its forms.

On Monday, militants shot dead Ghulam Rasool Dar, a sarpanch and his wife Jawahira in Anantnag district.

Another attack on an SSB party in Srinagar took place on August 5, on the second anniversary of the dilution of Article 370. However no injuries or loss of life was reported. On the same day, an explosion followed by gunfire rattled the city’s Nowhatta neighborhood while in Sopore in north Kashmir, militants opened fire on a police party in the main town but without success.

On August 3, militants attacked another police party in Khanyar in the heart of Srinagar city, leaving one cop and one civilian injured. The cop had to be hospitalised because he took a bullet to the stomach.

Last week, Constable Nisar Ahmed died and three others sustained injuries after assailants unleashed a flurry of gunfire on a group of policemen managing traffic at a busy crossing in the Kulgam district.

Ahead of Independence Day celebrations on August 15, the spate of attacks had led to intensified stop and search operations across Kashmir.

Close to 47 gunfights have taken place in Kashmir this year. The district of Shopian accounts for most (13) of these skirmishes. As per the police, an estimated 82 persons have joined militant groups in Kashmir in the first half of this year alone. During the whole of last year, 174 men joined the militancy.

As per data that the J&K Police shared with The Wire, around 187 militancy-related incidents took place in Kashmir this year so far. Eighty-nine militants have died in around 47 gunfights, while the number of militant and the militant associates arrested this year (until August 10) is 127.

Srinagar, where the influence of the militancy was believed to have been waning, reported more terror related attacks so far this year than the traditional insurgency prone districts like Pulwama and Kulgam. In fact, as of last week, the city witnessed the same number of militancy related incidents as Shopian.

A 2018 study by security agencies in J&K found that every time a gunfight took place in Kashmir, there was a surge in recruitments and new inductions into the militancy far exceeding the “militants killed in operations rendering even successful counter-insurgency a zero-sum game.”

Two years after annulment of special status, the pattern, it seems, still remains despite the fact that no militant funerals – believed to be a key driver behind recruitment – have taken place since early 2020.

“Last year in South Kashmir, there were nearly 60-70 individuals who joined terrorism,” a senior officer who could not be named because he was not authorised to speak to the press told The Wire. “And this year, the number is still 70 as well.”

Last year, there were around 220 active militants in Kashmir and despite the killing of around 89 militants this year, the number, as per a recent police statement, is still 200.

This year, militants have been able to stage big hit and run attacks that have precipitated a sense of scare.

In February, militants killed Aakash Mehra, owner of Krishna Dhaba in Srinagar, in what was the second killing of non-locals residing or doing business in Kashmir this year. Two days later, attackers shot dead two policemen in broad daylight in the Baghat area of Srinagar. On March 25, there was a big attack on CRPF at Lawaypora in Srinagar in which three personnel died.

That same month, militants killed two municipal councilors and one cop in another hit and run attack in Sopore. Another cop died on April 1 in Nowgam, Srinagar when burka-clad militants attempted to kill a BJP leader. A deadly militant attack in Sopore on June 11 resulted in the killing of two cops and two civilians. On June 26, an SPO, his wife and daughter were killed in another gruesome attack in the Tral area of South Kashmir.

So far this year, seven policemen and three SPOs have been killed by militants. Last year, 11 policemen and four SPOs were killed in various militant attacks.

IGP Kashmir, Vijay Kumar visits the family of slain SPO Fayaz Ahmad Bhat. Photo: Zubair Amin

Militant infrastructure blunted

At the same time, several big arrests and killings this year have also significantly blunted the militant infrastructure in the Valley, particularly that of the LeT’s.

Earlier this year in February, police in Jammu arrested Hidayatullah Malik, a ‘categorised terrorist’ who headed the Lashkar e Mustafa group that the security forces describe as a front for Jaish e Mohammad.

Malik’s arrest and subsequent interrogations threw up significant leads, the trail of which led the police to Bihar, resulting in the arrest of Javaid Ahmed, a resident of Chapra village. Police say their investigations have uncovered an arms trafficking network facilitating the procurement and shipping of weapons from other Indian states to Kashmir.

On the basis of further disclosures made by Malik and one more apprehended militant, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) last month carried out raids at 15 locations in Jammu, Ramban Shopian and Anantnag districts and even took custody of one militant Irfan Dar of Batingoo in Anantnag district.

In April, security forces killed Imtiyaz Shah, chief of Ansar Ghazwatul Hind (AGuH), an al Qaeda inspired outfit, along with six other militants. Police said the killing foiled a purported plot to target the Amarnath yatra, which eventually could not take place on account of surging coronavirus cases in Kashmir.

In May, security forces killed another foreign militant named Hamas alias Saria who was active since March 2018 in North Kashmir and figured in the list of top 60 militants. He was also very instrumental in ramping up recruitment by motivating youngsters to join various militant groups.

With the killing of Mudasir Pandit, one of the most wanted militants in the Valley, in June, security forces claimed another big success. Pandit had 18 FIRs against him for his involvement in killing nine members of the security forces, four civilians, two former militants, three sarpanches and two separatists.

Along with Pandit, two other militants were also killed, including a Pakistani national named Abdullah alias Asrar, who was working with Pandit for a long time, and Khursheed Mir of Sopore, against whom there were six FIRs for his role in the killing of seven members of the security forces and five civilians.

This year, security forces have also eliminated top commanders of Lashkar. That includes Nishaz Hussain Lone alias Khitab, a district commander who was killed in a gunfight on July 2. In that same week, security forces killed Mehraj ud Din alias Ubaid during a gunfight at the Pazipora area of Kralgund in Handwara. Ubaid was one of the oldest commanders of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in north Kashmir. On July 10, Arif Hajam, another district commander of Lashkar, active for close to three years, was killed in Anantnag.

Four days later, security forces shot dead Ajaz alias Abu Huraira, yet another major LeT commander and two more militants in a gunfight in Pulwama district. Another Lashkar commander Ishfaq Ahmad Dar alias Abu Akram, from Heff Shirmal village of Shopian, was among two militants killed in the Sidiq Khan area of Shopian district on July 17. Dar was a police deserter. He had gone home on a ten-day leave in 2017 and didn’t report back to duty.

Another top Lashkar commander, Fayaz War, was among two militants killed in a gunfight in the Warpora area of Sopore in Baramulla district on July 23.  He was listed among the most wanted militants of north Kashmir.

Recently, security forces also eliminated another top LeT militant, Babar Ali, in a gunfight in the Chandaji area of north Kashmir’s Bandipora district. Ali hailed from the Ugada district of Punjab, Pakistan.

Thus in the first half of 2021, security forces have been able to inflict heavy losses on the LeT group. Recently, the police released an updated list of 10 most wanted militants including seven old militant commanders and three new recruits.

Representative image. Photo: PTI

Another noticeable pattern has been that a significant number of slain militants this year turned out to be those who had been active only for a few days or weeks. This is consistent with the trend already in vogue well before the revocation of J&K’s special status.

They mostly include youngsters who have fallen foul of the security agencies because of their involvement in protests, or those who nurture grudges over humiliating encounters with the law enforcement agencies or simply those who cite religious reasons.

“Very rarely has a person become a militant who was not already on our radar or who hadn’t had run-ins with law enforcement or who wasn’t already a suspect,” another senior officer explained. “New recruits are from the traditional areas. We haven’t yet witnessed anything that would surprise us. For example in Srinagar, we are not likely to see someone from the upscale Rajbagh area joining the ranks, but we have seen and continue to see recruitment from areas like Nowgam and Lasjan on the outskirts of the city. The matrix that enables militancy is the over ground worker support base and wherever you have it, the militancy will grow as a consequence.”

Aamir Mir, a Lashkar militant had joined only a month ago before he was killed in March this year. Suhail Nisar Lone and Yasir Wani, two militants whom the police blamed for the attack on a BJP politician at Nowgam in Srinagar, were killed in April. They had joined the militancy in February and March respectively and had only been active for weeks.

15-year-old Kashif Mir, who was killed on April 8, had joined the militancy on March 20, while Faisal Gulzar (14) who died “battling” a heavily armed contingent of the security forces on April 10, was just a militant for just four days. Wasim Ahmed Lone of Hatlangoo Sopore had only been missing for four days before the security forces killed him during a gunfight in May.

As per the police, Zakir Bashir, a resident of Chimmer in Kulgam, went missing on July 18 and was killed during a gunfight 12 days later. However, allegations of him being a militant have been contested by his family, who claim that he was dragged out of his home, thrashed and then shot dead in cold blood.

Similarly, 19-year-old Mehran Yaseen from old Srinagar went missing on May 19 and is alleged to have remained ‘active’ for barely one month and ten days before the security forces killed him during a gun-battle in Pulwama on July 2.

“Militants are products of complex conditions,” another senior officer said. “Not everybody will join the ranks because they are hurt by a real or perceived injustice. A confluence of factors needs to combine before a certain threshold is breached, creating that proverbial perfect storm. Sometimes the spark would be trauma, sometimes religion. But it’s never the same.”

A third officer cited social media as the new tool that facilitates recruitment into the militancy. “The classical case this year has been that of the young man who killed the owner of Krishna Dhaba. He was radicalised on social media,” he said.

Rise of new outfits

The officers also told The Wire that the advent of new outfits did not signify a new dynamic. Instead, the already exiting groups were creating new fronts to fabricate an impression as though the militancy was indigenous with no connections to Pakistan.

But at the same time, only 10% of the total number of militants killed this year are foreigners. It was 15% last year and 19% in 2019.

Over the last few years, the militancy in Kashmir has witnessed the rise of new groups that appeal to the idea of Khilafat to bolster their organisational prestige and attract new recruits. Militants from groups like Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar have often flocked over to AuGH and ISJK citing disillusionment with Pakistan. Last month, Irfan Sofi, a Resistance Front (TRF) militant from Srinagar announced he had joined the ranks of ISJK.

“The Khilafat discourse is also created by Pakistan to make other groups seem moderate. They are doing this in Afghanistan as well, by propping up the Islamic State so that the Taliban looks like the lesser evil,” a senior officer said. “Contrary to popular perception, the US did not fail in Afghanistan. It wanted to dislodge al Qaeda, kill Osama bin laden, and stave off further attacks on its soil. All these objectives have been met. So how is this defeat? A perception is being manufactured that the Taliban is some kind of anti-imperial force that defeated a superpower. If the motive is to inspire confidence in support of terrorism in Kashmir, we won’t allow that to happen.”