Why Militants Are Turning to Srinagar – Again

The killing of 28-year-old Umer Nazir Bhat, a mobile phone seller, by unknown assailants is the third such attack within seven days.

Srinagar: The killing of 28-year-old Umer Nazir Bhat, a mobile phone seller, by unknown assailants in the heart of Srinagar city has reignited concerns over the fragile security situation in Kashmir at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government contemplates political rapprochement with mainstream parties in Kashmir who were driven to the political margins in the aftermath of reading down Article 370.

The killing, which the police has described as a terror incident, is the third such event in the last seven days and has fuelled speculations on whether militants plan to turn Srinagar city into a new staging ground for the insurgency.

On Tuesday, militants had shot dead Parvaiz Ahmed Dar, a J&K police inspector, near Nowgam area of Srinagar city. CCTV footage showed gunmen trailing the unsuspecting cop on his way to the mosque and pulling out a pistol before firing multiple rounds.

On Wednesday, Bhat was at his shop in Habba Kadal, an old neighbourhood along Jhelum River, when the assailants struck. Pictures flooding the internet showed the floor splattered with blood as a crowd gathered outside the shop. Shortly after, the police reached the spot and sealed off the area.

Police has blamed former Hizbul Mujahideen militant Muhammad Abbas Sheikh from Koimoh, Kulgam for orchestrating the attacks. Sheikh reportedly defected from HM last year and joined the new outfit called The Resistance Front. This defection is said to have been staged by the Lashkar-e-Tayyabba of which, the police says, TRF is a front.

Curiously, TRF’s sudden appearance in the arena of armed insurgency has also been linked to Pakistan’s purported attempts to expand militancy to northern and central parts of Kashmir including Srinagar.

“Investigation into the matter is in progress and officers continue to work to establish the circumstances which lead to this terror crime,” a police release said.

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Both the police and Bhat’s relatives are clueless about what motivated the killing. “We are still probing the incident. There’s no lead at the moment,” said a senior officer on the condition of anonymity.

Bhat’s family, however, refuted the police’s contention that militants carried out the attack. “Why would they attack him when my brother had no political connections?” Danish Nazir (18), the slain shopkeeper’s brother, asked. “Militants would have given a warning or something. That did not happen.”

Nazir said his brother was sole breadwinner for the family. “My father is a retired bank employee. He does not get any pensionary benefits either. I have three young siblings. It’s hard to even imagine a life without our brother.”

The family received the call at 7:30 pm on June 23 informing them about Bhat’s killing. “The shopkeepers in the vicinity had driven my brother to a hospital where doctors declared him brought dead,” he said.

This year, Srinagar city witnessed a spate of high-profile attacks resulting in a number of fatalities. On June 17, militants shot dead a J&K policeman, Javaid Ahmed Tambi, at Saidapora area near Eidgah, Srinagar.

Earlier in April, militants disguised as burkha-clad women killed a J&K policeman, Rameez Raja, who was guarding the residence of a local BJP politician near Aribagh area in Nowgam, Srinagar. Police later identified two of the four militants as Shahid Khursheed and Ubaid Shafi, both from Srinagar city. The other two, Suhail Nisar Lone from Khrew, Pulwama and Junaid Ahmed from Prichoo, Pulwama were both killed during a gunfight at Kakapora, Pulwama just two days later. Shafi was killed during a gunfight last month in Vailoo, Kokernag in South Kashmir.

In March, militants succeeded in waging a high-profile attack at Lawaypora on the outskirts of Srinagar city, killing three CRPF men. It was also the first attack since India and Pakistan decided to observe the 2003 ceasefire agreement and end hostilities along the border while embarking on a series of peace initiatives brokered by third parties like the UAE.

In February, Suhail Ahmed and Muhammad Yousuf, two J&K policemen, were killed during a militant attack at an upscale locality in Srinagar. A small clip of the attack circulating on social media showed a man in a pheran, a Kashmiri tunic worn during the winter, taking out what appears to be an automatic rifle and shooting at the policemen.

In the aftermath of the attack, police escalated the stop-and-frisk operations across the city and forced people to remove their pherans in the middle of the road, provoking widespread outrage across the Valley. It was a throwback to the dreary 1990s, when crackdowns and frisking had become emblems of political turmoil in Kashmir.

As per data furnished to The Wire by the J&K Police, a total 1,068 police personnel and 510 special police officers (SPOs) have been killed in various militant attacks since 1989.

Two days before the February attack, militants had also shot dead 22-year-old Aakash Mehra, the son of a popular restaurant owner in Srinagar in what was the second attack in 2021 targeting non-locals residing or doing business in Kashmir.

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The resurfacing of militancy in Srinagar began in 2018 when residents in Fateh Kadal, in the older part of the city, woke up to the sound of loud gunshots for the first time since the 1990s. The forces shot dead one of Lashkar’s longest surviving militants, Mehraj Bangroo, during the gunfight. It’s not uncommon for posters eulogising Bangroo to spring up on electricity poles across parts of Srinagar on his death anniversary.

The same year, two Lashkar militants attempted to storm a paramilitary camp near the District Police Control Room in the city. It took at least 30 hours for forces to kill the militants. Last year in July, police killed Lashkar’s Ishfaq Rashid Khan and announced that “no Srinagar resident was among the militant ranks” anymore.

However, in less than a year’s time, police released the list of eight wanted militants operating in the Srinagar city and announced a reward for anyone who provided information about them. The lookout notice sought the whereabouts of Waseem Qadir Mir of Nowgam Srinagar, Shahid Khursheed resident of Chanapora, Irfan Ahmed Sofi and Bilal Ahmed Bhat of Natipora, Srinagar, Saqib Manzoor Dar of Old Barzulla, Srinagar, Abrar Nadeem Bhat of Narbal, Srinagar, Muhammad Abbas Sheikh of Koimoh, Kulgam and Ubaid Shafi Dar (now dead) of Batamaloo, Srinagar.

In fact in 2020, Srinagar witnessed at least nine encounters, the highest in many years. By contrast, in 2021, only two gunfights took place in the Srinagar city so far: in Khonmoh area on May 17 and in Nowgam area on June 16. The slowing down of anti-militancy operations has a lot to do with the second wave of coronavirus infections.

According to the police, at least 40 youth in J&K have joined the militancy this year and around 50 youth are missing. Several of those missing are also suspected to have joined militant groups. One of them is 24-year-old Hilal Ahmed Dar, a PhD scholar from Bemina Srinagar. He had gone trekking to high-altitude Naranag in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district on June 13 last year with his friends. While his friends returned, Dar did not. As per the police, Dar has joined the Hizbul Mujahideen’s ranks.

Earlier this month, police said the four friends of the missing scholar will undergo narco analysis tests. Another Srinagar youth, Mehran Yaseen Shalla, went missing on May 19. Later, an unverified audio clip, purported to be Shalla’s, surfaced on social media where the 19 year old announced he had joined TRF.

Experts, though, are interpreting the increasing frequency of attacks not as a spike in militant-related activities but just a “survival strategy” of militants in response to a strong anti-insurgency drive. “These attacks do not establish a trend,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director, Institute for Conflict Management. “Militants are facing pressure from rural areas so they scamper towards urban neighbourhoods, where launching attacks is relatively easy. All these are hit-and-run attacks. Otherwise, every other parameter shows that militancy is declining across Kashmir.”

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @shakirmir