Srinagar: In the summer of 2014, a picture shot in an apple orchard somewhere in Shopian took social media by storm, and sent alarm bells ringing in Jammu and Kashmir’s security establishment.
A group of 11 rebels, their young commander in the middle, all wearing combat dresses and holding AK-47 rifles, were framed in the picture.
This iconic frame marked the dawn of a new era of militancy in Kashmir. For the first time, the rebels had taken off the mask from their faces and revealed themselves to the world.
In the years to come, hundreds of Kashmiris, young and educated, left their homes and followed the trend set by the group that came to be known as “Burhan brigade”.
But as security forces went after the militants in Kashmir, the members of the group were killed one by one, except Muhammad Lateef Dar, alias Lateef ‘Tiger’.
Lateef survived the biggest anti-militancy crackdown that was started by security forces in the Valley after the 2016 summer uprising. Lateef even figured in the list of 10 most wanted commanders that was released by the army in May 2018. Like Hizbul Mujahideen operational chief Riyaz Naikoo, the security grid in Kashmir had little information about his movement.
But early on Friday morning, reports came in claiming that Lateef had been trapped in a cordon along with his two associates.
By early afternoon, the police confirmed the news: the only surviving militant of the Burhan group, Lateef, had been killed in a fierce gun battle with joint forces of the army, J&K police and CRPF, in Adkhara village of Imam Sahab area of Shopian, the epicentre of militancy in south Kashmir.
The houses where Lateef and his two associates were trapped was also blown up by the forces. The other two slain militants have been identified as Tariq Ahmed Sheikh alias Tariq Moulvi and Shariq Ahmad Nengroo, both from Shopian.
Who was Lateef ‘Tiger’?
A resident of Dogripora in Pulwama, Lateef had joined Hizb outfit in late 2013 – around the time that Burhan, the 22-year old internet savvy poster boy of local militancy, had become a household name in the Valley, attracting local boys, particularly those from south Kashmir, into the fold.
Over the next two years, the young rebel became close confidante of Burhan, whose killing in July 2016 pushed Kashmir into five months of a deadly uprising.
After Burhan’s death Lateef was designated as commander of Hizb. When Riyaz Naikoo took over as operational chief of the militant outfit in 2017, Lateef became “very close” to him and became his trusted man, said a police official.
In his mid 20s, Lateef was involved in multiple attacks on forces in south Kashmir, the police official said, describing his killings as “big success” for the forces.
In 2014, before he joined militancy, Lateef and his friend Ishfaq were picked up by J&K police in a case related to the killing of an elderly man, the father of a village head.
More than a month later, the duo was released on parole. But they jumped the parole and left home, never to return again.
Today, Lateef’s body, draped in a shroud and carried by hundreds of youth chanting pro-Aazadi slogans, was brought home one last time.
Clashes, injuries, tension in the south
Clashes broke out at the gunfight site between civilian protesters and security forces as the former tried to distract the men-in-uniform to help militants escape.
At least 19 youth were injured in the clashes – one of them was hit by bullet in his leg and seven suffered pellet injuries. They were all refereed to a tertiary care hospital in Srinagar for specialised treatment. A soldier of Indian army was also injured in the joint operation in joint operation.
The situation also grew tense in Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag, three other districts of southern Kashmir, forcing the government to snap the internet and suspend train services from south to north of Kashmir.
The militants’ killings took place barely two days before Shopian and Pulwama districts are slated to go to polls in the third leg of three-phased election to Anantnag Lok Sabha polls.
Both the districts have seen frequent protests over civilian and militant killings in the past three years and have remained on the edge since. While the twin districts haven’t seen any election campaigning by any mainstream parties, today’s killings are expected to further swell the ground with anger ahead of the May 6 elections.