All the 13 had taken up the gun between October 2016 and February 2018, preliminary police investigations reveal.
Killing of young ‘iconic’ militants in the Valley is proving to be the catalyst, particularly for terrorist organisations to attract local youth as young as 14 to leave their homes quietly and join them.
Shopian (Kashmir): Dragad-Sugan, a beautiful village situated in the lap of the Pir Panjal, about 15 km from Shopian, was tranquil and peaceful.
Late in the afternoon of March 31, Muhammad Ramzan who runs a grocery store at the tail end of the village saw a group of young men carrying firearms quietly moving into the village from the west.
There were smiles on the faces of the gunmen. The villagers received them warmly for being their “own flesh”. After an exchange of pleasantries with the villagers, the group of 11 walked straight into the house of Rafiq Ahmed Nengroo, an influential citizen. They were served tea and homemade bread by the family.
The word that militants belonging to Hizbul-Mujahedin, the main indigenous outfit, were holding “an important meeting” with fellow combatants from Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) in Nengroo's house soon spread all over the village and around twilight was broken to a security forces officer through a phone call by a mole. The officer immediately alerted his men and also informed the other components of the counterinsurgency grid in the area.
At two past midnight, the Army soldiers along with members of the Jammu and Kashmir police's counter-insurgency Special Operations Group (SOG) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) arrived in the village. They knocked on the door of Mushtaq Ahmed Thokur and told him to lead them to Nengroo’s house.
Thokur, father of 10-year-old twins was reluctant. His aged parents also pleaded that he should not be involved but they were ignored.
Thokur called out to Nengroo and with that the militants hiding in his three-storey house realised they had been encircled and opened fire, triggering the encounter. Thokur was the first to fall. He received multiple bullet wounds near his throat. His family later alleged that he was used as a “human shield” by the security forces.
Intense fighting continued through the next morning with a brief lull. In all seven militants were gunned down. Four others are believed to have escaped. After the operation was called off on April 1, the bodies of the slain militants and that of Thokur were taken to Shopian's Zainpora police station for identification. All the seven slain militants turned out to be local Kashmiris belonging to various villages of Shopian district itself.
While the firefight at Dragand-Sugan was underway, the security forces were tipped off about the presence of another group of militants in neighbouring Kachdoora. The village had been under close surveillance of the Army after one of its columns was targeted by militant gunfire.
Soon after the security forces laid siege to Kachdoora on March 31 night, three of the eight militants holed up in two private houses came out firing their automatic weapons, injuring a few soldiers. Fierce fighting broke out and the security forces in their final assault next day fired mortars and also used explosives. Both the houses caught fire. Later the corpses of five militants were retrieved from under the smouldering debris. Three soldiers also died and four others were injured. The militants slain at Kachdoora were also locals associated with the Hizbul. Yet another outfit cadre was killed in a brief clash with security forces at Peth Dialgam in neighbouring Anantnag district the same day.
All the 13 had taken up the gun between October 2016 and February 2018, preliminary police investigations reveal. Those who gave the security forces the slip during the twin encounters at Dragad-Sugan and Kachdoora, including top Hizbul commander Zeenat-ul-Islam alias Al-Qam’a, are also local youth. Most of the slain were in the 16-24 age group, said a police officer. “One of them Sameer Ahmed Lone, a resident of Shopian’s Imam Sahib, had taken up the gun only on February 27,” the officer said.
The officials say that the slain were apparently swayed by the trend set by the killing of Burhan Wani on July 8, 2016, which has seen scores of Kashmiri youth joining mainly the Hizb and LeT. Police officials admit that the killing of Wani, the young militant commander who became an icon of the youth in the Valley, mainly due to his activity on social media, proved to be the catalyst particularly for the Hizbul to attract local youth into joining it.
“Over the past nearly two years, the Hizbul is recruiting heavily in the Valley particularly southern districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian,” the police officer said.
The aftermath of Wani’s killing set alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power both in Srinagar and New Delhi. Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda who was the Northern Army Commander when Wani was killed and who monitored closely the resultant unrest and the impetus the militant outfits were receiving as a dividend had publicly described it as a “disquieting trend”. Voicing his concern and that of the governments in New Delhi and Srinagar, he had said, “Everyone is worried be it the Central government, the state government, the security forces or Army…There are no easy answers that we will do this or that which will stop it.”
In the past 15 months more than 250 militants, including senior commanders of the Hizb, the LeT and Jaish-e-Muhammad were also killed in a stepped up military campaign launched jointly by the security forces under ‘Operation All-out’.
Also the security forces including Army have come down heavily on residents accused of supporting or shielding militants. During a series of cordon-and-search operations launched mainly in southern parts of the Valley, the security forces have torched or blown up several homes allegedly used as hideouts by militants or from where they came under militant fire during these operations. Nearly 40 civilians including women have been shot dead during protests held around the encounter sites.
But all this has failed to deter the local youth from joining militants’ ranks. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, while replying to a query in the state Assembly recently admitted to more Kashmiri youth having joined the militants' ranks during the past couple of years. The figures revealed by her point to the fact that it was following the slaying of Wani that more and more youth were attracted to the gun.
Out of 280 youth who joined militant groups about 200 did it after Wani was shot. Mufti who is also heading the Home department said that 126 youth joined militancy in 2017, 88 in 2016 and 66 in 2015 in the Valley.
Wani’s killing had sparked deadly protests and widespread public unrest in the Valley and parts of the Jammu region which continued for six months. More than 80 people died and thousands others were injured.
Kashmir watchers say this increased the recruiting capacity of Hizbul and LeT as revenge and despair pushed young Kashmiris into the militant ranks.
To counter this security forces launched ‘Operation All-Out’ in the spring of 2017. Director General of Police, Shesh Paul Vaid, said that it was for the first time in seven years that more than 200 militants were killed. He called it a “great success” and claims that “this marks a huge landmark for establishing peace and stability in the state of J&K and our country.”
But many analysts say that the tough military campaign has in some ways proved counterproductive. Apart from the large number of casualties among civilians, more and more local youth are turning to the gun.
“Each killing whether of a militant or a civilian is adding to the anger and rage in the Valley,” said Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, professor of human rights and international law at Central University Kashmir.
But DGP Vaid insists it's not just about killing militants. “There seems to be a misconception over this operation. I have said it before and I want to reiterate that this operation is not only about killing militants, but also to bring them back into the mainstream.”
He said that more than a dozen youth who had either joined or were about to join the militancy were brought back with the support of their families. Prominent among them was Kashmir’s young footballer Majid Irshad Khan who surrendered before the Army on the ninth day of his joining LeT in December 2017 following an appeal from his mother. More followed suit, the latest being a youth from Shopian. Also, the militants were encouraged to surrender even during encounters. “It was due to the effort of Anantnag’s SSP Altaf Khan that Imran Rashid who had joined militancy only a few days back agreed to surrender,” said the police chief.
Whatever may be the truth of that claim, as has happened only too often in the past, thousands of demonstrators poured onto the streets to protest the twin operations in Shopian and soon clashed with the security forces. Four civilians were killed and the Valley remained paralysed for four days during which one more person died in police firing and over 150 people including many security personnel were injured in street clashes and stone pelting incidents.
It's not difficult to see how young men from the Valley turning militant has changed the dynamics. “A foreign militant is killed and buried somewhere near the border. It becomes a forgotten story soon,” said Khursheed A Shah who teaches at Kashmir University. But the death of each local militant impacts the psyche of his siblings, friends and even strangers. “His very grave becomes a shrine and inspires many others to take up the gun. We have seen it happenings in Burhan Wani's case.”
Some names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of persons who spoke to us