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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: Oct 7, 2018, 1:10 AM; last updated: Oct 7, 2018, 1:10 AM (IST)

Kashmir’s new battleground

Once a PDP bastion, the past few years have seen South Kashmir become a no-go zone for politicians. Azhar Qadri reports

  • Aitemaad Malik’s father asked him to remain “steadfast” as the militant son battled security forces in Kachdoora village of Shopian earlier this year.
  • Last month, when the police offered Zahid Mir a chance to surrender, his mother told him it was better to embrace death.
Malik and Mir, part of the new generation of militants, were killed soon after these conversations. These last words went viral over smartphones inside lakhs of homes in Kashmir. These conversations, along with hundreds of pictures and videos released every week on social media, are now shaping up a new discourse in Kashmir valley with South Kashmir being home to more than half of the 300 militants active in the Valley today.

Villages dotted with orchards and rice fields; picturesque streams and militants who have found a sympathetic host population paint the new canvas of South Kashmir. The presence of security forces is restricted to the heavily fortified police stations, the paramilitary and Army camps.

The insurgency, which completes three decades next year, has found new life in South Kashmir. All its four districts — Shopian, Anantnag, Pulwama and Kulgam — boast of a significant militant presence, something that was missing until a few years. Or was probably dormant.

The new militants are symbolised by the near-fanatic belief and conviction in the idea of martyrdom, which is gaining acceptability in their families. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says a senior police officer, who has served several terms in South Kashmir, while requesting anonymity. “The problem now is not the radicalisation of militants, but of the families that take pride in deaths of their sons,” the officer adds.

“The audacity has increased and public support for militants is a worrying factor. We could succeed previously because people were with us, but now local persons believe that strength and loyalty lie with the militants,” says the officer.

He further says the administration has failed on two accounts in this region: “First, it lacked the channels to communicate with people and then got involved in ‘cosmetic measures’. While we were busy organising cricket tournaments, people were looking for justice. Our police stations got militarised and a fear factor got associated with them,” the officer adds. “The rift widened so much that the police could not put forward its version of truth.”

The age of internet

In March this year, a video went viral on social media in which the sister of a militant, Adil Ahmad of Shopian’s Jamnagri village, was seen telling a soldier that she would prefer her brother’s death instead of seeing him surrender. “If he surrenders, I will kill him with my own hands,” she tells the Army officer who had come with an offer of surrender.

In a recorded audio call, Fayaz Ahmad Malik asks his militant son Aitemaad, who had an M.Phil from a Hyderabad university and was fighting security forces at the time, to be steadfast. “I cannot ask you to surrender … you were entrusted to me by god, I am giving you back to god,” the father is heard telling his son.

This phenomenon of last calls by militants to their families and friends, circulated via internet, has proved an effective propaganda weapon. “The youth are getting influenced by these heroics of the militants. It is an indication that even though the militants are less in number than in the 1990s, militancy is more intense today,” says a senior police officer.

This generation of young men and women has grown up amid years of conflict and looks at traditional politics as redundant. The advent and deep penetration of the internet has shaped a new worldview and reshaped modes of communication. Militants quickly adapted to this virtual world, which removed barriers as they sent their messages directly to anyone who wanted to listen — and there were thousands willing ears. The release of photographs and videos by the militants, which were initially dismissed by critics as “selfie militancy”, soon became the new way of militant life. The amount of material released by the militants in the recent years has dwarfed the government’s lacklustre outreach methods while the new militancy has blossomed across South Kashmir with unprecedented and rare public support.

The rise and fall of PDP

The PDP was formed in 1999 with a soft-separatist agenda and immediately gained stronghold across most of South Kashmir. Within the next three years, it routed the once formidable National Conference from South Kashmir and won 10 of the 16 Assembly constituencies in 2002, 12 in 2008 and 11 during the 2014 election.

At least in the electoral arithmetic, South Kashmir was PDP’s bastion as it painted itself as the moderate alternative between the anti-Delhi and the pro-Delhi politics. Everything changed in early 2015, when the elections threw a hung Assembly and the two lead parties — PDP and BJP — decided to form a coalition government. “Mehbooba Mufti promised to stop the BJP, but then entered into a coalition with the same party. People felt betrayed,” says Shabir Ahmad Kulay, South Kashmir in charge of the state’s oldest political party, National Conference, and a lawyer at the Jammu & Kashmir High Court. “There was a vacuum which no one could have filled. People were no longer looking for any alternative and were pushed to the wall,” he adds.

While the past elections have seen significant successes with long queues of voters outside polling stations, elections are now a major security challenge. The parliamentary bypoll for Anantnag, which included entire South Kashmir, was indefinitely postponed last year following large-scale violence during the bypoll for Central Kashmir’s Srinagar constituency.

In many areas in South Kashmir, people now laugh at the prospect of elections even as two polls — for urban local bodies and panchayats — are scheduled over the next three months. “If there will be elections, there will be bloodshed,” warns a young man in Shopian town.

Kulay says militants should call for boycott of elections. “If militants continue with boycott in the Assembly elections, too, the BJP will come and we will be able to do nothing,” he adds.

Killing of Burhan Wani

On a July evening in 2016, when Kashmir was lazily returning to business as usual following the Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations, a gunfight in an obscure South Kashmir village changed the course of insurgency.

Even as state government quickly moved to stop internet services across Kashmir and mobile phone services in South Kashmir, the news of Burhan Wani’s killing in a gunfight in Anantnag’s Bamdoora village set into motion an unprecedented wave of protests.

Wani was an unusual militant. He had joined the ranks at the young age of 16. In the six years that he lived as a militant, he changed the way the militants had operated through the decades. He brought them out of obscurity and anonymity, a risk which paid dividends, while deep internet penetration and smartphones delivered images and messages of militants to the audience inside their homes. His killing unleashed the rage of the young generation, which stormed into a police station and bulldozed a counter-insurgency camp as an unprecedented pro-militant unrest took the administration by surprise and paralysed the state for the next six months.

At the time of Wani’s killing, Tariq Shamim was studying to be a Mufti — a scholar of Islamic law — at a religious seminary in Srinagar. In the protest rallies that followed, he emerged as a fiery orator and soon found himself on the radar of security forces. When the police came knocking at his door in Mool village of Shopian, he wasn’t there. They instead arrested his uncle and step-father, Nazir Ahmad. “I was booked under the Public Safety Act for six months and sent to Kot Balwal jail,” says Ahmad. Shamim was arrested soon after.

“When he was released, I decided to send him outside the state for studies, but he had made his mind,” adds Ahmad. Shamim joined the militant ranks in March this year. In Mool, neighbours refer to Shamim as ‘Mufti Tariq’, a reference to his scholarly quest.

Competitive militancy

Shamim’s recruitment came in the midst of a rare competitive struggle within the insurgency, parts of which drifted towards absolute Islamism, rebuffed fighting for Pakistan and derided nationalism. The rise of maverick militant commander Zakir Musa, who led the Islamist discourse with his elaborate speeches and formed Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, opened the window for competitive militancy.

Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, led in Kashmir by militant commander Riyaz Naikoo, tried, but failed, to stop youth from shouting pro-Musa slogans and raising the Islamist flag as Musa continued with calls to fight for an exclusively Islamist cause and denounced Pakistan. One of the oldest surviving militant groups, which has remained loyal to Pakistan, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen answered Musa’s growing clout with high-profile recruitments, including that of a university professor, a Ph.D scholar from Aligarh Muslim University, son of a separatist leader, an Army soldier and the Mufti.

In the line of fire

With the flow of arms from Pakistan restricted after the Army secured the porous Line of Control in the aftermath of 2003 ceasefire, militants in South Kashmir have increasingly relied on snatching rifles from security forces.

Adil Bashir, a special police officer, led the biggest weapon loot when he escaped to South Kashmir with seven assault rifles and a pistol from the house of a legislator. An unassuming, frail man, Adil had joined police’s contractual service last year.

The day pictures confirmed that the SPO had joined militants, Saqib Mir was on sentry duty at Shopian police station. The 24-year-old constable was new to the job when two militants, wearing burqas, knocked at the police station. Mir opened the door and was shot; his rifle was snatched. He became the ninth policemen to be killed in Shopian in the last two months. Mir came from a family of eight siblings, which included five sisters and three brothers. He had joined the police force last year and had completed his commando training last month. “He was like an angel for me,” says Mir’s father, Ghulam Mohidin, at their home in Shadab Kareva village on the outskirts of Shopian. “Nothing will heal this wound in the father’s heart,” he adds. 

“It was an unjust murder. They needed weapons, but they destroyed a family. There is no justification for what has happened,” he remembers in anguish.


The Valley is worried

In the quiet village of Nainal in Anantnag district, GN Aatish, a 69-year-old poet, said he is “worried and surprised” with what is happening in South Kashmir. “There is alienation. Even after 70 years, the governments have not been able to understand the youth. The poet in me is worried. I have not seen a situation like this, not even in the 1990s,” he said.

The deterioration of law and order situation and the increasing clout of militants in this region has eroded mainstream politics and also caused a slow exodus of the entire political class, removing buffer zones and leading to increased, often violent, interactions between civilians and security forces.

Shabir Ahmad Kulay, South Kashmir incharge of the state's oldest political party, National Conference, and a lawyer at the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, said the situation changed in the South Kashmir region in early 2015 when PDP formed a government in alliance with the BJP. “One major factor for the present situation is that the PDP betrayed the trust of people,” Kulay, who has rarely visited his Shopian home this year, told The Tribune.

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