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

Reviving embers of militancy

The autumn evenings in Shopian are cold and grey. However, the fires of dissent that burn among the residents of this historic town on the southern-most edge of the Kashmir valley remain blazing. Shopian has become the latest flashpoint in an ageing but resilient insurgency. The district is also one of the Valley’s most prosperous. It produces tonnes of high-quality apples which has resulted in economic mobility for its residents. 

In the past, the quiet villages of Shopian have been home to thinkers who shaped extreme ideologies, either political or religious, or both. Leftist ideologue Abdul Sattar Ranjoor and Jamaat-e-Islami’s ideologue Ghulam Ahmad Ahrar both belong to Shopian.

Shopian, which has a population of three lakh and literacy rate of 62.49 per cent, is seeing the emergence of yet another extreme ideology — the belligerent and almost-suicidal reverence for militants.

“Everyone knows a militant either in family or among friends,” says Wasim Gul, a young man with neatly trimmed beard. He and four others are packing apples at an orchard in Shopian’s Mool village. “It is the reason why everyone supports them,” he said.

All five men speak about their militant connections — either near or distant blood relations, friends, neighbours, acquaintances — reflecting the bonds that are shaping the new realities in much of South Kashmir.

Life in Shopian, as much as it is idyllic, is ironic as well. Along side its crop of apples in its lush-green orchards, ringed by Himalayan mountains, the emerging crop of militants has made it the most dangerous flashpoint in Kashmir.

In the past two months, nine policemen have been killed by militants based in Shopian while the abduction and killing of three cops has sparked a fresh diplomatic row between India and Pakistan, resulting in failure to the restart of talks between the two neighbours.

In the past few years, as a new generation of militants has taken command of the insurgency, Shopian has provided abundance of recruits to the once-dwindling militant numbers. The district is now home to 60 to 70 militants, which was the number of total militants present across the Valley four years ago.

This large presence of militants in South Kashmir, most of them concentrated in Shopian, has given birth to an ecosystem where the gap after the death of a militant is quickly filled by a new readily-available recruit.

In April, 12 local militants were killed in a single day in two separate gunfights in Shopian — the highest death toll in more than a decade. Even before their funerals were over, the buzz had already spread that double the number of young men had joined the militants’ ranks.

Two police officers, who have served in Shopian district in recent years, admit that the gap between the people and the government institutions has widened. And militants have exploited this successfully.

“The message has to be made clear that we are not at war with people,” says a police officer. “Our outreach has been limited because we are engaged in a battle but a positive word has to go out,” the officer said.

The number of militants operating in Shopian rose manifold after the July 2016 killing of Burhan Wani, which sparked an agitation across Kashmir. It was spearheaded by militants in South Kashmir who addressed protest rallies in villages and launched their own outreach.

The protests continued for several months after Wani’s death. Efforts by the police to contain the dissent resulted in many young men and women becoming blind due to pellets fired at demonstrators. More than hundred persons were killed. The grief and anger among the people in Shopian was reflected in the bulging ranks of militants, whose number jumped to 32 from a minuscule eight. The new recruits, brandishing assault rifles in rallies and funerals, announced their presence on social media which ‘inspired’ other youth.

Mujtaba Ahmad, a schoolteacher in Shopian, says, “Every action has an equal reaction.” Shopian became a bastion of militants because its people suffered “extreme violence”. The growing influence of militants and the audacity of their attacks in Shopian has forced an exodus of members associated with mainstream political parties. It has widened the wedge between people and the state and eased the consolidation militants’ base in the district.

A local politician associated with the mainstream National Conference says, “The self-respect of people has been challenged. The youth is furious and they find their only option in violence.”

— Azhar Qadri


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