Jammu & Kashmir

Uneasy spring

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Militants display guns at the funeral procession of a Lashkar-e-Taiba militant in Rakh Kapran village of Shopian district on March 5. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Enjoying the morning sun on a bridge over the Jhelum river in Srinagar on March 7 during a strike called in protest against the shifting of Kashmiri political prisoners to prisons outside Kashmir. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

The speed at which the ranks of militants are swelling, drawing youngsters from the local population, worries the security establishment in Kashmir.

KASHMIR is again sitting on a powder keg as militants have made an effective comeback, putting security forces on tenterhooks. If in 2016 it was the mass uprising that kept Kashmir engaged and in the news, 2017 and the first quarter of 2018 have witnessed high-profile attacks by militants, ringing alarming bells and pointing to a disturbed summer ahead. Militant presence has increased, and militant activities to target security forces have intensified. Those dealing with the situation admit that the challenges in keeping militants at bay are manifold. The growing popular support for militants is significant—a large number of young people have joined the ranks.

Jaish factor

The focus has now shifted to the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the militant organisation which specialises in “fidayeen” (suicide) attacks. These attacks have a surprise element, and the forces are caught unawares, which leads to high casualties. The latest attack, on the highly fortified Army camp in Sunjwan near Jammu on February 10, was carried out by the JeM’s “Afzal Guru Squad”, named after Afzal Guru, who was hanged on February 9, 2013, in Tihar Jail. In the past one year, the Jaish has carried out four high-profile suicide attacks—on district police lines, Pulwama (August 27); the Border Security Force camp at Humhama near the airport (October 3); the Lethpora camp (January 1, 2018); and the Sunjwan camp.

The Jaish’s rise in Kashmir militancy has been meteoric. But it appeared to be inactive for some time before the recent spurt in attacks. Security officials explain this as “a deliberate move by their handlers in Pakistan to use them at a convenient time”. The JeM’s recent attacks were carried out chiefly by the Afzal Guru Squad. Attaching Afzal Guru’s name to the attacks is a tactical move: it helps attract more local Kashmiris to the fold. For example, two Kashmiris, Fardeen Khandey and Manzoor Baba, carried out the January 1 attack on the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at Lethpora. In Kashmir, the JeM’s local cadre have played a pivotal role in consolidating the group’s position.

One of the most important figures who rejuvenated it was Noor Mohammad Tantray alias Trali, famously known as a “four-feet commander”. He was motivated by one of the senior commanders, Shah Nawaz Khan alias Gazi Baba. Gazi Baba was involved in the December 2001 Parliament building attack and was killed on August 30, 2003, in an encounter in Srinagar. Trali, a long-time foot soldier of the JeM, was killed on December 25, 2017. He had been let off on parole in July 2015 and told not to come back alive. Soon after, he rejoined the JeM and rebuilt the organisation. Officials say he was trusted by the Jaish leadership because of his management skills.

The outfit launched one of the first attacks by the Afzal Guru Squad on an Army camp in Mohra, Uri, on December 5, 2014, a day before the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition. Ten soldiers were killed. Several other attacks followed.

JeM chief Masood Azhar’s call to young Kashmiris to “die for Islam and Kashmir” seems to have worked. Members of the squad have successfully attacked several targets, from Tangdhar near the Line of Control (LoC) in Kupwara to Pathankot in Punjab, and now in Jammu. Azhar was himself in the custody of security forces from 1994 until the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government released him and two other jailed militants in 1999 in exchange for the passengers and crew of Indian Airlines flight IC 814, which was hijacked to Kandahar. Soon after his release, Azhar broke away from his parent organisation, Harkat ul Ansar, and founded the JeM, mostly operating out of its base in Bahawalpur in Pakistan. In the past few years, he has managed to change the complexion of his outfit by recruiting local Kashmiris.

This is why the security establishment sees the JeM as a challenge in fighting militancy. Police sources say that at least 30 new JeM militants have managed to infiltrate the State, and six of them have the capacity to coordinate and carry out attacks like the one at Sunjwan. The JeM, they say, has changed the pattern of violence and “that is worrying”.

The impact of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which was active on the ground for a long time, has not faded away. But senior security officers say the JeM’s modus operandi has outdone that of both the LeT and the Hizbul Mujahideen. According to these officials, the LeT has “for the time being been sidelined by Pakistan and the focus is on Jaish to make us nervous”. The LeT, however, got a shot in the arm recently when one of its militants, Naveed Jutt, managed to escape on February 6 from Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar, where he was being treated. Jutt has joined the militant ranks and he recently posted a video with Hizbul Mujahideen militants.

Jail crisis

Jutt’s escape triggered a “reform” in the Central Jail in Srinagar from where he had been escorted to the hospital. Senior officers confirmed that the Central Jail had been under the scanner for some time and senior police officers were writing to the Home Department about the “lapses”. “But you know how things work here. Nobody bothers until we face something,” an official said, showing a letter written to the Home Department and the Director General of Prisons cautioning that the activities taking place in the jail were inimical to the security of the State. Soon after Jutt escaped after killing two policemen, the government shunted out Director General Prisons S.K. Mishra and suspended Jail Superintendent Hilal Rather. A new team was placed in the jail to “plug the loopholes” and “put an end to the militant cell operating inside”. Consequently, the government shifted 42 high-risk prisoners, including Ashiq Hussain Faktoo alias Mohammad Qasim, a militant ideologue serving life imprisonment, and Shafi Shariati, a scholar and biographer of the hard-line separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani. Twenty-five Pakistani militants were also shifted out and lodged in the Hira Nagar and Udhampur jails in Jammu. The Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik called for a day-long strike in protest. Qasim is married to the hardliner Asiya Andrabi, who is pro-Pakistan and is the chief of the women’s outfit, Dukhtaran-e-Millat.

Infiltration and recruitment

Another cause of concern for the security establishment is the infiltration and fresh recruitment. Though both have shown a decline in the first three months of 2018, security officers are keeping their fingers crossed. With the guns roaring on the LoC and the international border, they fear that ceasefire violations will be used to push in more militants. “Last year we witnessed the highest infiltration in recent years, and this year, too, there have been attempts. They will try to push people in with the onset of summer,” a top Army officer said, adding: “We have reports that people are waiting at launch pads.” Pakistan has been constantly denying involvement in preparing and sending militants over.

The biggest challenge, however, has been the increase in local recruitment in recent years, and that attracts local support. Security experts are of the opinion that Afzal Guru’s hanging gave an impetus to local militancy, with anger among young Kashmiris spurring them to join the militant ranks. This trend accelerated after 2016, when Burhan Wani, a young Hizbul Mujahideen commander from Kashmir, was killed in an encounter with security forces. The numbers speak for themselves. On February 6, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly that there was a 44 per cent jump in local people joining militancy in 2017 (126) as compared with 2016 (88). According to the data provided in the Assembly, 54 Kashmiri youngsters joined militancy in 2010; 23 in 2011; 21 in 2012; 16 in 2013; 53 in 2014; and 66 in 2015. For officers who deal with militancy, local people are certainly a concern, but at the same time they point out that “they [local people] do not have many weapons and that is why you see rifle-snatching incidents”.

Most of the local militants are with the Hizbul Mujahideen and are currently led by one Riyaz Naikoo in South Kashmir. Burhan Wani had become a poster boy for militancy and attracted a large number of young people. Most of the 126 local men who joined militancy in 2017 operate in South Kashmir. Security officials estimate that the total number of militants operating is between 200 and 280. “Militancy is not the issue; the concern is that they have local support, and the funerals of militants attracting thousands is testimony to that,” said an officer, adding: “What worries me is the social sanction to violence.” The cause, he said, was political. On the other hand, seven boys have returned to normal life on the appeal of their parents.

Notwithstanding the barricades being erected by people when forces arrive in a village to take on militants and the stone-throwing incidents at encounter sites, the forces have managed to kill a large number of militants. As part of “Operation All Out” in 2017, all the wings of counter insurgency, including the Army, the CRPF and the Jammu and Kashmir Police, put up a united front against militants. A record number of 216 militants were killed in 2017, against 108 in 2015 and just 36 in 2016. Until March 7 this year, the forces killed 19 militants, again a high number in two months. Casualties have also been rising on the side of the armed forces.

The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society, a human rights watchdog, said in its annual report: “As many as 450 persons, including 124 armed forces, 217 militants, 108 civilians and one Ikhwani were killed in the conflict. The year witnessed the killing of 124 armed forces personnel, which makes the ratio of militant-armed forces killings 2:1.”

Kashmir has also been in the news for its connection to the Islamic State (I.S.) and Al Qaeda. Zakir Musa, one of the commanders in South Kashmir who parted ways with the Hizbul Mujahideen, declared himself leader of a new outfit, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, in July 2017. In a statement titled “Foundation of New Movement of Jihad in Kashmir”, released by an Al Qaeda-linked information network, Ansar-Ghazwatul-Hind declared that after the martyrdom of the “heroic mujahid Burhan Wani, the jehad in Kashmir has entered a stage of awakening as the Muslim nation of Kashmir has committed to carry the flag of jehad to repel the aggression of tyrant Indian invaders, and through jehad, and with the aid of Allah only, we will liberate our homeland Kashmir”. Both the Hizbul and the LeT dismissed it as part of “Indian conspiracy”. Officials, too, are not attributing much importance to this “Al Qaeda” connection and say that Musa’s insignificant presence is no “cause of worry”.

The latest debate over the presence of the I.S. in Kashmir was triggered after Amaq, the propaganda wing of the I.S., claimed responsibility for an attack in which a policeman was killed on February 25. Both the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Jammu and Kashmir Police quickly rebutted the claim. “There is no presence of I.S. in Kashmir but this claim has to be investigated,” said Director General of Police S.P. Vaid. “There could be a possibility that the individual [who carried out the attack] is influenced by I.S. ideology. But, there is no I.S. presence in Kashmir.” Another senior officer, who is associated with counter insurgency, said that such things were aimed at drawing attention. “I.S. cannot be here. A few individuals might fancy the ideology but there is no question of a structural presence here,” he said, adding that the attack on the police was carried out by the Tehreek ul Mujahideen and that one Eisa Fazili, who ran away from Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University in Rajouri, abandoning his MBA course, was behind it.

Spring started on a sad note in Kashmir, with the death of four civilians in Army firing in Shopian on March 4. A close watch is being kept on how summer unfolds. Both militants and the security forces are said to be in combat mode, which will eventually lead to unending unrest. The lack of political engagement has created a huge space for violence, and that is what New Delhi has refused to look at.