The first month of 2022 has seen 11 gunfights in the Kashmir region, in which 21 militants – eight of them Pakistanis – have been killed, setting the stage for what security forces describe as a strategy to keep the total number of active ‘ultras’ at 100 this year.
On Sunday, five militants were killed in two back-to-back ambushes in Budgam district of central Kashmir and Naira village in Pulwama.
Police said among the killed were a top Jaish-e-Mohammad commander Zahid Wani and a foreign militant named ‘Kafeel Bhai’. Another slain youth, 17-year-old Inayat Mir, has been described by police as a ‘hybrid militant’.
Relatives Demand Return of Inayat's Body
On Sunday, Mir’s relatives and family members travelled all the way to Srinagar and held demonstrations outside the Police Control Room in the Batamaloo area, demanding the return of Inayat’s body.
For many in the Valley, the protests evoked the same feeling of pathos that has characterised gun battles and their aftermath since 2020, when Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) authorities started conducting discreet burials of militants following apprehensions that large-scale funerals may become springboards for recruitment into militancy.
Following claims that Inayat was not a militant but a civilian, police released footage of his sister where she purportedly admits that “three militants had come to the house at 10 pm on Thursday evening and my brother was with them”.
A cousin of Inayat said they were surprised by the claims made in the video. “Inayat was a mild-natured guy. He was a minor,” he said. “A few days ago, he bought a flock of sheep and was tending to them. He worked as a labourer.”
The relative said Inayat’s parents were at his maternal home when the cordon started, which is a kilometre away in Trisal village, as his grandmother had passed away. “They had been there since Thursday night.”
Security Forces Recalibrating Strategy?
The big gunfights have come just days after the Army claimed that militancy was declining in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. “Earlier, militancy was at its zenith in North Kashmir, and then we saw how it started in South Kashmir. But this year in Pulwama, militancy will decline,” Lieutenant-General DP Pandey said last week.
Security forces also seem to have set an agenda to limit the number of active militants to 100 this year.
It is likely that some of last year’s violent militant patterns that came after a long pause in the operations owing to the second wave of the pandemic may have motivated the security forces to recalibrate their strategy and intensify operations.
Additionally, as part of a larger programme to reconfigure the power patterns in the former state, the Jammu & Kashmir administration is also trying to enlarge the scope of action against militancy by bringing into its ambit matters regarding financing and other forms of “abetments”, including civic displays of “support for terrorism”, or even correspondence with militants.
195 'Terror Modules' Busted in Last Two Years
In the last two years, at least 1,900 militant associates, or ‘over-ground workers’ (OGWs), have been arrested and 195 “terror modules” busted. Around 2,700 persons have been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in the last three years in Jammu & Kashmir, and 465 have been charged under the Public Safety Act (PSA) since 2020.
In fact, Jammu & Kashmir Police Chief, Dilbag Singh, has called for establishing ‘special teams’ in all districts of the Union Territory for investigation of cases of special nature registered under the UAPA and the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, and promised “close surveillance on anti-social and anti-national elements”.
This month, police against one Aasif Dar, a Kashmiri expatriate living in the Gulf, who is accused of being a militant sympathiser. The FIR was in connection with the killing of a property dealer in Srinagar’s downtown area. Dar features routinely on social media, exhorting Kashmiris to rise against “Indian occupation”.
Recently, police booked another Kashmiri expatriate, Muzammil Ayyub Thakur, for activities “prejudicial to the integrity and sovereignty of India”. Police also arrested journalist Sajad Gul under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) first and then under PSA eight days later, after the court issued him bail. Cases against Thakur and Dar are registered under UAPA.
New Challenges Emerge
Meanwhile, the number of militant killings for the years 2020-2021 and 2018-2019 is almost the same, implying that militancy on the ground may have remained unchanged. This may also be the reason why forces desperately seek to arrest the tempo of militancy this year and are trying to further rationalise their operations.
In the last few months, however, the government has had to contend with new challenges. First, Srinagar emerged as the for militants, with 40 people killed in the city last year, including 11 policemen and 20 militants. The dead also included members of minority communities, escalating fears about sectarian conflict.
Second, militants have redirected their fury towards members of the Jammu & Kashmir Police. Last year, the number of police personnel killed by militants was more than the total toll of other security personnel.
In December, militants attacked a bus carrying members of the 9th Battalion of the Reserve Police Force near the outskirts of Srinagar city. As many as 14 members of the police force were injured and three died as a result of firing. It was the biggest attack since the 2019 Pulwama bombing.
This month, militants attacked cops near Srinagar’s Saraf Kadal area, at SD Colony Batamaloo and near Hari Singh High Street area. On Saturday, militants shot dead Ali Mohammad Ganai, a policeman in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
Recently, General Officer Commanding (GOC), Chinar Corps, Lt. Gen. D.P. Pandey, 2022 a ‘transformative year’ and warned about militants using “urban areas with thick built-up area for operations as they provide more avenues to hide or escape”.
Third, militancy saw an increasing participation of what police describes as “hybrid militants”, ie., militant associates who purportedly don’t figure in the databases that forces maintain but are suspected of aiding militancy covertly. A substantial number of hit-and-run killings that took place last year were attributed to “hybrid militants”. But actions against such persons are also fraught with risks.
Families Left Distraught
Last year, the killing of individuals that the police accused of being hybrid militants led to a big political uproar.
In November, the killing of three persons in Hyderpora, two of whom were accused of having links to militancy, brought the Kashmir Valley to a standstill. For the first time, the administration, after heavy protests, exhumed the bodies of two persons who died during the gunfight.
Athar Mushtaq of Shopian (16), Zakir Bashir of Kulgam (19), Imran Qayoom (28) of Anantnag and Anayat Ashraf Dar, a resident of Chitragam, Shopian, are all examples of cases where families have strongly contested the claims of police that their slain kin were combatants. Just like in the case of Inayat Mir, their families, too, lodged a strong protest.
Episodes like these have left a bitter impression on the general public in the Valley and ossified perceptions that anti-militancy operations are cloaked with opacity.
But 2022 Has So Far Been Fruitful for Forces
But the gunfights in 2022 so far have also yielded important successes for the forces. The first gun battle this year took place in the Shalimar area of Srinagar, where forces killed Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Salim Parray, whom the police accused of being involved in several killings, including an incident of slitting the throats of 12 civilians in 2016.
On the same day, in the same area, police killed a Pakistani militant named Hamza, who was accused of killing two policemen in Bandipora recently.
On 4 January, forces killed two militants – Amir Ahmad Wani, a resident of Alamgunj, Shopian, and Sameer Ahmad Khan, a resident of Tiken, Pulwama, in Okey village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam. They both were affiliated with The Resistance Front.
The following day, forces killed three militants, two of whom were Pakistanis in the Chandgam village of Pulwama in South Kashmir. The police termed one of the Pakistani militants killed as a connoisseur of fabricating “vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices”.
On 6 January, another gunfight raged in Chadoora in the central Kashmir district of Budgam, in which forces killed Waseem, a Srinagar city resident. That leaves Momin Gulzar Mir, a resident of the Eidgah area, as the in the city jurisdiction, as of now.
On the following day, forces killed two more militants affiliated with the al-Badr group in a gunfight in the Hussainpora area of Kulgam district.
On 12 January, forces killed Babar Bhai, a Pakistani militant, during an operation in Pariwan area of South Kashmir. A policeman also died in the gunfight.
On 22 January, forces killed two more militants during an encounter near the Kilbal area of South Kashmir’s Shopian district.
(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir.)
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