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Ahead of J&K Amarnath Yatra, ‘Rebranded’ Militancy Worries Security Forces

From Afghanistan arms to hybrid workers, militancy in the Valley is undergoing a radical transformation.

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In the summer of 1965, headwinds of a major political change were blowing across Kashmir. More than a decade had passed since power was twisted off the hands of Sheikh Abdullah who, at the time of his dismissal in 1953, was Prime Minister of the fully autonomous Jammu & Kashmir.

His successor, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, a Nehru appointee, seized control of the party, the National Conference, which survived Abdullah’s internment. Bakshi was known for brutally quashing all political opposition against him. He maintained a stranglehold over power by rigging elections repeatedly and cultivating the tradecraft of ‘patronage politics’, allowing him to co-opt those he did not crush.

Embarrassed at the bad press that Bakshi’s strong-arm tactics attracted, the Union government first signalled its displeasure, and then with a stroke of a pen, made Bakshi demit the office in the same way as Abdullah, but without imprisoning him.

But far from ending Kashmir’s troubles, Bakshi’s departure only deepened them. A theft of a holy relic from a famous Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar ignited a political firestorm, fuelled by years of grievances and pent-up anger that Bakshi believed he had bottled.

Snapshot
  • A trail of deaths, attacks and mystery murders waged by militant groups have once again catapulted Budgam into the spotlight. As many as 23 people have been killed this year in Kashmir in various targeted attacks.

  • Militancy in Kashmir is undergoing a radical change, whose rapidly evolving contours even security agencies aren’t familiar with.

  • In most of the recent cases, it is clear that militants were able to acquire pinpointed intelligence for the whereabouts of their targets that only those closely familiar to them could have provided.

  • The legal definition that has historically separated a militant associate who facilitates a crime from an armed militant who commits it, is blurring.

  • There also has been an increase in the seizure of arms and ammunition from Afghanistan in Kashmir.

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The Story of Hayat Mir

As the valley lurched from crisis to crisis, a series of incidents piqued the attention of Kashmir’s counter-intelligence police.

On 18 August 1965, in sun-dappled Arigam village in Budgam, armed assailants broke into the store of Raj Nath, a Pandit grocer. They looted items and shot at Nath’s watchman. The bounty was not kept but distributed among poor cultivators in the area. On 28 August, in Arizal village in the same district, attackers made an assassination bid on Ghulam Qadir, a popular mainstream politician. But perhaps the most intriguing episode took place a day earlier, when unknown attackers shot a sentry outside Budgam police station and decamped with 16 rifles, before blowing up two bridges on the main road to frustrate the police’s attempt to nab them.

Attacks of such ferocity rarely had precedence in Kashmir. The escalating militant activity in Budgam alarmed security agencies.

It wasn’t long before police investigations pinpointed one name – Hayat Mir. A resident of Bandi Abbaspur on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, Mir had crossed over to the Indian side and made Budgam his base. Tapping into the reservoir of anger that had burst out following the disappearance of the Hazratbal mosque’s sacred relic, Mir recruited locals into his enterprise and plotted attacks.

All this was unfolding in the backdrop of the second war between India and Pakistan in 1965. The Budgam activity eventually led the administration to mobilise local army units to conduct combing operations through the district. As security forces swept through Budgam, Mir was forced to slip out, causing his enterprise to fall into disarray. The 1965 offensive became a prelude to the long war that continues to bedevil Jammu & Kashmir even today.

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Where Did Militants Get Intelligence From?

Fast forward to 2022, a trail of deaths, attacks and mystery murders waged by militant groups have once again catapulted Budgam into the spotlight. As many as 23 people have been killed this year in Kashmir in various targeted attacks, in a trend that signals a shift in militant strategies following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution in 2019. Budgam district accounts for most of these deaths that took place in 2022.

Among the killed were Ambreen Bhat, a social media star, Rahut Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit official posted at a Revenue office in Budgam, Ishfaq Ahmad, a special police officer, and his brother Umar Ahmad and Dilkhush Kumar, a Bihari labourer.

Militancy in Kashmir is undergoing a radical change, whose rapidly evolving contours even security agencies aren’t familiar with. But what is certainly known and felt is that this militancy is seeing wider secretive participation and has been able to court more support from civilian non-combatants than what was usual.

Consider this: the 28-year-old Sameer Malla, a Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry soldier posted in Jammu, was abducted and killed while he was on leave at his home in Budgam to be with his wife on the birth of their second child.

Earlier this year, militants killed Sameer Bhat, a sarpanch in the Khonmoh area on the outskirts of Srinagar city. The person who had guided the assailants to Sameer’s home was a young boy living in the neighbourhood and who the Bhats had known personally.

On 11 March, militants shot dead Shabir Ahmad Mir, another sarpanch in Awdoora village in the south Kashmir district of Budgam. His 17-year-old son, who spoke to this reporter, said that Shabir was living in a safe accommodation in Srinagar and had returned to his native village only to obtain some legal documents and that it was his impromptu decision to stay for the night. Yet, the attackers somehow discovered he was there and turned up to kill him.

Even in the case of Rahul Bhat, his family suspects that someone who knew him at the office is likely to have played a role in assisting his attackers.

In all these cases, it is clear that militants were able to acquire pinpointed intelligence, including the precise whereabouts of their targets that only those closely familiar to them could have provided. It was following these types of killings, including those of police personnel, that security agencies flagged concerns about outfits “gaining likely access to police data about people who worked in different wings”, The Hindu reported last month.

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Blurring Definitions for Militants

This participation by civilian non-combatants has now climaxed to a point where it is increasingly blurring the legal definition that has historically separated a militant associate who facilitates a crime from an armed militant who commits it. This trend has led to security agencies coining a new phrase called “hybrid militancy.”

Kashmir’s police chief, Vijay Kumar, earlier this year admitted that this was becoming a big challenge for security agencies in the region. “The OGW network is one of the challenges for the Police force as they don't remain OGW forever,” he said.

The police use the acronym OGW (Over Ground Workers) to describe non-combatant militant associates. “They remain silent and carry out militant activities. It is very difficult to identify them.”

In addition to this, a raft of new challenges is creeping up for security forces to confront as militancy in Kashmir experiences reconfiguration.

Recently, security officials in Kashmir found that as many as 17 youth who had gone on valid documents to Pakistan to receive education were killed either at the Line of Control or in various gunfights in the Valley. This development also prompted the University Grants Commission and the All Indian Council for Technical Education to issue advisory directing students not to travel to Pakistan for pursuing higher education.

As recently as 14 June, Adil Hussain Mir of Anantnag district, who had gone over to Pakistan on a valid visa in 2018, died fighting forces during a gunfight near Srinagar outskirts.

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The Discreet Use of Mobile Hotspots 

Another challenge emanates from the indirect use of mobile data via hotspots. Security forces flagged this issue in April, when it found that many persons associated with militant groups were borrowing a hotspot connection from an unsuspecting relative or acquaintance to correspond with their colleagues. This strategy complicates investigations and helps militants stay out of the surveillance network.

One particular case emerged in October last year. One Mukhtar Ahmad Kumar of Pulwama district had given a SIM card generated from his name to his fiancé, who used to allow another woman to use her hotspot. Investigators probing a militancy case followed a digital trail that led them to Kumar, who was arrested under the stringent Public Safety Act.

Yet another serious challenge comes from the early evidence that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August last year may have led some groups in Pakistan to redirect substantial resources to shore up militancy in Kashmir.

Former Indian army General MM Naravane admitted to this in April earlier this year when he said that there was an increase in the seizure of arms and ammunition from Afghanistan in Kashmir. “There’s been an increase in the number of weapons and other equipment, especially night-vision devices, that we are capturing or unearthing, which have come from Afghanistan,” he said.

Recently, security forces in Kashmir discovered fifteen signatures of Iridium satellite phones, used by the US-led allied forces in Afghanistan, and Wi-Fi-enabled thermal imagery devices that help militants escape security cordons, especially at night. The signatures were first spotted in North Kashmir and then in the southern parts. Some of these devices aren’t even part of the Pakistani army arsenal, leading analysts to speculate that these satellite phones may have been part of the cache left behind by the US forces that militant groups managed to scrounge.

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New Names, New Tactics

As Jammu & Kashmir gears up for the Amarnath pilgrimage, security forces have ramped up their operations. There have been close to 18 gunfights in June so far. So far this year, forces have killed 118 militants, of which 32 are foreign mercenaries. During the corresponding period last year, the number of militants killed was just 55.

Coming back to Budgam, Jammu & Kashmir Police officials believe that the current militant activity in the district is being engineered by Lateef Bhat, a former Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front operative who hails from Bandipora. “There are also people like Ahmad Khalid, a Kashmiri currently based in Pakistan who has a role to play in all that is going on,” an official said on the condition of anonymity. “He has a strong familiarity with the politics and culture of Kashmir and displays an intense strategic acumen that helps him strategise things.”

Officials said that strategies like a change of nomenclature from Lashkar-e-Toiba to The Resistance Front are also a part of an effort to rebrand militancy in Kashmir. Jaish-e-Muhammad has also floated an offshoot of itself named Kashmir Tigers, which took responsibility for last year’s deadly attack on a police party near the strategic town of Zewan straddling Pulwama and Srinagar districts.

But the most troubling aspect is the kind of recruits who are currently spearheading the new phase of militancy in Kashmir. Police officials said that the majority of attackers responsible for committing these hit-and-run targets turn out to be teenagers. “Last year, Police inspector Parvez Dar, who was shot dead near the Nowgam area of Srinagar, was very young,” a senior official said. “In fact, some of them can’t even properly wield a gun. In Dar’s case, the attacker missed the target when he first fired.”

Senior police officials said that the present phase of militancy has been inherited by young recruits who barely have any understanding of Kashmir’s political nuances. This predisposes them to commit drastic actions that their forebears could likely have avoided.

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'Their Main Aim Is to Embarrass the Govt'

Before Article 370 was abrogated, militancy in Kashmir was piloted by faces known to both security agencies and the public. It was common for militant commanders like Riyaz Naikoo and Mannan Wani to explain the “rationale” behind their operations through audio recordings made viral on social media or online blogs. These monologues were full of political rhetoric, but they also showed how many outfits endeavoured to rationalise their violence by ascribing to it the motives stemming from political grievances.

Other militants like Burhan Wani and Zakir Musa actively invested in creating an aura about themselves on social media and relied on religious symbolism to cultivate support, which helped drive up recruitment.

“This present crop of militants is totally unlike them,” a senior officer from South Kashmir told this reporter. “They are more secretive and chase targets that help them create a spectacle.”

Amreen Bhat was not the only popular person that militants killed in recent times. Last year, militants also claimed responsibility for killing Majeed Guru, a bodybuilder from the Chattabal area of Srinagar city, and Meeran Ali Pathan, who had a popular presence on Instagram.

Even in their campaign to target Pandits, militants intend to perpetrate spectacular violence that generates more news and attention than, say, the killing of members of security forces does.

“Their main motive is to embarrass the government, which has declared that they are going to normalise the situation and make the return of the Pandits possible,” said Ajai Sahni, a counter-terrorism expert. “If it is a major political plank of the government, then it is a major plank for the adversary as well to stop that from happening.”

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Life in Kashmir Comes a Full Circle

It is likely that in the coming weeks and months, militant groups may attempt to target persons who wield a lot of influence or whose killing draws attention to the festering political dispute in Kashmir, particularly to grievances pertaining to demographic changes.

This is also the reason why in the last two years, Srinagar has emerged as a staging ground for these new-age secretive militants. As one officer told this reporter earlier this year, “A grenade attack in Hari Singh High Street in Srinagar creates more news than the one in a remote village of Pulwama or Shopian.”

In 1965, Hayat Mir's prospect of fishing in Kashmir's troubled waters was made possible because of the anger that the Indian government's policies had engendered in Kashmir. Throughout his 10-year rule, Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad had become a vector for similar integrationist measures that are currently in vogue again after the revocation of Article 370.

He dissolved Jammu & Kashmir's Constituent Assembly, enforced most of the provisions of the Indian Constitution, gave Supreme Court and Comptroller and Auditor General full jurisdiction over the former state, and brought J&K under the purview of Central Administrative Services. All these measures were enacted by a government that barely had a representative character.

It was this anger on the back of which Kashmiri political aspirations found expression through armed violence for the first time in post-1947 history. It is possible to argue, therefore, that life in Kashmir has come full circle.

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India and more. He tweets at @shakirmir.)

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