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J&K Zewan Attack: Why Are New Fronts Springing Up in Kashmir?

While the number of foreign militants fighting in Kashmir has shown a decline, local militancy is on the rise.

Published
India
7 min read
J&K Zewan Attack: Why Are New Fronts Springing Up in Kashmir?
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The year 2021 in Kashmir is concluding with a renewed uptick in violence. The brazen attack on the vehicle of reserve forces on the outskirts of the Srinagar city signals ominous developments in the Valley, where the unilateral move to remove the special status two years ago had led to the optimism that the conflict and its violent manifestations are likely to taper off and be done with. That’s certainly not the scenario given the trajectory of events this year.

On Monday, a bus carrying members of 9th Battalion of the reserve police force was returning to the barracks, when it came under a barrage of gunfire near Zewan, a strategic town area straddling Srinagar and Pulwama districts. As many as 14 members of the police force were injured and three died as a result of firing. As per police, the attackers sprayed the vehicle with bullets from many sides and were looking for weapons that could be seized from the dead personnel.

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A Security Quagmire for BJP Government

The attack counts among the biggest since the audacious Pulwama suicide bombing two years ago. But the spurt in the violent trends in Kashmir, even if the overall militancy plummets, is an indication that the Modi government is likely to find itself trapped in a security quagmire in Kashmir in months and years to come.

The Zewan attack comes on the heels of other big developments that are turning the political climate in the Valley more feverish. Since politics and insurgency often animate each other significantly in Kashmir, the promise of ‘normalcy’ – the Holy Grail for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since August 2019 – is therefore going to be a harder catch, whose actualisation will always be subject to more uncertainty than the government cares to admit.

Over the last few days, a string of eventful happenings have taken place in Jammu & Kashmir. On Monday, cops associated with the Jammu & Kashmir Police and deployed at the residence of a BJP leader in the north Kashmir district of Kupwara decamped with their rifles. If indeed there’s a militancy connection, which has not been confirmed yet, it will be the first such incident in more than a year.

The last time such an incident happened was on 13 October 2020, when a special police officer (SPO), identified as Altaf Hassan, from central Kashmir district of Budgam, who was posted at Special Operations Group camp at Chadoora, had gone missing along with two AK-47 rifles and three magazines.

During a gunfight in Awantipora town of south Kashmir on Sunday, forces killed Sameer Tantray, a fresh conscript who had joined the ranks of militants only last month. This, once again, should be a cause of concern, since two years of sustained counter-insurgency efforts were supposed to have a dampening effect on recruitment.

Intensifying Anger Over the Last Two Years

Last week, militants struck at Bandipora and left two cops dead. The videos flooding social media showed a swarm of mourners congregating at the homes of the two slain policemen, wailing and beating their chests. In a clumsy attempt to make the “normalcy” appear desirable, the BJP, through its vast IT machinery, sought to bring home the realisation of how militancy continues to inflict traumas. But in reality, such militant actions are actually causing the kind of social implosion the BJP’s messaging refuses to acknowledge. Attempts to demarcate Kashmiri society into clear black and white compartments elide the vastness of the nuances and peculiarities that abound the Valley.

When this reporter interviewed the family members of sub-inspector Arshid Mir, who was killed by militants earlier this summer, this realisation was pretty clear. At his house in Kalmuna village in Kupwara, his relatives ascribed Mir’s killing, among other factors, to the Modi government’s experimentation in Kashmir, which has been deepening the political radicalisation and intensifying anger over the past two years.

The state of militancy in Jammu & Kashmir has become a game of whack a mole, whose fate looks more uncertain at the moment. On Monday, after the forces killed two militants in Rangreth on the outskirts of Srinagar city, dozens of protesters, including women, took to the streets and pelted stones at the rear-guard of the departing security picket.

What’s significant here is the recurrence of such protests, which had become all but impossible until last year. Even the harsh response from the police hasn’t stopped such angry public reactions from flaring.

For example, earlier this year, in April, when Srinagar witnessed stone pelting at the historic Jamia Masjid after a long time, police booked over a dozen protesters under harsh laws such as the Public Safety Act, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Yet, more violent protests rocked the Valley after the demise of separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and during a recent gunfight in Baghat, where police said they killed one of the most wanted militants in Srinagar, the 20-year-old Mehran Yaseen Shalla.

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'A Strategic Shift Taking Place'

For many months, gun battles in Kashmir have been fuelling protests, with the public becoming increasingly sceptical of the government’s claims about the particulars of the encounters. Similar trends were seen during the gunfights that took place in Baghat and Hyderpora areas of Srinagar recently. The public suspicion is a sign of political alienation and lack of faith in the administration, which is bereft of any representative character and is often known for taking decisions that are arbitrary in nature, such as the orders to sack employees without an inquiry if there are allegations of “anti-national” sentiment, the opening up of jobs and land to new domiciles, or the carving up of new voter constituencies in the former state with the aim of reconfiguring the balance of power between the two regions of Jammu and Kashmir.

A senior officer within the security apparatus also admitted that there has been a strategic shift in militancy after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution. “The overall situation is under control actually,” he said, adding:

“The Zewan attack is not something which wasn’t expected. Militancy is there and police always anticipate such attacks. But there is another trend related to the targeting of non-local labourers and minorities, which is novel in nature and is linked to the strategic shift taking place after August 2019.”

The escalation that was witnessed in the month of October, when 45 casualties took place, of which 13 were civilians, shocked the security establishment. Since then, the government has gone into a security overdrive in Kashmir, rushing in around 5,000 additional CRPF troops, scaling up the presence of bunkers in the city, mounting NIA raids, rounding up suspected 'overground workers', relocating vulnerable persons to safer spaces, frisking random commuters on streets, seizing two-wheelers in large numbers, and even imposing scheduled Internet outages.

Some civic infrastructure in Srinagar, too, has been repurposed to accommodate the arriving troops. In addition, the government constituted a State Investigative Agency (SIA) intended to act as nodal agency for the NIA and other central investigative organisations in militancy-related cases.

It is bestowed with outsized policing powers with fewer checks and balances in place.

A letter drafted by the All India Lawyers’ Association For Justice highlights what it called “dangerous” aspects concerning the creation of the SIA and rues the granting of “overbroad and unqualified powers” to the agency.

A Number of Militants Were Killed This Year

The emerging violent pattern was starting to become manifest right from the start of this year with the killings of Satpal Nischal, a jeweller, and Aakash Mehra, who owned a vegetarian eatery in Srinagar. The city witnessed a flurry of militant activities, resulting in the killings of Parvaiz Ahmad Dar, a Jammu & Kashmir Police inspector, Umer Nazir Bhat, a mobile store proprietor, Javaid Ahmad Tambi, a police constable, Rameez Raja, a duty sentry, and many more similar casualties.

At the same time, 2021 witnessed a windfall in terms of killing of many top commanders of militant groups such as the Jaish-e –Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, leading to the crippling of operational capabilities of these groups and limiting their scope of action.

This year, forces killed seven militants in two gunfights in Tral and Shopian, during which they said they managed to wipe out Ansar Gazwal ul Hind, an al Qaeda-affiliated outfit that had originally splintered off from Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. In June, a Pakistani militant named Abdullah and his two local associates, Mudasir Pandit and Khursheed Mir, were killed during a big operation. All three were involved in several civilian killings.

Among the top commanders that forces managed to kill this year include Nishaz Hussain Lone of LeT and Mehraj ud Din, one of the oldest commanders of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in north Kashmir, Arif Hajam, another district commander of LeT who was active for close to three years, Ajaz alias Abu Huraira, yet another major LeT commander, Ishfaq Ahmad Dar, a police deserter-turned-LeT commander from Heff Shirmal village of Shopian, and Fayaz Ahmad War, LeT's top commander.

In August, forces killed Abbas Sheikh and Saqib Manzoor, both of whom helmed The Resistance Front, the group that police say is a proxy of LeT and is responsible for orchestrating most killings that took place in Srinagar city in 2021.

In September, the forces killed Abid Rashid Dar and Azad Ahmad Shah, both Pakistanis.

The police said Dar was a top LeT commander and was involved in the killing of BJP leader Waseem Bari and his family members last year. Recently, forces shot dead a top Jaish commander, Yasir Parray, and a Pakistani militant named Furqan. Reportedly, Parray was an expert in planting improvised explosive devices.

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But Militancy Remains a Zero-Sum Game

It is in the context of this war of attrition, where existing groups are getting marginalised, that new outfits are emerging. Kashmir Tigers, a new outfit that the police had blamed for the Zewan attack, is the fourth one to have sprung into existence since August 2019. The group made its first appearance through a video monologue delivered by Mufti Altaf alias Abu Zarr, a resident of the south Kashmir village of Nathipora. Believed to have joined militancy in September last year, he was first associated with Jaish before switching to Kashmir Tigers.

While police say that attempts to create new fronts are designed to deny the involvement of Pakistan, the numbers show that the number of foreign militants fighting in Kashmir has seen a steady decline over the last few years.

In 2016, the foreign participation in insurgency was 77 per cent. It dropped to 60 per cent in 2017, then 45 per cent in 2018, further down to 19 percent in 2019, and 15 percent in 2020. This year, it has been just over 10 percent. At the same time, local recruitment hasn’t been affected much, with 2020 seeing 145 new youngsters joining militancy, the second-highest in a decade.

It means that militancy continues to be a zero-sum game in Kashmir, with the agitated political and security climate allowing some violent trends to materialise every now and then, resulting in bloodshed and the loss of life.

(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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