After taking oath as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir for his second term on 1 March 2015, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had disclosed at his maiden news conference in Jammu, that he had asked the Director General of Police to start releasing ‘political prisoners’. Top separatist Massarat Alam, who had spearheaded a violent street turbulence for over three months before his arrest by Omar Abdullah’s government in 2010, was the first to be released on 7 March 2015.
On 15 April 2015, Alam organised a massive reception in Srinagar for the separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, on his return from a winter vacation in New Delhi. Perched on the roof of a bus, parked in front of the J&K Police headquarters, on the Srinagar airport road, Alam chanted the slogans: ‘Pakistan se kya paigam, Kashmir banega Pakistan’ and ‘Hafiz Sayeed ka kya paigam, Kashmir banega Pakistan’.
Over 3,000 of his followers, many of them carrying the Pakistani national flag and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba banners, responded with the enthusiasm that had almost completely extinguished with Alam’s arrest in 2010.
After a long time, Geelani got a hero’s welcome. Two days later, on Friday, 17 April, Alam similarly enlivened the crowds of youngsters in Tral, at the remembrance ceremony of the brother of a Hizbul Mujahideen militant.
Massarat & Burhan Wani Gave Fresh Life to Separatism, Militancy
Some television channels created an embarrassing situation for many, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to other top BJP leaders, by repeatedly playing the visuals of Alam’s rallies in their primetime shows. Under pressure from Delhi, Mufti was forced to book Alam and Geelani under Section 13 of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Alam was soon re-arrested, and he has been in jail over the years.
Many of the Valley’s youths, who had calmly pursued studies at schools and colleges for over four years, joined militant ranks.
With free access to Internet, Burhan Wani of Tral, known to a few in the Valley in 2014, became an icon of sorts for college dropouts, and a poster boy for the Hizbul Mujahideen. His father, a government school teacher, used to inaugurate cricket tournaments in the militant’s name. Events of the Mufti government’s ‘Khelo India’ programme, funded by the Centre, were organised at playgrounds which, after the militant’s death in 2016, were locally named as ‘Shaheed Burhan Wani Stadium’.
Riyaz Naikoo Used to Love Painting Roses While In School & College
Within two months of Geelani’s reception, Burhan Wani’s iconic picture with 10 armed associates in combat gear went viral on social media. It marked the beginning of a new cult of militancy in which the gunmen, unlike in the past 26 years, did not hide behind face masks and code names.
Thirty-five-year-old Riyaz Naikoo of Beigpora, a village between Pulwama and Tral, who was killed by the police and security forces in an encounter on Wednesday, 6 May 2020, was among the hundreds of the educated youths, mostly in southern Kashmir, who picked up arms against what they call ‘Indian occupation’ and had been killed over the last five years or so.
According to his relatives, who don’t want to be identified, Naikoo had a passion for painting roses when he was in school and college.
“Nobody thought he would become a militant,” said one of them. Before joining militancy, Naikoo, a science graduate, taught mathematics at a local school.
33 Youths Had Joined Hizbul By End of June 2015
For many like Wani and Naikoo, it became a craze to abandon studies, desert their families and join the guerrilla ranks. A topper in matriculation with 98.4 percent marks, Ishaq Parrey of Laribal was preparing for the medical common entrance tests. He wanted to become a doctor and was locally known as ‘Isaac Newton’. Instead, he became a militant and was finally killed in an encounter.
By the end of June 2015, as many as 33 youths like Parrey had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen and raised its strength to 142, as per police records.
Burhan Wani died along with two of his associates in a joint operation by the police and security forces at Bamdora, Kokernag (Anantnag) on 8 July 2016. The Valley erupted with unceasing protests and clashes for three months. Over 200,000 participated in Wani’s funeral, and there were only Pakistani flags and pro-Pakistan slogans from Uri and Karnah to Bhaderwah and Poonch in Jammu. Over 70 civilians, including stone pelters, demonstrators and uninvolved spectators, died in police and paramilitary action. Thousands were injured in stone-pelting and retaliatory action by the forces.
All Top Hizbul Commanders Killed Between 2016-2020
In the next three years, one of Wani’s associates in the iconic 2015 picture surrendered, and all others got killed in different encounters. They included prominent commanders and Wani’s successors — Yasin Itoo alias Gaznavi of Chadoura Budgam, Sabzar Bhat and Zakir Musa of Tral, Saddam Paddar, Adil Khanday, Naseer Pandit, Waseem Malla, Sameer Tiger, Altaf Kachru and Zeenatul Islam (who lastly shifted to Al-Badar), mostly from Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam districts.
It was during this phase of militancy that even some PhD scholars, including Manan Wani of the Aligarh Muslim University, and Dr Rafi Bhat, a lecturer of sociology at the University of Kashmir, took to arms and died in different encounters.
Naikoo was the last of this batch whose influence spread across South Kashmir and even parts of Srinagar and Budgam districts.
How Militancy in J&K Was Affected by Abrogation of Article 370
According to police records, Naikoo took over as Hizbul Mujahideen’s operations chief weeks after Yasin Itoo died in an encounter with security forces at Awnira in Shopian on 13 August 2017. This was days after Wani’s most trusted associate, Zakir Musa, had quit Hizbul Mujahideen, and the Al-Qaeda-linked GIMF had declared him as the first chief of Ansar Ghazwatul Hind in Jammu and Kashmir.
Two setbacks for Hizbul Mujahideen and all other guerrilla outfits came in quick succession.
Immediately after the dismissal of the Mehbooba Mufti government in June 2018, the Centre and the governor’s administration intensified counterinsurgency operations and unsettled the militants’ political and overground support structures. The proverbial last nail in the coffin came in the form of an outrageous terror strike that left 40 CRPF men dead on Srinagar-Jammu highway near Awantipora in February 2019.
The PDP-BJP government’s dismissal in June 2018, followed by the Awantipora terror strike in February 2019, weeks ahead of the crucial Lok Sabha elections, led to ban on JKLF and Jamaat-e-Islami, withdrawal of the VVIP status and security from all separatist leaders, and the shifting of all high-profile militants and separatist activists from Srinagar to Jammu and other state jails.
Subsequently, the Centre abrogated Article 370 and 35-A, grating J&K’s special status, split the state into two Union Territories, and jailed most of the mainstream political leaders including three former chief ministers.
Nearly 4,000 persons were detained under the Public Safety Act and lodged in jails in UP and other states. “It has proved to be a deterrent. Had we not done it all, Naikoo’s killing like Burhan Wani’s would have led to mayhem in the whole of the Valley. We are intercepting desperate directions from across the LoC insisting on creating another 2016,” said a senior government functionary on condition of anonymity.
For Police & Armed Forces, Naikoo Was the ‘Most Wanted Terrorist’
Police and security forces rated Naikoo as a terrorist, involved in dozens of attacks on security forces, scores of killings including those of fruit merchants and truck-drivers in 2019, panches, sarpanches, mainstream political workers and policemen.
Large-scale indoctrination and militant recruitment is also attributed to him. He also operated the militants’ social media networks, uploaded videos warning SPOs and civilians against participating in elections.
He allegedly had introduced a new admission system: ‘Kill a target or loot a weapon before joining’. On account of this profile, he figured as an A++ category militant.
Officials say, Naikoo was “Kashmir’s most-wanted terrorist” with a Rs 12 lakh bounty on his head. “It’s the end of an era. Now there is no familiar militant in Kashmir. Junaid (son of the senior separatist leader Ashraf Sehrai) is known to some people, but his capacities are limited. We don’t count him as a big threat like Naikoo,” said a senior police officer.
Relatives Say Naikoo ‘Warned, Threatened, Kidnapped – But Didn’t Kill Civilians’
Naikoo’s relatives dismissed the police charge-sheet as ‘fiction’. “It’s true that he organised massive funeral processions and arranged for gun salutes for slain militants. He threatened to blind the voters with acid, but physically didn’t harm anybody. He is known to have resisted instructions to kill civilians and policemen. In September 2018, he got 11 relatives of policemen kidnapped, but that was only his pressure tactics to get his father and some other militants’ relatives released from police custody. He didn’t harm anyone,” said one of Naikoo’s relatives. He clarified that Ishrat Jehan (25) of Dangarpora Pulwama (who was shot dead on camera while pleading for mercy with folded hands on 1 February 2019) was killed by militants of Al-Badar, and not Naikoo.
Officers in the evening did not respond to phone calls, but residents claimed that hundreds of youths clashed with police and security forces at Beigpora after the encounter.
They said that 17 persons were injured. Out of the 6 with gunshot wounds, one Jehangir Yusuf died at a hospital. Journalists based in Tral and Pulwama, however, insist that the clashes would die down. “The situation has changed drastically after 5 August 2019. There would be no 2016-type turmoil,” Irfan Amin Malik, reporting for Kashmir Walla said.
(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)