Death of a Top Separatist Leader’s Son: Game Changer in Valley?
The people of J&K are yet again watching if elimination of the ‘last commander’ would prove to be a game changer.
For the first time in the last 31 years of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, a top separatist leader’s militant son has been killed in an encounter with police and security forces.
And after two years of attacks and encounters, this is a potential game changer particularly after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution and suspension of political activity since August 2019.
Designated as Hizbul Mujahideen’s ‘deputy chief’ after Riyaz Naikoo’s death in an encounter in Pulwama district on 6 May, Junaid Sehrai aka Zafrul Islam (26) got killed along with his associate Tariq Ahmad Sheikh of Pulwama (who militants have identified as Adil Ahmad Hafiz aka Khalid) in an encounter with the Jammu and Kashmir Police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at Kanimazar, Nawakadal, in downtown Srinagar on Tuesday, 19 May.
Director General of Jammu and Kashmir Police Dilbag Singh described Junaid Sehrai’s death as a remarkable achievement for the police and security forces. According to him, it is a major setback not only for the once formidable Hizbul Mujahideen but also for the entire separatist insurgency in the Union Territory.
He said that the police and security forces had intensified the counterinsurgency crackdown as 73 militants had been eliminated in around 30 operations in less than five months of the current year. Besides, 95 militants and ‘militant associates’ have been arrested since January. As many as 67 militants have been killed in 28 encounters in the Valley alone.
DGP Singh puts the total number of active militants in J&K at “less than 240”. Of them, not more than 14 are active after Junaid Sehrai’s death in the Central Kashmir districts of Srinagar, Budgam, and Ganderbal.
Who Was Junaid Sehrai?
The youngest of the prominent separatist leader Ashraf Sehrai’s three sons, Junaid left his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Kashmir unfinished and disappeared from his Srinagar residence days after his 76-year-old father Ashraf Sehrai, a senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader in the last 50 years, was appointed as chairman of Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s organisation Tehreek-e-Hurriyat in 2018.
It was for the first time that the hardliner octogenarian Geelani stepped down and installed his confidante of 60 years, Sehrai, as chairman on 19 March 2018.
On 23 March, Junaid went underground. The next day, he announced his joining Hizbul Mujahideen. His photograph, in combat gear with an AK-56 rifle in hand, went viral on social media. Yet Sehrai the junior failed to rise as an inspiration for many of the Valley’s youths.
However, after Junaid was killed on Tuesday, notwithstanding restrictions, scores of youngsters assembled, dug out streets, and resorted to pelting stones on police and CRPF in the Bagat Barzalla area. An announcement from a mosque called for gaibana namaz-e-janazah at Sehrai’s home.
Despite the COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions, around 300 people joined the funeral prayers led by Ashraf Sehrai himself. Eyewitnesses said three Pakistani flags were also hoisted at Sehrai’s house but were later removed.
Junaid Reputation Based on His Father’s Name
Unlike Burhan Wani and Zakir Musa of southern Kashmir, Junaid Sehrai became familiar due to his surname. His father Ashraf Sehrai, hailing from Lolab, Kupwara, has been Geelani’s most trusted lieutenant ever since they began working together for Jamaat-e-Islami around 1960.
Sehrai was for the first time arrested and jailed in 1965. While working for the Jamaat, he is said to have played a key role in laying the foundation for the organisation’s guerrilla arm Hizbul Mujahideen in 1989-90, when even his mentor Geelani was known to be a moderate politician.
When the separatist amalgam All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) was floated in 1993, Geelani and Sehrai represented the constituent of Jamaat-e-Islami. In 2003, APHC disintegrated into two factions while some of its constituents stood neutral. Geelani also broke away from Jamaat and launched his own Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. He headed the new organisation as well as the new conglomerate of the pro-Pakistan groups.
In 2018, he appointed Sehrai as his successor. No other militant’s father has ever become so senior a leader in the Valley’s separatist camp.
“In police records, Junaid Sehrai was wanted for several attacks and subversive actions but we believe he had not fired a single bullet till his first and last encounter. He was a brand name but whatever he was, he was because of his father’s reputation and stature among the separatists,” said an officer who has been associated with counterinsurgency operations.
Central Kashmir’s Militancy: February 2018-May 2020
Following the months-long street turmoil after Burhan Wani’s death in an encounter in July 2016 and resurgence of militancy in 2017, developments came in quick succession in 2018.
On 6 February, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba’s dreaded Pakistani terrorist Naveed Jhat escaped from SMHS Hospital in Srinagar when he was being taken to a doctor for medical examination. He managed to get possession of a pistol and shot dead both the police constables escorting him from the Srinagar Central Jail to SMHS Hospital.
In days of Naveed Jhat’s dramatic escape, two LeT militants came close to the headquarters of CRPF 23 battalion at Karan Nagar, apparently for a fidayeen attack, on 12 February 2018. Even as one CRPF constable got killed, both the militants were neutralised before they would sneak into the camp. It was after several years of calm that the militants engaged security forces in an encounter in the capital city.
On 6 May 2018, another fierce encounter took place in Srinagar at Chhattabal. Three LeT militants, including Fayaz Ahmad Hamal of Khankah-e-Moula, were killed. Thousands of people participated in Hamal’s funeral processions from Jamia Masjid to the ‘Martyrs Graveyard’ at Eidgah. Crowds engaged police and security forces in ding dong clashes at several places.
On 14 June 2018, senior journalist and editor of daily Rising Kashmir, Syed Shujaat Bukhari, was gunned down close to his office at Mushtaq Press Enclave in Srinagar. The BJP government at the Centre pulled the rug and brought down Mufti on 19 June.
After imposition of the governor’s rule, the last encounter in Srinagar took place at Fatehkadal on 6 October 2018 when top wanted LeT commander Merajuddin Bangroo was killed along with his associate Fahad Waza and a militant associate in 24 hours of the assassination of two National Conference workers in Qarfali Mohalla.
One police constable also got killed in the same encounter.
Even as militants fired gunshots or lobbed grenades at some places, there was no major terror strike for over 18 months in Central Kashmir.
On 5 February 2020, a chance encounter occurred on the Srinagar outskirts of Shalteng when a CRPF naka stopped three men entering the city on a motorcycle. One of them opened fire, killing a CRPF jawan. In quick retaliation, the CRPF killed two militants, one each of Hizbul Mujahideen and LeT, and captured one Omar Fayaz of Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Kashmiris Watching With Fingers Crossed
Junaid Sehrai’s death has come at the end of a trail of reverses suffered by all militant outfits. Chiefs of four major outfits have been eliminated in the last two months.
There has been only marginal recruitment of militants after August 2019 but the mainstream political vacuum continues to exist. Nobody has been politically contesting the militants, separatists, and Pakistan. And with the encounters happening in the South, and intermittently in the North, there’s palpable skepticism, pessimism, and even cynicism in the air.
The Kashmiris have been witnessing these fluctuations in peace and turbulence since 1990. On several occasions, it appeared that the militancy was over and the Valley was bustling with trade, tourism, development, and education. With fingers crossed, the people in the Valley are yet again watching if the elimination of the ‘last commander’ would prove to be a game changer.
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