Is Lockdown An ‘Opportunity’ to End J&K Militants’ Funeral Rites?

Officials maintain that diversion of militants’ last rites was due to a Health Dept directive amid lockdown.

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Opinion
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For the first time since outbreak of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir in 1988-89, authorities have banned the interment of militants, killed in encounters with security forces, in their local graveyards, as the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is understood to have taken serious note of the animated crowds on three occasions recently in the Valley during the coronavirus lockdown.

After a period of calm, hundreds of residents gathered at a village in Sopore last month for the burial of a slain militant Sajjad Nawab Dar. In the following weeks, similar crowds joined the funeral procession of some militants at Damhal Hanji Pora, and Arwani in Kulgam district in southern Kashmir.

The MHA as well as the Union Ministry of Health are said to have warned the authorities in J&K that such flagrant violations of the coronavirus restrictions could prove to be catastrophic.

After a series of official deliberations, authorities have made it clear that the burial of slain militants or funeral processions at local graveyards would no more be permitted.

Burial of 13 Militants & Their Associates Arranged By J&K Authorities

“We are not allowing burial of militants’ bodies and funeral processions at local graveyards. In the last few days, we have arranged for the last rites of 13 militants and two of their associates in Baramulla and Ganderbal districts,” Vijay Kumar, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir Zone, told The Quint. He said that three to four family members of each militant were permitted to attend the interment carried out silently under the supervision of an executive magistrate.

“Immediately after an operation is over, we contact the families of the (slain) militants after identifying them. We arrange for an Imam for the funeral rites. Those who remain unidentified are also interred same way. However, we complete medico-legal formalities, collect and preserve samples for DNA testing, in addition to videography, to address possible claims in the future,” another police officer said.

On 17 April, two local militants died in an encounter with the police and security forces at Diaroo in Shopian. On 22 April, four local militants got killed in another encounter at Melhora, Shopian. On 23 April, two militants were killed after they had kidnapped a Railway Police constable in Yaripora, Kulgam. The constable was rescued unharmed. On Saturday, 25 April, two militants and a civilian got killed in an encounter at Goripora, Pulwama. On Monday, 27 April, three militants died in an encounter at Lower Munda, Kulgam, hours after a police official’s son got killed in an encounter at Asthal, Kulgam.

Bodies of the first two militants of Shopian were buried in Sheeri, Baramulla, on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road. Subsequently, four militants were buried at a place in Sonmarg area of Ganderbal district, on Srinagar-Leh highway.

On Saturday, 25 April, four militants and a ‘militant associate’ were buried in Sonmarg. On Monday, 27 April, bodies of three militants and a ‘militant associate’ were buried in Sheeri, Baramulla.

Policeman’s Son Killed in Encounter Could Have Been a ‘Terrorist Associate’

Authorities claimed that the civilian killed in Goripora, as well as the police official’s son killed in Asthal, were ‘terrorist associates’. They claimed to have recovered six SIM cards, one pistol and one grenade from the ‘unknown terrorist associate’, killed at Asthal, Kulgam.

Residents, however, told The Quint that the youth killed in Asthal was 23-year-old Aquib Mushtaq Lone, son of Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) of Police, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone.

According to them, he had recently returned home after completing a BTech from a university outside Jammu and Kashmir.

“His father works in the police in Srinagar. His brother works with the Army in Jammu. Apparently the family had no militant links,” said a resident. He claimed that all the six militants holed up in Kulgam escaped, but Aquib was killed. Police dispelled the impression of a fake encounter with the claim that one captain got hit in his leg and 2-4 militants were injured, though they escaped.

Why Couldn’t J&K Authorities Stop Funeral Processions of Militants in the Past?

The burial ritual of militants’ bodies in common local graveyards is as old as militancy in Kashmir. In the first 20 years, many of the prominent militants and separatist leaders were entombed at the grand ‘mazar-e-shuhada’ (martyrs’ graveyard) at Eidgah in Srinagar. Scores of smaller ‘martyrs’ graveyards’ also came up at Bijbehara, Shopian, Pulwama, Anantnag, Sopore, Baramulla, Handwara, Kupwara and other places.

Even as security and intelligence agencies believed that funeral processions, gun salutes and remembrance ceremonies were the biggest stimulant for teenagers to join militancy, authorities never succeeded in stopping it.

However, burial in local graveyards was restricted to only the Kashmiri militants after people of two villages fought over the entombment of the top Lashkar-e-Tayyiba commander Abu Qasim, insisting his body be buried in their village. It was around the same Zanglipora village in Kulgam where the biggest ever funeral of a local militant in the pre-Burhan era was attended by over 40,000 people, and addressed by the separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Active in Kashmir since 2009, Abdul Rehman alias Abu Qasim of Multan, Pakistan, was killed in an encounter in Kulgam on 29 October 2015. Thereafter, almost all the Pakistani militants were buried at distant places, often close to LoC.

Burhan Wani’s Funeral Had Drawn the Largest Crowd

After the year 2000, Hizbul Mujahideen militant Mustafa Khan’s funeral pulled the largest crowd at Goigam, Tangmarg. Over 15,000 people are estimated to have attended his burial. Burhan Wani of Hizbul Mujahideen broke all records as over 200,000 people participated in his funeral in Tral when Mehbooba Mufti was chief minister and head of the PDP-BJP coalition in 2016. Previously, even Omar Abdullah’s National Conference-Congress regime ‘allowed’ such rituals to the extent that a group of lawyers performed al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden’s ‘gaibana namaaz-e-janaza’ in Srinagar.

From 2015 to 2019, scores of the counterinsurgency operations were disrupted by unruly crowds who subjected the police and security forces to stone pelting, shouted slogans on community mosque loudspeakers, and helped militants escape on several occasions.

The tradition of ceremonial funerals touched its zenith in 2016, but did not stop even after Mehbooba Mufti’s government collapsed in June 2018. However, only a few people have attended militants’ funerals after July 2019, given that Article 370 was abrogated soon after, and curfew was imposed across J&K, with internet and political activities being suspended, and local political leaders being ‘jailed’.

A ‘Tactical Achievement’, Courtesy Coronavirus Lockdown

Sources in the government claim that with the release of several political detainees and restoration of telephone connection and limited Internet, pro-’azaadi’ cadres are yet again closing their ranks. About a dozen incidents of stone pelting have been reported from different areas, after a gap of several months, in April. The authorities’ biggest concern was possibility of fresh attacks, militant recruitment and clashes at burial of the militants killed in encounters with security forces. They were grappling with a ‘rebellion’ unfolding on uncontrolled social media.

“On one side, hundreds of identified and unidentified persons have begun to curse what they call ‘occupation’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘injustices’ on social media. On the other hand, motley groups of stone-pelters have been attempting to engage security forces in clashes to botch our counterinsurgency operations,” said a senior police officer. He said that the police were working on a strategy to deal with unbridled social media but asserted that burial of militants’ bodies at uninhabited places was only for maintaining ‘social distancing’.

IGP, Kashmir, and other officials maintained that the diversion of the militants’ last rites was upon the directions of the Department of Health which was concerned about funeral gatherings during the pandemic.

Officials say there was no question of permitting such gatherings. According to them the situation would be reassessed after the coronavirus lockdown. Most of the local people still believe that putting a brake on the funeral processions was a ‘tactical achievement’ for the government, and that the pandemic in this case was only a subterfuge.

(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.)

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