.:.As cross-border militancy wanes, youth in the state pick up arms to keep the jihad alive.:.
by Reyaz Wani: July On 30 May, Muhammad Yusuf Mir, 50, was returning home by train when the phone in his pocket started ringing. It was a call from the police and Mir was scared to answer it; he had already heard about an ongoing encounter between the militants and security forces in the area and he feared the worst. Mir was right.
The policeman on the phone had a grim message to deliver. Security forces were battling two militants, 3 km from his village in the south Kashmir district of Pulwama, and one of them was his 25-year-old son Sajad Ahmad, a post-graduate in Islamic Studies and an MCA student in Kashmir’s Islamic University of Science and Technology when he joined militancy in 2009. Mir had seen this day coming many times in the past. After every encounter with militants in the district, the police would call him, assuring that his son was not among the militants who were in the cordon. But, this day was different; Mir was told in no uncertain terms to prepare for his son’s funeral as he was soon going to be shot.
Since Sajad had joined militancy four-and-a-half years ago, there had been many efforts by security agencies to persuade him to surrender, but to no avail. Anxious about her son’s well-being, his mother visited faith-healers for his safety and that he should renounce his gun. But Sajad didn’t budge from his chosen path. His mission, he said, was “Kashmir’s Azadi”.
Sajad is not a lone case. He represents a new trend that is causing concern across the Kashmir Valley. At a time when former militants, disillusioned with jihad, are returning from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to surrender and settle into mainstream life, a new crop of youth in Kashmir is taking up the gun to carry forward the campaign. Though still tiny in number, they are relatively more educated and motivated than their forbearers. And their presence on the scene along with some help from foreign militants has imparted a new sting to the militancy.
In five daring attacks since February, three of them in the heart of Srinagar, militants have killed 23 security personnel. Besides, in May alone, in four successive encounters in south Kashmir, six militants and four jawans have lost their lives. This has put the state back on edge. The targeted attacks have created a perception of militancy in the Valley that far exceeds the number of militants on the ground.
What is more, the death of any of them leads to a groundswell of public support. As security forces were engaged in gunfight with Sajad and his colleague Muhammad Ashraf in Pulwama, they had to simultaneously battle a massive law and order problem in the area with a huge gathering of people shouting pro-Azadi slogans and throwing stones. Later when Sajad was laid rest to rest, thousands of people attended his nimaz-i-jinaza with some youth pledging to carry his mission forward.
The change has taken even Chief Minister Omar Abdullah by surprise, who termed the trend “a matter of great concern”. “We have also found that militants killed in recent encounters were qualified and most of them were products of Kashmir University and Islamic University,” he says.
For many in the Valley, the trend is inexplicable at a time when the general mood is against an armed struggle. Even Pakistan is now preoccupied with mopping up the fall-out of the endgame in Afghanistan and exhibits little will to abet a fresh spell of militancy in the state, on the pattern of 2008-10 unrest.
“This has been going on for a while and might continue,” says DIG, Police, Central Kashmir, Afadul Mujtaba. “We need not be worried as long as there is no active stoking of this trend from across the border.”
But the police does not deny that there is a certain metamorphosis underway in the Valley. “I see this kind of militancy graduating to terrorism,” says Imtiaz Hussain, SP, Sopore, Kashmir’s citadel of militancy. “There is a new modus operandi in place. We have a close-knit group of 10-15 militants backed by an overground support of around 100 people. Besides, there are sleeper cells, which are only activated in times of need. This keeps the possibility of a surprise attack always open.”
In contrast to the past few years, when they preferred to lie low until identified and targeted by the security forces, militants in Kashmir are now going on the offensive. A latest J&K Police report talks about a definite move by militants to change their strategy. Most significant is their abandoning of the use of communication devices in planning and coordinating their operations. Technologically savvy, these groups now use Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies to communicate with each other. Using Internet-based communication software, including Viber, Kakao, Skype, etc, they defy easy interception. This has dried up a useful source of “technical intelligence” for security agencies, hampering not only the efforts to trace and target militants but also to forestall future attacks. The police is now stressing on cultivating “conventional human intelligence” to fight this new militancy.
But in all this, the trend seen as the most worrying is that of local Kashmiri youth taking to militancy. It shows a renewed will for jihad in the Valley. A clutch of youth between 18-25 years, relatively well-educated and from middle-class families are consciously joining jihad and redrawing the militant landscape of the Valley. In south Kashmir alone, around 15 youth have joined the militants last year. This includes Burhan-ud-Din, 21, son of a college principal from Tral in south Kashmir. Burhan joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2011, disappearing from home one day without informing anyone. It was the police, which later told the family that Burhan had become a militant.
Saifullah Ahangar, 20, of Hariparigam, Tral, who was killed on 24 May in Pulwama in a gunfight, where four soldiers also lost their lives, was studying engineering at a private engineering college. Son of Rafiq Ahmad Ahangar, a retired employee in the J&K Agriculture Department, Saifullah had joined militancy on 24 March, two months before his death.
Though they still constitute a tiny fraction, their choices resonate with a large section of Kashmiris. And no matter which part of the Valley they die in encounters with security forces, people exhibit a euphoric support for them, putting security personnel in an unenviable position of simultaneously battling on two fronts.
Same for the social media discourse, where the new militants are seen as heroes and their deaths celebrated as martyrdom. When on 23 May, top Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Hilal Molvi was killed in a pre-dawn gunfight in downtown Srinagar, the video of his 2010 speech at a gathering in Palhalan, his hometown, went viral on Facebook. The video got 5,156 hits times in just two days and attracted hundreds of deferential comments. Molvi, a pass-out from Deoband, had earned the moniker “Azhar Masood of Kashmir” for his persuasive oratory.
Together, these youth constitute the third generation of Kashmiri militants. They surprisingly operate in a milieu devoid of the mass following and the organisational support structure enjoyed by their forerunners in the 1990’s, the first-generation militants. They also do not have the exposure and the military training of the foreigners who turned Kashmir into a battleground in early 2000, introducing fidayeen attacks and car bombs much before they were replicated on a much larger scale in al Qaeda’s global theatre of jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan and now in Pakistan itself. This was the second and arguably the deadliest phase of militancy in Kashmir.
Though the new militants are disproportionately modest in the scale of their operation, they know their job well. They are home-grown, self-recruited and self-trained. All of them were introduced to the ongoing conflict in the state by the three successive separatist summer revolts till 2010. “They don’t cross the LoC to get training,” says a police officer on the condition of anonymity. “They get a gun or snatch it from a security man or police personnel and learn to operate it. Some of them join militancy seeking thrills and a sense of importance. But this by no means makes them less dangerous.”
An example of this new-found audacity was seen in the 24 June attack on an army convoy near Hypderpora, just a day ahead of the arrival of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the Valley. The militants flagged the last security vehicle, which stopped thinking the youth need help. As the vehicle stopped, the militants whipped out their assault rifles and fired indiscriminately. Another militant lobbed a grenade inside the vehicle, killing eight soldiers and injuring 16 others. They then escaped from the spot and on reaching Barzulla Chowk in the heart of the city, tossed a grenade at a CRPF checkpoint, seriously injuring a CRPF sub-inspector and a policeman.
There are therefore legitimate fears that this trickle could become a stream. More so, with the impending US exit from Afghanistan looking set to engender a regional geo-political environment that echoes in parts the situation created by the withdrawal of the erstwhile USSR in the early 90s. The US departure is expected to bring into play many new factors in the larger South Asia region, and whether Taliban recaptures Kabul or not, the US withdrawal will nevertheless give them and the militant groups in Pakistan a sense of triumph and an exaggerated estimation of their power. This, in turn, could set them on the pursuit of their still unfulfilled agendas within and outside Pakistan with Kashmir as one of their prominent “unfinished businesses”.
“Even though I don’t see the prospect of Kashmir going the 90s way, with a little help from outside, things could change,” says another police officer. “There is no dearth of motivation among a section of youth but there are no takers for them. Due to fencing along the LoC, weapons and support are not easy to come by.”
Offering an idea about the direction in which things could be heading, Jamat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed addressed a series of gatherings in Muzzafarabad, Rawlakot and Bagh in PoK, raking up Kashmir once again, just around the time Nawaz Sharif was taking oath as the new prime minister of Pakistan. “We should revive the confidence and hope of our Kashmiri brothers. Their sacrifices will never be in vain,” Saeed tweeted just after his speeches. “No agreement like the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) will be acceptable to the people of Pakistan, until the long standing issue of Kashmir is resolved.”
In the Valley though, it is not the LeT, but the Kashmir-rooted Hizbul Mujahideen, which is in revival mode. A majority of the fresh militant recruitment has filled the Hizbul ranks. It is also the Hizbul that accepts the responsibility for most militant attacks in the state, even though below the surface, say the police, the Hizbul and Lashkar are not strictly separate entities. “We have seen that even in the attacks which bear the visible Lashkar imprint, like the Bemina suicide attack, it is the Hizbul that accepts responsibility,” says a police officer. “This is possibly done to not let the LeT’s negative international image rub off on the Kashmir cause.”
For now, nobody in the state’s security establishment thinks that the trend of local youth joining militant ranks will become a wave. The latest Kashmir Police estimate puts the number of militants in the Valley at 133. The army’s number is higher at 325. However, General Om Prakash, who recently ended his tenure as General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps feels the numbers don’t explain today’s militancy. “You have militants who roam like common men. They carry out attacks and again join the common people.” he told reporters just before leaving Kashmir on 13 June.
According to the police, there are also many unlisted militants in the Valley. “Yes, there are militants whom we don’t know,” says Imtiaz Hussain. “We have two militants in Sopore who are still unidentified.”
This makes the Valley a cauldron of sorts. While on one hand, the looming 2014 General Election are setting off an increased political buzz with parties working out their poll strategies, on the other, there is a determined bid by militants to organise themselves, with the local youth spearheading this revival. Though the balance is still disproportionately on the side of the ongoing preparations for polls, things could be drastically different if the government, both in the state and at the Centre, remain oblivious to how a large section of the alienated youth are looking at the situation.
Courtesy: Tehelka Magazine 27-6 July