J&K: Militants changing sanctuaries under pressure from security forces

South Kashmir has been the hotbed of insurgency especially after militant commander Burhan Wani was killed by Indian Army in July 2016

Pulwama: The security forces combating a three-decade-old insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir have over the past several months mounted pressure on militant outfits in south Kashmir, forcing the latter to shift their bases to central and north Kashmir.

South Kashmir –consisting of four districts namely Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag – has been the hotbed of insurgency especially after militant commander Burhan Wani was along with two associates killed by Indian Army in July 2016.

The killing of 22-year-old Internet savvy poster boy of frontline indigenous militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahideen not only triggered widespread unrest in Kashmir Valley and parts of Chenab valley of Jammu region during which more than eighty people were killed, most of them in security forces’ actions, it also inspired hundreds of Kashmir’s youth to join militants’ ranks. With it, the armed separatist campaign gained a new life, as South Kashmir became the stronghold of new-age militancy.

The Army and other security forces officials have repeatedly admitted that Burhan ‘s death encouraged hundreds of Kashmiri youth to join the militant ranks. Most of them were from South Kashmir. Burhan Wani himself was a resident of Tral area of South Kashmir.

Analysts endorse the view that with the militancy gained a new dimension and strength owing to Burhan’s killing. Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a former professor of law and international relations at the Central University of Kashmir, said, “Everyone knows that the dead Burhan Wani proved to be more dangerous for the Indian forces than the living Burhan Wani. He not only promoted militancy but also won it social acceptance”. He added, “When he was killed, the whole of Kashmir boiled over and the mourning was observed in all corners of the Valley. This went on for six months and it should not be any difficult to gauge the power and influence of Burhan on the people, especially the youth”.

Within a few months of Burhan's killing, South Kashmir had not only become a stronghold of a new era of militancy, in the first three years that followed, more radicalized youth from within the Hizb and Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen joined newly created groups like Ansar-ul-Gazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), an Al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK) and the Islamic State’s Hind Province (ISHP), another ISIS affiliate.

However, the Hizb called it a deliberate attempt to weaken the recognized militant groups and pointed the finger of suspicion at Indian intelligence agencies. The new groups dismissed the hypothesis as baseless and questioned why security forces were killing their members if Indian intelligence agencies were behind their existence.

The officials say that after Burhan 's killing, on the one hand, if Kashmiri youths started joining militant groups in droves, on the other hand, security forces intensified operations against them, and over a period of four and a half years, more than a thousand militants, including three dozen senior commanders, have been killed, most of them in south Kashmir. It is the Hizb which has been at the receiving end mainly. DG Police, Dilbag Singh, recently claimed that the organization has been almost wiped out in south Kashmir. During this period, the security forces also suffered heavy casualties as compared to previous years and dozens of civilians were also killed and properties severely damaged.

The police chief also said that, so far, this year more than 70 operations have been carried out against the militants and almost all of these have been “successful” as, according to him, the security forces have killed more than 180 militants during these operations.

But it is also a fact that despite the killings, local youths have not stopped joining militant groups. A new trend witnessed over a period of time has been the recruitment of also highly educated youth into these outfits and also the local populations extending their outright support to militants. In addition, new organizations with different ideologies were born and outfits like Al-Badr began to regroup. At the same time, the security forces’ actions and mounting pressure led to logistical issues within established militant groups such as the Hizb and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), the officials said. They added that the shortage of weapons is a recurring issue in these outfits and the increasing incidence of weapon snatching from security forces over the past couple of years is testimony of it.

During his visits to various areas of Pulwama and Shopian, this correspondent saw large and heavily equipped contingents of the Army and local police's counterinsurgency Special Operations Group (SOG), as well as the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), patrolling or being present in almost nook and cranny of the region. Many residents said that while the Army has increased pressure on the militants, it is also trying hard to woo the local population. “We see a sea change in the attitude of the government forces particularly the Army towards civilians,” said a Pulwama resident Muhammad Maqbool Raina (name changed).

In the past, the security forces have been accused of treating people in these areas harshly; harassing particularly young people and damaging property besides committing other human rights violations. The authorities would strongly deny such allegations.

However, many people also told this correspondent that they are very angry that the bodies of the militants killed in the encounters with the security forces are not handed over to their families on the pretext of COVID-19. Showkat Dar, a local journalist, said, “People, especially relatives, want to bury these young men in their ancestral graveyards or in those marked for martyrs, but obviously the authorities do not want large gatherings at their funerals." In the past, people used to flock to such funerals, even the comrades of the slain militants would attend their funerals, and on several occasions many local youths and even minor boys joined them on the spot or seized the occasions to pledge their support for the “cause”. This became a major challenge for the security forces.

Local sources confirmed that the militants were moving from South Kashmir to Central and North Kashmir in view of sustained pressure on them by the security forces. This can be gauged from the fact that in the summer capital Srinagar, which officials would say has been cleared of militancy, there have been eight clashes between militants and security forces, so far, this year. Eighteen militants, including Junaid Ashraf Khan, a senior Hizb commander, were killed in these firefights. Militant attacks on police and other security forces in Srinagar and its suburbs have also increased. Another district in central Kashmir- Budgam- and districts in north Kashmir, particularly Baramulla and Bandipore, have also seen an increase in militant activity, with intelligence reports pointing to their having been able to establish new strongholds in these districts.

Sheikh Showkat points to a new possibility. He said a large number of Indian troops have been shifted from the northern and central parts of the Kashmir Valley to Ladakh in the wake of the standoff between Indian and Chinese forces on the Tibetan border. This, he said, may have created space for militants to relocate from South Kashmir to these areas and establish new sanctuaries. “Or they may have been forced to do so simply because of the growing operations against them in South Kashmir. Nothing can be said with certainty about this,” he added.

Former DG Police, Shesh Paul Vaid, however, does not see it as an unusual phenomenon. He said, “When the pressure on them increases in one particular area or region, they leave it and go out in search of new shelters. They used to do that earlier also. Yet I can’t say if this shift from South Kashmir to Central and North Kashmir is part of some well thought over plan or strategy or a just self- protective measure to save themselves from the augmented anti-militant operations”. He also said that the Kashmir Valley is a geographically dynamic region and there are no demarcations that may prevent anyone from moving from one area to another.

Lt. Gen. B.S.Raju, the commander of the Army’s Srinagar-based 15 corps-also known as Chinar corps, recently said that even though the infiltration from across the Line of Control (LoC) has been restricted to a fewer incidents due to the increased vigil being maintained by it along the de facto border, the recruitment of local youth into the militants’ ranks has gone up slightly in the September-October. Security forces sources said the new recruits were mainly from North Kashmir.

DGP Mr. Singh militants vowed not to allow the militants to set foot in areas like Srinagar. He said, "Whenever a terrorist organization tries to establish a base in Srinagar, we are able to successfully deal with its members with the help of our intelligence and other means.”

Security forces officials privately say they will soon turn their attention to Central and North Kashmir to fight the militants more effectively. However, CRPF Director General for North India Zulfiqar Hassan told this correspondent that the security forces could not afford to lower their guard in South Kashmir as the militants keep changing their locations. “They keep moving from one place to another. We’ve to be on the ball every time, everywhere”, he said.

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