Kashmir, Once Again

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The Indian Government is unable to counter the changing strategies of separatists

The first casualty of any armed conflict is the truth, and in this, Kashmir is no exception. Depending on who one talks to, there are different versions of what happened on 18 July in Ramban, a small town midway on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. Word of the Quran’s desecration at a local madrassa spread quickly, and a large crowd assembled outside the camp of the Border Security Force (BSF). Local police forces rushed there too. In the ensuing chaos, the BSF troops opened fire. Four protestors died while dozens were injured. Two more local protestors later succumbed to their injuries.

This news reached Kashmir valley in no time, triggering protests all over. Curfew had to be declared immediately. As a clueless state government struggled with diffusing tension, news of another incident of Quran desecration came from Ganderbal in central Kashmir, leading to further protests. Apparently, a resident had found a few burnt pages of Islam’s holy book outside a mosque along with a policeman’s belt and a shoe. Nobody bothered to ask why the supposed culprit from the police would leave a telltale trail of objects behind.

A police investigation revealed how two local drug addicts had done this to turn up the heat on the police and keep them from raiding their drug consumption hideouts.

But such sordid stunts, as the learned in Kashmir tell you, are not always pulled for gains as petty as freedom to pop Spasmo-Proxymon capsules. Such trouble, they say, also marks a shift in the separatist strategy to keep the state on edge. The game is to ensure that any incident can be tweaked to draw slogan-shouters and stone-pelters onto the streets against the Indian State.

Just a few days before the Ramban incident, I am in Nowhatta, the epicentre of protests in downtown Srinagar. It’s Sunday, but there is going to be no respite. In one corner, a few nervous jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are preparing for a showdown. A little ahead, outside the Jama Masjid, hundreds of youngsters are gathering at various points. At one place, a local baker is supplying logs of wood from his stock to enable the young men to block the main road. Some of them are urging a few shopkeepers whose outlets are open to draw down their shutters. What has everyone enraged is the death of a Srinagar boy in Mumbai.

“The people here think the Shiv Sena killed him,” says a local journalist who accompanies me. We are there to meet two veteran stone-pelters of this area. The local journalist asks us to walk a little ahead while he establishes contact with the two. Behind us, stone pelting has already begun. We hear the din. A siren blows somewhere nearby.

We enter a lane. The two men—they are in their mid-twenties—follow shortly. “Our fight is not only for an independent Kashmir, but for an independent Kashmir that is an Islamic state,” says the more vocal of the two. They have participated in every episode of stone pelting through all these years. “We have grown up amid curfews and crackdowns and all the brutality,” the man says.

The conversation veers to the man who died in Mumbai. “This is what mainstream India is doing to us,” the other man says, “Killing us in Kashmir and even outside [the state].” I ask them the name of the man who died in Mumbai. Neither knows. “What Teli is it?” one asks the other. He shrugs his shoulders. He can’t remember, he says.

Later it turns out that Parvez Ahmed Teli was killed after he had stepped out to buy cigarettes and was hit by a local train. “He was sent [to Mumbai] from here by his parents because he was a drug addict,” a police officer in Srinagar tells me.

Such youth are a cause of worry for the police. “Militancy and stone-pelting go side by side,” says Ahfadul Mujtaba, Inspector-General of Police in central Kashmir. They fear how easy it is to replace a stone with a hand-grenade. What heightens the worry, say senior police sources, is the renewed focus of militants on local recruitment. “The Pakistani handlers of terrorism in Kashmir are keen to show that Afzal Guru’s hanging has led to more Kashmiri youth joining militancy,” says a senior police officer. According to him, the terror outfit Hizbul Mujahideen, which comprises mostly local youth in the Valley, is itching to recruit young men to keep militancy in Kashmir at a level that suits it. “The Bemina attack [on a CRPF camp that left five jawans dead] of 13 March was done by terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), but the Hizbul was quick to claim responsibility for the attack. The ISI [of Pakistan] is patronising Syed Salahuddin [founder of the Hizbul and chairman of the United Jihad Council],” he says.

For the new recruits, there is not much time for rigorous training, as received by their counterparts from the LeT. They are given a few days of practice to fire a pistol or an AK-47 rifle and then let loose. While the LeT conducts large-scale operations, Hizbul recruits undertake smaller attacks.

There is a video on YouTube of an attack on 25 June in Kashmir’s Hyderpora area on a convoy carrying Indian Army soldiers. The video, shot with a mobile camera, shows an Army truck being fired at by three gunmen. They appear to have got so close because there is no retaliatory fire. The Indian soldiers, on their way back from vacations, are unarmed—and within minutes, eight of them are dead. In the video, one can hear an Arabic voice that eulogises the commitment of jihadis. This operation, according to the police, was carried out by the LeT. Two days earlier, suspected Hizbul militants shot from close range two policemen regulating traffic on a busy street in Srinagar, instantly killing both. On 14 July, another policeman’s throat was slit; he had no chance of survival.

The police believes that about 150 terrorists are active in Kashmir right now, many of them new recruits. “They are in Sopore, Handwara and Pattan in north Kashmir; and Ananatnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Tral in the south,” says a senior police officer. On top of the list are Hizbul’s Qayoom Najar, who is from Pakistan, and Sajjad, a local boy who is with the LeT. “The LeT has recently recruited about 30 youth in Sopore,” the officer says.

The money that funds recruitment, according to police sources, can be traced to the trade across the Line of Control between Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) that began in 2008. Cash is routed in through shady deals. For instance, say, a Kashmiri trader goes to the LoC with carpets worth Rs 5 lakh. In exchange, he gets dry fruits from his counterpart in Muzaffarabad (in POK) for Rs 10 lakh on the understanding that he pays an agent in Kashmir Rs 5 lakh. Police sources also mention instances where the surrender of militants based in POK was used to transfer money. Some militants need large sums of money to acquire passports and other documents there to enable their return to Kashmir. This money is provided by a handler there on the condition that relatives of the militant deliver the same sums of cash to a militant agent in Kashmir.

Has the state government’s response to all this been adequate? “No,” says a senior police officer who has come to see me at my hotel. He has had a busy day. Talks have been held on changing the security plan for Srinagar in the wake of the Hyderpora attack. “It’s like a train accident in India,” he says. “At one time you will blame a ‘lack of trained guards’; another time you’ll say ‘There is a fault in the locomotive’; and the third time you’ll say ‘There is some problem with the tracks’. We change security plans here roughly in the same fashion.”

The Army, he feels, is part of the problem. “Why do we want an army jawan to search cars on a street in Srinagar?” he asks. “What are we meant for? Instead of engaging a terrorist in Srinagar, shouldn’t the Army be on the LoC with thermal sensors to make sure that no terrorist reaches Srinagar?” In 1990, he says, there were 40,000 armed militants in Kashmir and yet they could not achieve anything. “This is 2013… what could 150 or possibly 200 militants achieve?” he asks.

Time and again, Kashmir’s separatist leaders have fallen short of new targets. Since 2008, though, there has been a change in their strategy. “They wanted to create an intifada-like situation here, and the first chance they got was the Amarnath yatra controversy,” says the officer. Signs of this strategy switch were evident in 2010, when more than a hundred youngsters died in police firing. “In 2011 and 2012, the Mirwaiz [separatist leader Umar Farooq] began to talk about bijli, paani in his Friday sermons, very much like 1.2 billion Indians do,” he adds. But then, the State has had no strategy, he says. It kept up its old tactics. “Now you are putting young boys in jail under the [Public Safety Act]. They are 10 per cent radicalised when they enter and 90 per cent radicalised by the time they get out,” he says, “We must understand that the new generation is different. If there’s firing, a person of my generation will instinctively run in the other direction. But a young Kashmiri boy will run towards the firing spot.”

The police are making some effort to discourage young locals, in downtown Srinagar particularly, from stone-pelting. A few gyms have been built. Also, some young men have been recruited by the state police from this area. But the officer with me at the hotel says it doesn’t make much difference. “A month later, he will come to a police station for passport verification and the constable will demand a bribe from him,” he says.

Of late, there has been much talk in security circles about the probable impact on Kashmir of the proposed withdrawal of allied troops from Afghanistan in 2014. But the officer believes such talk is overdone. “Nothing will happen,” he says, “They will come and we will kill them.” But there are security agencies, he says, who want to create the impression that Kashmir could turn into a sort of Tora Bora. “Everyone is so happy with this conflict,” the officer says, “Including that retired Army general with a big moustache I see every evening on some news channel.”

It is all hot air, believes the police officer. He cites the example of a senior CRPF official whose team has occupied an entire hotel of 42 rooms at a prime location in Srinagar for which the Union Home Ministry pays a yearly rental of Rs 22 lakh. “When the officer gets up in the morning and pulls his bedroom curtains apart, he can see the Dal Lake,” says the officer. “Now imagine if he were to be transferred from here. He would [probably] be sent to a Naxal area where he will have to live in a dilapidated government school building. Why would this officer want to leave Kashmir?” In Srinagar district alone, according to sources, the Government pays annual rentals of over Rs 15 crore for buildings occupied by the CRPF and others. “Kashmir is like that line from the film Hidden Agenda,” the officer says: “The more you peel, the more you cry.”

The next day, I travel to Sopore to meet Mudassar, the elder brother of an LeT commander, Muzammil, who was killed along with another Pakistani militant in October last year after Indian security forces brought down a building in which they were holed up.

It is late afternoon and the air is quiet all around. It is Ramzan, and people are indoors trying to conserve energy before the evening prayers and breaking of their day-long fast. Mudassar insists on serving us lemonade, shortly followed by tea. As I nibble a biscuit, Mudassar talks of how he and his family were tortured by the police, as he alleges, and how that led to Muzammil’s turning into a terrorist. It all began, he says, when the police found a bag of weapons inside a well in their compound in 2010. Mudassar claims it was dropped there by two passing militants who then escaped from the back door. But he accepts that Muzammil had become quite religious in the few years before this incident and had urged the family not to watch TV and asked him and their other brother to grow a beard. “But he did not believe in the gun,” Mudassar insists.

In the wee hours of the morning of 21 October, just before he got killed, Muzammil had made a phone call to Mudassar. The call was recorded and later put on YouTube with voices extolling his martyrdom. In the long call, one hears Muzammil urge his family to be patient and not cry over his imminent death.

“We had given him many chances to desist from militant activities,” says Imtiyaz Hussain, Sopore’s police chief, “He had been with the LeT since 2009 and was a close associate of the slain LeT commander Abdullah Uni.”

In Srinagar later, a senior police officer tells me how they were about to catch Muzammil alive eight months before his death. He explains how cops had arrested two associates of Muzammil in Jharkhand who had been asked to trigger explosions in crowded parts of Delhi.

But before Muzammil could be arrested, the then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram announced the arrest of his associates on TV. Muzammil went underground the same evening. “To be fair, Muzammil’s father really wanted him to be caught alive,” says the officer. But then, Chidambaram messed up. And a martyr was born amid the debris of a building.