Published On: Fri, Aug 5th, 2016

Losing the Narrative

Cover story, June 2016 issue

The broad daylight killings of policemen in Srinagar has evoked fears of ‘new age militancy’ expanding its wings to hitherto unchartered terrains of Kashmir Valley. While uncertainty continues to define Indo-Pak relations, the volatile situation back in the Valley is threatening to spiral out of control. 

Police cops killed in militant attacks

On May 23, unidentified militants broke the three-year-old lull in summer capital Srinagar by striking twice in less than two hours. When the dust had settled, three policemen were lying in a pool of blood.

In the first attack, unidentified militants shot at two policemen; an assistant sub-inspector Nazeer Ahmad and constable Bashir Ahmad, who were meters away from Zadibal police station, were caught off guard by the attackers. By the time the victims were rushed to hospital, they had passed away.

An hour later, unidentified militants carried out another attack near Tengpora on the outskirts of Srinagar. Here another policeman, Muhammad Sadiq, was shot. Before fleeing the spot, the suspects also managed to snatch his service rifle.

The attacks, which have set alarm bells ringing within the security grid, came at a time when the state government has been repeatedly claiming that Srinagar is militancy free. The shoot-outs were followed up with an encounter in the busy Sarai Bala market.

Last time the militants carried out an attack in Srinagar was in June 2013 which had resulted in the killing of two policemen. In recent years, as parts of south Kashmir emerged as centres of the ‘new age militancy’, police and other security agencies turned their focus towards the districts of Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama while overlooking the influence of the phenomenon in other urban centres like Srinagar city.

What has, however, been most worrying for the security apparatus is the fact that the militants could successfully enter and strike in Srinagar, and later flee unscathed, a phenomenon restricted to south Kashmir districts where locals have openly come out in support of militants. “This (Srinagar) attack is not the only worry. There have been developments in other parts of Kashmir with eerie similarities,” said a senior police officer.

The officer was referring to militant attacks in Anantnag where three BSF personnel and two policemen, ASI Bashir Ahmad Ahanger and constable Riyaz Ahmad Sheikh were killed in two attacks within as many days.

Although the police believes that the attacks in Srinagar and Anantnag were one-off incidents, the security grid has been expressing concerns that the ‘new age militancy’, which originated in south Kashmir, may be spreading its wings to other parts of the Valley.

While South Kashmir has, over the past few years, seen young and educated boys leaving homes to join poster-boy of ‘new age militancy’ in Kashmir, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the Srinagar attacks are seen an emerging worry for security apparatus with Hizbul Mujahideen claiming responsibility for the killings and warning of similar attacks in the future.

“The militants of the special squad killed three policemen of the special operation group of J&K police and also managed to snatch a rifle from the cops,” the Hizb spokesman said, soon after Srinagar attacks.

However, Director General of Police K Rajendra told the media that the attacks were a desperate bid by militants to show their presence. “It is an act of desperation as groups that infiltrated recently have been wiped out and of late, security forces have been achieving very good success,” DGP Rajendra told reporters after three of his men were shot dead.

The attacks took place when the J&K Legislature had convened for budget session in Srinagar. The Opposition didn’t waste time to corner the Peoples Democratic Party-Bhartiya Janta Party government over the killings.

In the state assembly, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s National Conference party cornered the coalition government over the killings while Congress blamed the “unholy” PDP-BJP alliance and flawed policy of New Delhi towards Islamabad for the attacks.

“The government needs to move quickly and reassure the residents of Srinagar and visitors,” former Chief Minister wrote on Twitter, as the attacks took place at a time when Kashmir had started registering a thick footfall of the tourists.

“The attacks are a direct result of the unholy alliance between PDP and BJP,” Congress’s Nawang Rigzin Jora said in the House.

Amid uproar in the House over the killings, a preliminary investigation by J&K police into Srinagar attacks has pointed towards the involvement of three local militants from Srinagar. “Though the investigation is on but we have been able to establish that all the three youth involved in the shootout are from Srinagar,” a police officer said.

This is an alarming development since the attacks by militants on J&K police were witnessed more in south Kashmir in recent past. According to police, militants face shortage of weapons owing to strict vigil on the borders and hence they would take to snatching weapons from security forces in south Kashmir to stock their arsenals.

Off late, militants have struck on numerous occasions on the Srinagar-Jammu Highway in Bijbehara and adjoining Sangam area of Anantnag district. Two civilians were injured in a grenade attack on an Army vehicle in Bijbehara on April 8 this year. Earlier, on March 26, two army men and a civilian were injured when militants tossed a grenade towards police station Bijbehara.

This is not all. In December last year, DSP Irshad Rather, posted as SDPO Bijbehara, was critically injured in a militant attack in Bijbehara town. The DSP received seven bullets. Earlier in May last year, two CRPF men including a junior level officer were killed and their weapons taken away by militants near Halmula area of Sangam.

Since May 25, a wave of attacks have been carried out on security forces. Militants have struck four times on forces in the Valley and killed six policemen and three BSF personnel. Hizb-ul-Mujahideen has been claiming responsibility for all the attacks and has been threatening similar attacks.

“Perpetrators of bloodbath must realise that it is not through the gun and grenade that political problems are resolved. Dialogue and reconciliation are the only options for making headway in finding a solution,” Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said after the attacks.

“These acts depict the desperation on part of militant groups and nothing else as they are only adding to miseries of Kashmiris,” the Chief Minister said in Anantnag.

The attacks came barely days ahead of the by-election to Anantnag assembly segment – the constituency had fallen vacant following the demise of the former Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed – where Mehbooba would be fighting to secure birth in the Legislative Assembly.

The elections are a do-or-die situation for the Chief Minister as she needs to be elected for legislature within six months of her taking over as the chief minister. The maiden electoral exercise would also be the first test of the PDP-BJP coalition in Kashmir where people had, in 2014, voted to keep BJP out of power.

Mehbooba had repeatedly, before taking over as the Chief Minister, termed the party’s decision to ally with the BJP an “unpopular” one.

“They would ask votes from people last time saying they will keep RSS and BJP away. Now they have joined hands with them only. People remember it and they will teach this party (PDP) a lesson this time,” said Congress candidate Hilal Shah, who had last time given good fight to Sayeed, losing the election by 6000 votes.

Away from the heat generated by politics and insurgency in Kashmir, the J&K police acknowledge that the militant attacks in Srinagar and Anantnag have added to the challenge to ensure incident-free election.

What could now add to their worries of security agencies is the latest warning by Hizbul Mujahideen’s 21-year-old commander Burhan of more attacks on armed forces including police in a video released on June 7.

“Since last month, we have carried out many actions in which the Indian Army and the police were a target…The Indian Army is our enemy, but police is forcing us to act against them…We will act against every man in uniform who stands for Indian Constitution,” he said in his six-minute video message.

Burhan also asked youth “who want to join them”, to keep a record of every policeman and police officer of their locality.

“Get complete details about every policeman or police officer of their role towards the society with regards to movement and inform us about them…When the time is ripe, we will induct you,” he said, asking police not to “harass youth or erect check-posts on roads.”

While the unprecedented situation in the Valley has caught security agencies on the back-foot, the spike in violence has again underlined the need for a comprehensive dialogue involving “all stakeholders” to end the bloodbath, as promised by the PDP-BJP coalition government in its ‘Agenda of the Alliance’.

Even the Army’s top commander in Jammu and Kashmir and chief of Northern Command, Lt Gen DS Hooda feigned helplessness about dealing with the situation in Kashmir. For the first time in years, he admitted that the forces may be losing the battle for the ‘heart and minds’ in Kashmir.

“Frankly speaking, I’m not comfortable anymore conducting operations if large crowds are around. Militarily, there’s not much more to do than we already have done. … We’re losing the battle for a narrative,” Hooda said

With the way the relations between India and Pakistan are shaping up, any kind of reconciliation seems a far cry. In such a situation, the road ahead in Kashmir looks dark and uncertain.

 

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