February 19, 2020
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Kashmir: A State Of No Peace

Folks of a valley where peace looks like daily war hear how the nation talks of war and peace

Kashmir: A State Of No Peace
Circle Of Violence
Government forces personnel during a gunbattle with ­militants after the Pulwama attack
Photograph by PTI
Kashmir: A State Of No Peace

Thursday, February 14. Ayesha Begam, 43, was on the terrace of her house when she heard a loud explosion that shook the whole building. Nothing like anything she had heard before. As she rushed out of her house with her two children, she heard “two or three bullet shots”. That was more familiar—an encounter, she thought. Perhaps bigger than usual. “We live in south Kashmir and also on the highway…we are used to it,” she says. Lethpora, just 25 km or so south of Srinagar, is bang on the highway going through restive south Kashmir all the way to Qazigund, the last town before the Banihal tunnel that connects the Valley to Jammu across the Pir Panjal mountains.

Thursday’s car bombing, which killed 40 CRPF personnel, was indeed out of the ordinary—the deadliest militant attack ever in Kashmir. The suicide bombing carried out by 19-year-­old Adil Ahmad Dar, a Kashmiri militant affiliated to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, has also come at a time when India is headed for general elections. With PM Narendra Modi promising a “jaw-breaking” response to Pakistan, Kashmir has fed right into the mainstream political discourse.

At Gandibagh village of Pulwama, however, Adil’s father, Ghulam Hassan Dar, says, “He had never seemed inc­lined to join militancy.” Adil, a teenager doing odd jobs, until some unp­leasant encounters with the forces ‘turned’ him onto the path families dread, had left home this March, and had only once contacted the family since, adds the berea­ved father. He recalls Adil’s love for cricket and that he was a Dhoni fan.

The spectre of India and Pakistan going to war over Kashmir has long been a staple of foreign policy scenario-­makers. Kashmir has been thr­ough many phases in the two decades since the two belligerent neighbours went nuclear. How does it now react to the prospect of an Indo-Pak war?

Kashmir’s case is of a ­political and humanitarian issue being dealt with militarily, but the people of India are shown a ­totally misleading picture. Now news anchors proudly call this the world’s most militarised zone, which it is­­—and with impunity laws like AFSPA,in place, even while they say there are aro­und 100 to 150 militants. All that has happened over the years is only forcing Kashmir’s young to take up the gun. The ­gov­ernment has fully choked the space for Hurriyat Conference’s peaceful, political movement, and chosen to res­ort to its military might. Hundreds were killed in 2016 and hundreds blinded. More of our young, both militants and civilians, are ­returning to us only in bodybags. Last year, when around 260 militants and 100 ­civilians were killed, but some des­cribed it as a “great year”. For us, however, it was a year of funerals.
Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Hurriyat Conference

People here are stoically numb—“let there be a war,” is the commonest res­ponse. “Not a day passes without gunfights and encounters and funerals here. Let there be a war and settle it once for all,” says a youngster at Teng­mohalla locality of Lethpora. Others say they have seen so many funerals all ­these years that the fear of death has gone. “I wish there is war now,” says another youngster, ­perhaps not seeing any difference ­between peace and war.

The Highway

At Lethpora, a youngster points to the camp housing the CRPF’s 185 Batt­alion at the foothills of a mountain loc­ally called Wastuwan, just a mile from the highway where the CRPF convoy was attacked. The last edition of Jaish’s works was seen there, early in the morning on January 1, 2018, when a 16-year-old Jaish militant called Fardeen Khanday, the son of a police head constable from Tral, ent­ered the camp and carried out an att­ack in which five CRPF personnel were killed. Khanday had joined the Jaish in October 2017. In a pre-recor­ded video, Fardeen had claimed ­mil­itancy is not the result of unemployment, but “a reply to Kashmir’s ill­egal control by India”. He also asked Kashmiri youth to join the “fight aga­inst India”. Besides Afzal Guru, whose hanging turned him into a martyr in Kashmiri eyes, Fardeen hailed Jaish supremo Maulana Masood Azhar.

Adil was only born in 1999, the year India released Masood Azhar after the IC-814 hijacking. Last Thursday, he joined a script written in blood. Clas­s­ified as a category-C militant, he ram­med his Echo vehicle, filled with what police sources say was ammonium nit­rate, into the ill-fated CRPF bus. He is said to have entered the highway at Awantipora from a left bylane to join the CRPF convoy of 78 vehicles that was transporting 2,547 paramilitary jawans. The convoy had left Jammu around 3 am. At Lethpora, the militant overtook the fifth bus in the convoy, and rammed his vehicle into it, blowing it into pieces and damaging the sixth bus coming up behind it.

The remarkable fact about the incident, at first glance, is that it happened at all—the highway being dotted with security forces. The CRPF’s 10th battalion is just 100 metres ahead of the point on the highway where the incident took place. The army’s 50 Rashtriya Rifles camp too is just 400 metres ahead. But in recent years, this highway has seen militant attacks despite the heavy dep­loyment. In June 2016, LeT militants attacked a CRPF convoy comprising six vehicles at Frisal village at cong­ested Pampore, killing eight CRPF per­sonnel. In July 2017, militants ope­ned fire on a bus carrying Amarnath pilgrims, killing seven yatris, at Bot­engo in Anantnag. Both spots were on the old highway—the new one bypasses them.

The police say there were non-specific inputs about an attack involving an IED of 10-20 kg—nothing of “this magnitude”, and at any rate not a high-impact suicide sortie involving a bomb-laden car. Even if the mode of attack was unusual, the highway is an easy target because of huge traffic movement, according to the police. “Another such incident could be a course-changer for Kashmir,” says a senior police official.

Four days after the attack, the CRPF and the army were not allowing civilian vehicles to ply on the highway when sec­urity convoys were on the move. “Nothing has changed except we have been given long lathis to keep private vehicles away,” says a CRPF jawan manning the Nowgam byp­ass. With even army personnel seen carrying long lathis to make private vehicles fall in line, the Srinagar-Qazigund and Srinagar-Baramulla highways are likely to witness huge jams and possible public protests. On Saturday, people complained they were thrashed by army personnel at Narbal crossing.

No Safe House

A residential building with ­militants inside is blown up.

Photograph by AP


There was obviously a gap in the SOP that allowed Adil Dar to slip through. The three-tier security SOP starts with early morning road opening parties (ROPs) to check for IEDs. The ROPs are also in charge of not allowing anyone come near the convoys during the day. The second tier is corridor protection, where the army goes 15 yards ­either side of the highway to check any militant movement. The third is deep deployment, where forces are placed in villages along the highway.

According to former J&K DGP K. Rajendra Kumar, till the early 2000s, civilian traffic was stopped for conv­oys—and night traffic not allowed either. Post-2002, these restrictions were lifted as the situation started imp­roving, to the point when militants in Kashmir numbered in single digits. “If we start restricting private vehicle movement, people would be put to a lot of inconvenience,” he says, adding that even the strictest SOP cannot guarantee total safety. Former CM Omar Abdullah says special chartered trains should be used from Banihal to Baramulla for movement of forces. “They can move non-stop at high speed and will be much safer,” he says, adding that would free up the highway for civilian traffic.

The ‘Afzal Guru Squad’

As the attack was timed close to Feb­ru­ary 9, the day Afzal Guru was hanged in 2013, the police suspect the inv­olve­m­ent of Afzal Guru Squad, formed by Jaish in January 2014—specifically, JeM commander Kamraan, an IED exp­ert, who was gunned down on Monday in Pinglana. Jaish has had a chequered existence in Kashmir: its most dramatic strike ­bef­ore this was the Octo­ber 2001 car bomb attack on the asse­mbly complex in Srinagar that killed 38 people. Partly eclipsed after the 2003 killing of its chief operational commander Gazi Baba—thought to be behind the Parliament attack—it has resurfaced with a bang. Gazi was earlier with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, created in the ’90s for carrying out “spe­ctacular attacks”, and IC-814 ranks high among those. IC-814 and the Parl­iament attack finding mention in Adil’s last ­message rounds off a long story.

The BJP wants to win the ­elections. It doesn’t matter to them even if the whole country burns. The BJP should first stop what they whipped up against Muslims in the country. And they shouldn’t use the CRPF deaths for political gain. It is a loss for the country. They should stop polarising Jammu and ask their men there to stop violence. After that, we would talk about ­political outreach and talks.
Dr Farooq Abdullah, Former J&K CM

With New Delhi following an iron-fist policy, militant deaths have been unusual high in the recent past. In 2018, over 256 militants (150 of them Kas­hmiri) were killed, the highest in two decades. In 2017, 85 Jaish militants were killed, including Talha Rashid, a nephew of Masood Azhar. In 2018, at least 49 Jaish men fell, including Usman Haider, another nephew of Masood Azhar. Ind­eed, the army had described 2018 as a “remarkable” year. Omar Abdullah was the first to question the boast, pointing out a great year would be one in which nobody joined militancy, and no Kash­miri or armed personnel was killed in gunfights. Many experts agree.

For, if 150 Kashmiri militants were killed last year, 190 also joined militancy and 300 are still active. “They aren’t often well-trained, some don’t even know how to carry a weapon and get killed within days of joining. The­re’s no need to show bravado,” says a senior officer, pleading anonymity.

Analysts here blame the Centre’s policies for pushing Kashmiris to ­extreme positions. One widespread belief is that the Centre, in the past five years, has used Kashmir in a way that would help the BJP elsewhere. That, in fact, helped “the merger of moderate and hardline separatists,” says an analyst. The party also crea­ted deep paranoia by moving for the revocation of Article 370 and Art­icle 35A—the past two years have seen a complete strike in the Valley for every hearing of the Art­icle 35A case in the Supreme Court. The polarisation was so complete that even those who “had fired and taken bul­lets for India” testified to feeling threatened. “You can blame Pakistan for everything but no country on earth can manufacture mass revolt,” says the analyst.

By Naseer Ganai in Lethpora (Pulwama)

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