Old Wounds, Fresh Attacks In Kashmir16 April 2010
International Relations and Security Network
Srinagar: Delicately lifting the hem of his pheran, a loose-fitting Kashmiri gown, Imtyaz Ahmad Ganaie stumbles barefoot across heaps of scattered rubble and detritus. “Only bricks and stones remain,” he says, looking ashen, as he pointed at his house, destroyed during a three-day gun battle in February between Indian troops and militants. “Mortar shells destroyed everything.” For nearly 70 hours, military helicopters beat overhead amid loud explosions and gunfire as a cat-and-mouse game ensued between soldiers and militants hiding in Ganaie’s crowded village of Chinkipora in Sopore. His family, like other residents caught in the crossfire, managed to flee to safety, but nearly two dozen houses were flattened or severely damaged in the hunt which also left four Indian soldiers dead. The disputed region of Kashmir is a victim of history’s caprice. Claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, it has been the focus of three wars between both nuclear-armed rivals since independence in 1947. Nearly 100,000 people have lost their lives since militancy first erupted in this Muslim-majority state two decades ago. But in this verdant landscape replete with flaming-red Chinar trees and apple orchards, militancy had ebbed to an all time low in recent years. In the last decade, militancy related fatalities declined continuously since their peak of 4,507 killed in 2001. For the first time in two decades, killings in 2008 were well below the ‘high intensity’ mark of 1,000 per year for the third consecutive year. However, this brash encounter with battle-inoculated militants is an ominous sign of a new, lethal wave of militancy returning to haunt Indian-administered Kashmir after a long lull. Porous border, rising attacks Since last year, there has been a resurgence of militant strikes, buoyed by infiltration of militants from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC) - the de facto border - which has troublingly risen by 98 percent in the past year, resulting in over 465 deaths, according to Omar Abdullah, the state’s chief minister. The army believes nearly 2,500 militants trained in 34 camps in PoK are desperately trying to cross the LoC via melting snowcaps, including those from Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkatul Mujahideen, all affiliated with the United Jihad Council (UJC), an umbrella group of nearly a dozen Pakistan-based militant groups, and many of which were banned under Pakistan’s former military government. In February, at a large public rally in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-Kashmir, Syed Sallahudin, the head of Hizbul Mujahideen and chairman of UJC, called for a reinvigorated jihad in Kashmir until it was free of “Indian occupation.” The rally included a clutch of militant leaders high up on India’s most-wanted list, including Hafiz Saeed, whom the Indian government alleges masterminded the terrorist attack in Mumbai in November 2008. “Jihad is the only solution to free Kashmir from the Indian yoke,” thundered Mr Salahuddin. “Kashmir cannot be resolved through dialogue.” Morphing methods Indian-administered Kashmir is now witnessing a “qualitative shift” in the strategy of militants, Altaf Khan, the superintendent of police (SP) in Sopore told ISN Security Watch. “We are up against smarter, determined, more sophisticated terrorists,” he said. Militants like Basharat Saleem, the top commander of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, who hails from Sopore, managed to escape several times in recent encounters, says Khan. In a recent raid on his home in Sopore in January, when he secretly visited his family, he managed to flee, leaving behind his AK-47 that has his name etched on it and a laptop. The recovery, Khan says, exposed how a new wave of tech-savvy militants covertly communicate through voice chat services over the internet with their handlers in PoK and spoof mobile and satellite phones to fiddle with their longitudinal and latitudinal co-ordinates to trick security agencies about their exact whereabouts. Local recruitment of militants in the Kashmir valley has also accelerated in recent months. In late January, eight school going boys were caught trying to cross into Pakistani Kashmir in a bid to reach a training camp where they would learn how to become suicide attackers. The youngest was seven. Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, a 16-year-old high school dropout from Peth Seer village in Sopore, joined the Harkatul Mujahideen in 2008. He was killed in a 28-hour gunfight in Lal Chowk in the heart of Srinagar, Indian Kashmir’s summer capital, earlier this year. It was the first fidayeen attack in the capital in two years. His friends say Manzoor felt compelled to take up arms after a land row in Amarnath, a cataclysmic event in the recent history of Kashmir. In 2008, mass protests and demonstrations erupted in Kashmir, sparked by the state government’s promise to lease forest land to a board that runs a Hindu shrine. The deal would have promised guestrooms for nearly half a million Hindu pilgrims who make the trek to the holy Amarnath caves. The land deal was eventually revoked, but by then the protests adopted a hue of resentment for Indian rule. Defying a curfew, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris participated in a march called the “Muzaffarabad Chalo” – or a 'march for freedom' from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad. But the overly peaceful protests were squelched by a heavy military response. Soldiers fired on the crowd, killing six people and wounding hundreds more. Manzoor, who participated in the march, saw people killed in front of him, Hafiza Bano, his mother, told ISN Security Watch. He was a changed man. He was quiet, contemplative, but she did not imagine he would become a militant. Just weeks later, during Ramadan, he disappeared, never to return again. Bano thought he had been kidnapped. “I searched and searched for him […] in every police station, every morgue, but […]” she said trailing off with a deep sigh, sitting on the red carpeted floor of her house. “The Amarnath fiasco gave birth to a militant like Manzoor,” one of Manzoor’s friends in Peth Seer, who did not wish to be named fearing police harassment, told ISN Security Watch. “Militancy has got a moral boost after people saw a peaceful protest brutally put down. People now identify more closely with the issue of separatism.” The infiltrators, who come from across the LoC, he said, “are our brothers. They are fighting for our cause. We’ll give them food, money, we’ll hide them in our house if we have to.” From stones to guns? Mounting public anger against Indian rule has become the raison d’être for the terror groups, says Syed Shah Geelani, a separatist leader who has long been an inveterate critic of Indian rule in Kashmir. “Peaceful solutions or talks have little relevance in Kashmir today,” he told ISN Security Watch. “We have been talking since the 1950s, but nothing has come of it. That’s why Kashmiris are going back to guns.” Since 2008, Kashmir has also witnessed an abnormally rising tide of stone-pelting protests across the valley, aimed mainly at Indian security forces. On a recent afternoon, protestors who masked their faces with green Arab-style keffiyeh, emulating Palestinian youths, blocked a street with large boulders. “Humein kya chahiye? –What do we want,” shouted a man who seemed to lead them. “Azaadi, Azaadi,” the crowd responded, a shrill cry for freedom. Many of the pelters were residents of Chinkipora, enraged about their destroyed houses, for which they squarely blamed the Indian army – not the militants. “Do you expect us to keep quiet after what they have done to us?” one of them asked. Soon, policemen in riot gear assembled on the other side of the street. The sloganeering intensified. Stones, marbles, rubber bullets soon began flying in the air, not clear which side lobbed which. The police lobbed tear gas canisters. The stone pelters burned tires – the fumes of which, a protester explained later, seemed to neutralize the effect of teargas. As the police attempted to round them up, the protesters ran, shouting anti-India slogans in Kashmiri. The policemen chased them into a grubby alleyway, but the thtey managed to get away. Lieutenant General B S Jaswal, the General Officer Commanding in Chief of the Indian army’s northern command, describes the aggressive assault of stones as “agitational terrorism.” It denotes the graduation of the terrorist movement into a more complex attack on the government, by crafting mass public demonstrations aimed to maximize calibrated terrorist violence on the ground, he says. During several such protests, militants have emerged from the crowds to open fire at soldiers and then melted back into the crowds, says Altaf Khan, Sopore’s SP. Khan told ISN Security Watch that the some of the ring leaders who mobilize the crowds are on the payroll of Kashmir’s separatist leaders. But the protesters claim this paroxysmal rage is unprompted and aimed against “Indian occupation.” “We are not hoodlums greedy for money and neither are we anti-social elements,” a 28-year-old a research graduate from Kashmir university who did not wish to be identified, fearing arrest, told ISN Security Watch. “The Amarnath [fiasco] volubly demonstrated that there is no space for peaceful protests. In response to Indian Kalishnikovs, we pelt stones.” 'But if we are continually suppressed,' he added, “it won’t be long before stone pelters graduate to guns. Anuj Chopra is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Chopra lives just outside Mumbai in India and is the 2005 recipient of the CNN Young Journalist Award in the print category.