Until August 5, security forces have killed 132 militants, most of them local militants in South Kashmir. The number is the highest in the past seven years. As against this, 146 militants were killed in 97 encounters during 2016. The rising killings highlight several aspects of the Valley situation. One, the increase in the number of militants which has since last year suddenly doubled to around 300 from an annual average of around 150 over the past several years.
Second, it reflects the growing success of the security forces in tracking down the militants, a turn of events that is seen as the direct result of the recent troop concentration in South Kashmir. Two additional army battalions were moved to the area in June to reinforce the existing troop presence, most of them to Shopian and Pulwama where the Army encampments will be revived. This has deepened the penetration of the security forces comprising Army, CRPF and J&K Police. In June and the ongoing month alone, 45 militants have been killed, according to South Asia Terrorism Portal and South has been the theatre of most of this violence.
Security experts believe that the killings at this rate over the next few months would substantially bring down the militant number which in turn will make a redeeming difference to the security situation in the state. “We hope to keep up the pressure and reduce the presence of militants by a sizable number,” said a police officer. “This would certainly ease up the current tense situation and hopefully put the Valley on the road to peace”.
However, this linear outlook runs up against the turn of events over the past many years. A drastic reduction in the number of militants has hardly lessened the challenge of militancy. On the contrary, a constant replenishment has kept the militancy alive and kicking. And that too when Valley had no more than hundred militants — a figure of 2012-13 – and South Kashmir which now boasts of around 110 militants had just 15 of them.
Every year, over the past ten years, the security forces have killed an average of 100 militants a year. But the militancy has still continued, replenished earlier mostly by the foreigners, now largely by the local boys. The pattern of the replenishment has only strengthened since the killing of the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. More than 100 local boys, according to a security estimate, have joined militancy in South Kashmir over the last year and the trend hasn’t abated despite the growing frequency in militant killings.
A reason for this is the overwhelming public support that the militancy enjoys in the state. A trend that began since Burhan Wani rose on the scene around 2014-15, thousands have continued to attend militant funerals. Each militant killing unfolds a spectacle of deep mourning: Body is kept in the largest available ground in the area which soon fills to the standing room with a throbbing and shoving mass of mourners. Arms go up and pro-Azadi slogans rend the air. Women cry. Many of them lose consciousness on seeing the body. The mourning and anger don’t subside with the burial. The funeral invariably leads to protests across a wide swathe of the area.
Similarly, there are also protests when militants are tracked down and cordoned off by the security forces. Swarms of the youth disrupt the encounter sites, throwing their lives on the line. A recent estimate has put the number of the civilians killed over the past year in the attempts to save militants at 20. This hero-worship has inspired more local
youth to join the militancy. As a result, despite the increased killings of the gunmen, militancy has continued. In fact, the killings have so far fanned rather than deterred the militancy.
“It might sound heartless but we hope the recruitment versus killings ratio changes in favour of the latter. Then things can be hoped to improve,” said a police officer. “But for now this doesn’t seem to be the case. New recruits are very motivated even if they are poorly trained. They invariably refuse offers of surrender prior to any encounter”.
In 2011, security forces had almost wiped out the Valley-based top Hizbul Mujahideen leadership with the killing of its senior-most commanders Mushtaq Janghi and Dr Dawood. This prompted even the then home secretary G K Pillai to pronounce an end to Hizb. “Militancy is down in Kashmir, every day you must be reading reports that some militant leader or the other has been killed. I think the Hizbul Mujahideen has literally, almost, been wiped out, especially the Pakistan element of it has been wiped out,” Pillai said in an interview then.
Then again by the beginning of 2016, security forces claimed killing top ten militant commanders, among them Hizb commander Ashiq Hussain Bhat and the Lashkar-i-Toiba commander Abu Hafiz. This was understood to have dealt a severe blow to militancy. But few had the idea how Burhan Wani had drawn many more recruits to the militant ranks during the same period and how much more would pick up arms following his killing in an encounter on July 8.
Now in recent past again, many top militant leaders have been killed including Hizb local chief Sabzar Bhat and the LeT commander Bashir Lashkari. But this has hardly dampened the spirit of jihad in Valley. Militancy reigns strong, taking on even harder ideological dimension and so does the public support. Many a Kashmir observer think that a fresh recruitment could stop if the engagement and dialogue get going, not only with the dissident forces in Kashmir but also in Pakistan. They cite the 2003-07 peace process between India and Pakistan which not only came close to resolving Kashmir but also for the first time since its beginning in 1989, militancy went through a progressive decline.
According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, from 2542 militancy-related fatalities in 2003, the number went down to 777 by 2007. It declined to its lowest at 117 in 2012. And ever since the killings are on rise again. While in 2013 it was 181, in 2014 and 2015 it was 193 and 174 respectively, in 2016 it went up to 267. Since January 189 people have already died. Similarly, the number of militants killed in a year has risen from 84 in 2012 to 165 in 2016.
Incidentally, this period has witnessed a suspension of the engagement by New Delhi, both with Pakistan and Kashmiri separatist groups. A security hardline taken by the current government at the centre has met an even harder line in Kashmir. Militant recruitment has increased and the ideological discourse has hardened — albeit both to the detriment of Kashmir.
What does the near future have in store for Kashmir? A lingering uncertainty. By moving two additional Army battalions into four South Kashmir districts Kulgam, Anantnag, Shopian and Pulwama, security agencies hope to dominate the area and inflict more casualties on the militants, an end that is now being served considering the growing frequency of militant killings.
Security experts hope that by the onset of winter they would have substantially reigned in the militancy. But if the past is any guide, killings have hardly been a deterrent in Valley. And considering public support remains at an all-time high, more local youth will continue to be inspired to pick up gun. “Frequent killings have certainly made militancy a suicidal proposition for the youth,” said a police officer. “But the true difference will only be made if public support wanes”.