On 18 October, new Hizbul Mujahideen commander Zakir Rashid Bhat released his second video in the past three months. He called on the youth aspiring to join militancy to snatch weapons from the security personnel standing guard in public places or protecting VIPs and the government installations.
A day before the video was released, suspected militants had wrested five rifles from the policemen guarding a television tower at Dalvash in Dooru area of South Kashmir’s Anantnag, taking the number of gun-snatchings since the killing of the popular militant commander Burhan Wani on 8 July to around 65. Though some stolen weapons have been retrieved, many are believed to have fallen into the hands of the new recruits to militancy.
“Many of our brothers have adopted the path of jihad and joined our ranks after snatching weapons,” Zakir, dressed in military fatigues, said in the video. “All those brothers who want to join us, they should snatch weapons. We would welcome them with open arms”.
According to security estimates, around 60-70 youth have gone missing in South Kashmir in the past 100 days, the highest such number in such a short period since early nineties. Police apprehends that most of them, if not all, may have joined militancy, a fact also borne out by the new militant videos on the social media which have shown some new faces.
The recruitment has been greatly helped by the current turmoil marked by a heightened sentiment for Azadi. Besides, the anger borne out of the continuing cycle of killings and the blindings have further fuelled the trend. And a factor has also been the ongoing runaway ferment which has disrupted the anti-militancy operations, creating a false sense of security for the militants.
Since Burhan’s killing, just two local militants have been killed, even though security forces have killed 24 foreign militants including the four who attacked brigade headquarters at Uri. As against this, around 74 militants were killed in the first six months of this year, most of them local militants. This had dealt a body blow to the militancy in the state, considering the number of the militants has generally hovered between 100-150 in the past several years, with Hizbul Mujahideen commanding the largest cadre followed by Lashker-i-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad.
In fact, by the time Burhan was killed, his outfit Hizbul Mujahideen had been at the receiving end of the anti-militancy operations and was staring at a near obliteration unless shored up by some immediate fresh recruitment. There were also just two militants, including Burhan, left from the group of eleven militants who were with him in the viral 2015 photograph which had romanticized jihad and drew new recruits to Hizb. “But the past three months have undone the gains,” said a
police officer. “We are now back to the beginning and need to start from a scratch”.
According to the figures of anti-militancy nodal agency — the Multi-Agency Centre, there has been over 160 percent increase in infiltration this year as compared to previous year. Around 87 militants have sneaked into Kashmir this year till September 10 against 33 militants during the corresponding period last year. In the 100 days of the ongoing unrest alone, 35 militants were successful in infiltrating into Kashmir.
Similarly, according to police data, 75 boys went missing in four months of Kashmir unrest, out of which 43 have joined militant ranks, six have returned to their homes while 26 others are still missing.
Contrary to perception that only youth in South Kashmir are joining militancy, the disturbing trend has now spread to north also. Around 31 youth have gone missing in districts of Baramulla, Kupwara and Bandipora out of whom 16 have joined militancy, four have returned while 11 are still missing.
In the past three months, security forces have found it difficult to carry out the cordon and search operations, known as CASO in security parlance, which is so critical to closing in on the militants and killing them. While forces have killed many foreign militants, most of them while fending off a fidayeen attack or foiling an infiltration bid, they have struggled to pin down the local militants or getting information on them. Also, killing foreign militants has not been without its costs: Around 33 security personnel have died in these gunfights which is about equal the number of the security men killed in the preceding six months in encounters with largely local militants. Uri attack alone led to the death of 19 soldiers.
Now with fresh recruitment shoring up the depleted ranks of Hizbul Mujahideen and the spurt in infiltration boosting the strength of Lashker-i-Toiba, the government looks forward to a dramatic uptick in militant violence as the ongoing ferment draws to an end. “Over the past several years, the number of militants in Valley comprising both Hizb, Lashker and Jaish has hovered between 100-150. Now after the apprehended new recruitment we are anticipating the number may have gone up to 200,” said the police officer. “This will call for a stepped up anti-militancy operation to regain control and re-establish the writ of the state. This is also important to dampen the new romance around jihad and prove its futility for the youth”.
But it is easier said than done. After Burhan’s killing touched off the current rebellion, security establishment wonders about the fallout of the killings of new Hizb commanders like Sabzar Ahmad and Zakir Bhat. After all, it was the mass participation in militant funerals over the past some years that culminated into the unprecedented outpouring over Burhan’s killing leading to ongoing unrest. This policy was enunciated by the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti during her speech at Police Commemoration Day Parade on 21 October: “Our children who have gone intomilitancy, my appeal to the police is to try that they return home. If you bring them back home and if they can become a part of the mainstream, If we can hand them a bat or a ball instead of guns.”
However, the security forces face no such problem in taking on foreign militants even though their funerals too have witnessed mass participation. In October last year, around 35,000 people attended the funeral of the then Lashker chief Abu Qasim at Kulgam town. Massive protests also broke out near the site where Qasim was killed forcing police to resort to aerial firing. But this hardly broke up the crowd. Youth threw rocks at the police and set up roadblocks.
But the police believe that while foreign jihadies may attract large funerals, they cannot trigger an extended upsurge unlike the local militants. It is, however, tougher to kill a foreign militant. “They are professionally trained, motivated and battle-hardened,” said a police officer with a long experience of fighting militancy. “On the contrary, local militants are poorly trained and have little fighting experience”.
As per estimates, around 60-70 youth have gone missing in South Kashmir in the past 100 days, the highest number in such a short time
But their combination has been lethal. While local militants serve the purpose of keeping common Kashmiris engaged to the secessionist struggle, foreigners lend a sting to the armed campaign. And to the detriment of the Government, this combination has only strengthened in the past three and a half months, a fact that was even attested to by the General Officer Commanding of Army’s 15 Corps during his interaction with media at a function in Baramulla: “In recent weeks we have noticed movements along the LoC. Yes, there is an increase in attempts of infiltration but the Indian Army is prepared to meet any such challenge,” Lt Gen Satish Dua said, even as he acknowledged the fears of the rise in local recruitment in militancy.