On Eid, which should have been a peaceful day, filled with gaiety and celebrations, there were four killings by militants. A police inspector was shot dead at his home in Pulwama district, while two other off duty policemen were killed in Kulgam and Pulwama. Two escaped being killed by being away when militants barged in. In addition, the body of a BJP worker, Shabir Ahmad Bhat, was found in Kupwara district. He was kidnapped the night before.
Last week there were reports of eleven relatives of police personnel kidnapped in South Kashmir. Militant leaders are terming it as a tit for tat action of police arresting family members of militants. All arrested on both sides have now been released, however it has opened a new form of retaliatory warfare. Almost daily innocent civilians and off duty security personnel are being targeted by militants.
Militants, in a change of approach, have switched their attention to targeting locals, while avoiding direct attacks on security forces, except lobbing grenades or firing from a distance. The Jammu and Kashmir police has faced the brunt of the targeting as some of their members while at home to celebrate religious events have either been shot in the presence of family or kidnapped and killed. Most of the incidents have occurred in South Kashmir.
This year alone approximately 30 policemen have been killed in the valley, most not on active duty. Lt Umar Fayaz and Rifleman Aurangzeb of the army were both kidnapped and killed while on leave. At the same time, over 125 militants have already been eliminated, of them 65 in South Kashmir alone.
Local youth have been targeted on multiple occasions and in another instance women have been killed. In one incident itself three youth were killed by unidentified militants at point blank range outside a shop in Baramulla. Most of the youth and women killed have been labelled as informers of security forces. Figures available on ‘The South Asian Terrorism Portal’, which documents civilian casualties due to militant violence indicates an increasing trend. As per the portal, there were 14 killed by militants in 2016, 57 last year and already 51 till 26th Aug this year.
In the opinion of DG Jammu and Kashmir Police, Dr Shesh Paul Vaid, there are multiple reasons for this change in approach by the militants. He stated that the main reason is frustration resulting from successful change in strategy of security forces, targeting pinpointed locations of militants resulting in them losing their cadre faster than locals seeking to join them. They are aware that this success is only possible due to human intelligence, in which the Jammu and Kashmir police plays a major role. Thus, they have changed strategy seeking to terrorize police and locals.
This is possibly a throw back to the nineties, where increased targeting of locals led to many supporters of the then prevalent group, the Hizbul Mujahideen, surrendering and changing sides. It resulted in the army forming the Ikwan force, which helped reduce the number of active militants. The figures as per the ‘South Asia Terrorism Portal’ indicates that civilian casualties due to militant actions had touched over a thousand a year in the early nineties, dropping steadily as the number of terrorists reduced.
Such random killing has begun leading to alienation of militants in the valley. In many cases, even homegrown militants, who earlier felt secure in the proximity of their own homes are now no longer so. There have been media reports of militants requesting locals not to reveal their locations to security forces.
While militants have changed their approach to that of the nineties, they have failed to realize that even when militancy was in its throes in the valley, such random killings failed to terrorise the locals, rather angered them. While they do have support of a section of the youth, which remains unwilling to accept reality that ‘Azadi’ is not an option, they have begun losing support of the masses.
It is this section of youth which defends these murders as elimination of informers, considers policemen as enemies and resorts to stone pelting seeking to disrupt security forces operations. Realistically, they no longer represent the majority, which would rather prefer peace. Violence has also shown a downward trend since the imposition of Governor’s rule, while success of security forces is on the rise.
Thus, as militants lose trust of locals, security forces must step in to take advantage. Gaining local’s trust would result in better flow of information. If that be the intention, then there must be a change in the tactics being employed at present.
Firstly, forces need to realize that a militant may escape today, only to be caught a few days later, after all he can neither leave the valley nor return to Pak. Hence is stuck between the frying pan and the fire. While security forces continue with their anti-militant actions, they need to strictly reduce inconvenience to the public. This would imply only launching operations on confirmed intelligence, rather than ‘cordon and search’, covering an area and leading to harassment of locals.
Secondly, forces should aim to reduce local casualties, including stone throwers. This is possible if the force launching operations are correctly structured and contains elements aimed at countering this threat. Thirdly, troops employed in road blocks and random checks must ensure minimum inconvenience.
Fourthly, support to families of security personnel residing in the valley must continue, albeit unobtrusively. It would enhance confidence of those serving in different organizations in different parts of the country. Fifthly, elimination of militants involved in these heinous crimes must be broadcast to bring about a sense of closure in the hearts and minds of the victim’s families. Finally, interaction with locals including following the ‘winning hearts and mind’ concept must remain.
The limited youth, either paid by the separatists or brainwashed by Pak or their proxies must be ignored for the present. They are neither the majority, nor represent the masses. They are surviving because of media coverage, which wrongly projects this limited group as the face of Kashmir, which it neither was, nor would be. As the tide begins to turn, a sense of near normalcy would return. The first test of near normalcy would be the conduct of municipal and Panchayat elections.
Security forces would gain immensely if they win the confidence and trust of the population. It is only by winning trust that tables would turn completely in their favour.
(The author is former Major General)