Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
Kokarnag in the southernmost part of South Kashmir, is a sleepy little township. It once was the bastion of militancy due to the presence of the lofty Pir Panjal range in whose shadow it lies and the forested tracts of the lower hills; the terrain was tailor made for militancy. Through the first ten years of the millennium one of the Indian Army’s famous units, 36 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) (Garhwal Rifles), cleaned the area out leaving few signs of militancy behind. It earned as many four COAS Unit Citations and many more awards for this feat.
On 8 Jul 2016, at approximately 6 PM gun fire reverberated in Kokarnag again. I received my first call within minutes which indicated this was not an ordinary encounter. The caller told me that ninety percent it was Burhan Wani who was inside the small cordon. For those who may be unaware Wani is the most wanted terrorist in the Kashmir Valley, credited with having created a wave of what is called New Militancy in South Kashmir. It would not be long before inspiration from him would travel to the badlands of North Kashmir. His Robin Hood image managed an inspiration which saw a new phenomenon; the attempted protection of terrorists by local mobs at encounter sites and large scale eulogizing of even neutralized Pakistani terrorists at their funerals. Burhan Wani managed in five years, to create a band of 60-70 young locally recruited terrorists. Many were well educated and technically proficient to exploit social media for their cause. Their photographs in combat fatigues with weapons went viral on Facebook and Whatsapp. Many of the flash mobs they instigated to concentrate at encounter sites were mobilized using social media. Burhan’s entry into terrorism was triggered by ill treatment at the hands of a couple of errant policemen in Tral, a small township in the middle of a broad sub valley on the east of the National Highway, near Avantipura. Tral is notorious for its alienation and use of violence over the last 26 years. The Wagad ridge to its West and the Dachigam Forest to the North afford excellent hideouts. Despite presence of a full RR unit here along with CRPF the area has only been passingly under control. Burhan belonged to Tral and last year in April his brother was killed in an encounter when he was mistakenly taken to be Burhan even as he had gone to the forest to meet his renegade brother.
At 7.30 PM on 8 Jul 2016 the caller rang again to confirm that it was indeed Burhan Wani. He had been killed at the hands of one of Army’s extremely quiet but efficient units, 19 RR (Sikh LI). It is learnt that to his credit Burhan, once cornered, came out in an attempt to break the cordon and was gunned down. This prevented the ignominy of being burnt to death once the house he was holed up in, caught fire due to the effect of rockets and other munitions.
As I tweeted the information I had a deluge of calls coming in on my mobile. No doubt Burhan’s neutralization was making big news. My top of the head assessment which I shared immediately was first that the authorities had to be careful in handling the post encounter effects. In light of the fact that the Hurriyat would attempt to make much of the event and use it to motivate the youth; passionate crowds should be expected at the funeral. We had occasion to witness 30,000 at a funeral of a Pakistani terrorist late last year. It will need to be a fine decision for the political and security authorities whether to allow a public funeral or give a quiet burial by the Police with the family attending. In the past the authorities have mostly given the freedom to conduct public funerals and have faced the consequences rather well. Only in the case of Afzal Guru the body was not handed over to the family and a quiet burial was conducted at Delhi. However, that had different connotations and comparisons need not be drawn. It is not as if bigger names than Burhan Wani have not been neutralized in counter terror operations in the past. In the very same area we had Shabir Baduri who operated for almost nine years leading the Hizbul Mujahideen’s activities in Anantnag. Abdullah Uni (LeT) was killed at Sopore in 2011. I do not recall how the mortal remains were handled in these cases but the major difference today even from the situation five years ago is the widespread use of social media to iconize neutralized terrorist leaders and collect flash mobs. The authorities know best how to handle the situation and politically this is a challenge for the coalition government.
The Amarnath Yatra is entering its second week. The vulnerability of the Yatra is always a problem for the authorities and especially after the recent spate of ambushes on the National Highway it is causing even more concern. A reprisal strike against the Yatris will be perilous although I do feel this is unlikely but the security forces securing the Yatra and its various facilities will remain the targets. Kokernag, incidentally is very close to the National Highway near Qazigund. The Lidder Valley from Anantnag to Pahalgam has been quiet for some years despite the presence of New Militancy but it has shown recent signs of revival of turbulence. My earlier article in Swarajya on the revival of terror around Anantnag brings out the challenges quite clearly.
My second thought immediately after the information came in was related to the need to undertake such a campaign as to deny the creation of another iconic youth leader. No doubt, the replacement can never be as charismatic as the original. It is not as if the Army and the Police did not make attempts to appeal to Burhan Wani to surrender honorably. It is the ‘honorably’ part which needs to be projected adequately. Militants cannot easily be convinced about this. A campaign on social media and also through outreach contact can help in engaging the youth. What has to be guarded against is the buildup of a fervor which will pitch more youth into militancy on the power of the image created in the eyes of the population. It is the imagination and the might of the information power of the State against that of a few locals and the Separatists. It hasn’t exactly been a strong point with the State and needs to be thought through quickly and efficiently. The Center must extend every bit of assistance on this as a test case. Unfortunately no institution or body exists to undertake this responsibility. The media must be guarded in its reportage because over projection of the events and the situation will surely play to the advantage of the anti-India elements. An announcement about the leadership of the New Militancy should be expected any time and many of the splinter groups not in sync with each other may use the moment to forge unity. That is why the information side has to be handled carefully and pro-actively.
Internet has been switched off in the Valley since last night as has much of the mobile connectivity. This is fine for a short duration to prevent the initiative going into terrorist hands making use of the trigger available. Thereafter it will all have to come back and that’s the time when the information battle will commence.
For the moment the challenge is to withstand the emotions of the moment and ensure no ‘martyr effect’. The Separatists have no qualms about a few young men dying and a repeat of 2010 is possible. The agencies dealing with security need to be on the same page and leave aside the unnecessary rancor of the immediate past. I would consider this an opportunity to go well beyond and achieve something positive but equally the wily Separatists will also wish to keep the initiative. The maturity of the leadership (both political and the security related) will decide which way the cookie crumbles.
(The writer is an ex GOC of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with the Vivekanand International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group)
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain