Unidentified gunmen wreak havoc in Kashmir

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A series of recent murders have brought to the fore the role played by such actors in sowing confusion and spreading fear in society

Residents carry the coffin of Altaf Ahmad Dar, a shopkeeper, who was killed by unknown gunmen in Qasbayar village of Pulwama district: Photo Vikar Syed

Umer Beigh/ Newsclick, The Dawn News/ June 5, 2018

The recent murder of a civilian in the Kashmir has yet again brought to the fore the issue of ‘Namaloom bandook bardaar’ (unidentified gunmen), who for long have haunted Jammu and Kashmir and wreaked havoc on the lives of residents.  On May 25, 37-year-old Mohammad Yaqoob Wagay was found with his throat slit in Hajin’s Gund Prang village. Four unknown gunmen had picked him up from his home.

This is not the first such incident this year. On May 1, Asghar Khan, Haseeb Khan and Asif Ahmad, three youth believed to be army informers from north Kashmir’s Baramulla, were shot dead in Old Town by unidentified gunmen.

Earlier on March 8, 20-year-old Omair Bhat, who was allegedly abducted by unidentified gunmen and interrogated after being taken from Qaimoh, succumbed to his injuries at SMHS hospital. Similarly, in south Kashmir’s Tral, Aijaz Ahmad Shah, 38, was shot at by some unidentified gunmen on February 28. Another PDP worker, Abdul Qayoom, of Srinagar’s Barzullah, was critically injured when he was attacked.

A Hurriyat activist hailing from Sandipora, Mohammad Yusuf Rather, who was also a former militant affiliated with Hizb-ul-Momimeen, was shot dead in Beerwah on February 13.

Almost a year ago, Abdul Rashid Lone, a People’s Democratic Party (PDP) worker, was killed in a similar way in Khanpora.

Ever since the conflict took a turn for the worse in 1990s with the beginning of militancy, unknown gunmen have been used by both state and non-state actors. The former have deployed these gunmen to break the spirit of the population and the militants. The latter have often used them to disrupt backdoor diplomacy, create fissures in the intelligence grid and sometimes, to break or bypass the security network. The common factor in all such cases is the climate of fear these gunmen seek to create.

The origin of the deployment of these gunmen can be traced back to the formation of government-backed militia during the infamous Ikhwan era, (referring to militants who had surrendered and were recruited against their former fellow combatants). These forces enjoyed state-patronage to combat the militancy but often ended up terrorising the entire population. These were reports of incidents of rape, abduction, loot and random street-side killings, which plunged the State into chaos and confusion in the 1990s.

Incidentally, similar tactics have been used by security forces in other conflict-ridden states, including in Assam, where the Surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam (SULFA) was formed. Similarly, in Chhattisgarh, the Bastariya Battalion and Salwa Judum (Purification Hunt) were formed.

In Kashmir, these gunmen struck at even high-profile targets like when they barged into the house of the head priest Mirwaiz Moulvi Mohammad Farooq in Srinagar’s Hazratbal on May 21 1990 and fired nearly 20 bullets at him, killing him. (Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is his son). As per public theory, Farooq was murdered allegedly because he had met India’s Foreign Minister and later termed the kidnapping of the daughter of then Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed by militant commander Ashfaq Majeed’s group as an “un-islamic act”.

Almost a decade later, during a function to commemorate Farooq’s death anniversary, unknown gunmen assassinated Abdul Ghani Lone, a former member of the State Legislative Assembly who had joined the movement demanding freedom.

Last year, in May, Army Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz, posted in Jammu’s Akhnoor, was killed by unidentified gunmen in Shopian. The social debate triggered by this incident demonstrated the faultlines in society and the divisions these gunmen accentuate.

For instance, in addition to many civil society groups, even militant groups, such as the United Jihad Council condemned the killing but attributed it to Indian security agencies. Its head Syed Salahuddin said militants were being accused of the incident “to shield the real face of the Indian agencies”. Meanwhile, Kashmir-based media took a very ambivalent stance on the issue. The role of unidentified gunmen was a key factor in the lack of clarity with a variety of accounts being circulated. Due to the role of the unidentified gunmen, the questions of who was responsible for the killings and the motive get increasingly muddled for those involved in the conflict and those desirous of a solution to the conflict. This leads to a situation of paralysis in society.

Yet another instance is from 2015 when former militant commander Qayoom Najar was accused of going on a killing spree in north Kashmir’s Sopore. People were being gunned down and no one had any idea why. At the same time, communication equipment in the valley was also being destroyed. The establishment and militant groups blamed each other. Meanwhile, fear spread in the area and the streets would be abandoned even during day time. Finally, it was revealed that Najar alone was responsible for the incidents He was later killed while crossing the Line of Control on 27 September 2017.

Targeting of ‘informers’

The phenomenon of unidentified gunmen is closely associated with the targeting of  suspected informers. Ever since Indian forces launched the counter-insurgency operation, Operation-All Out, in 2017, there has been an increase in the number of deaths of top militants. Over 60 militants were killed in the first five months of 2018 in operations during which the Army would encircle areas, trapping the militants and often raze entire houses to the ground to ensure that the militants had no chance of escape.

In response to these deaths, suspected police and army informers have been targeted. Many of them have been party workers and youth from pro-government organizations.

In south Kashmir, bodies were found in orchards, the killers unknown. In many instances, the victims had been abducted some days before. Many such incidents were reported from north Kashmir’s Hajin area, where the body of Mohammad Yaqoob Wagay was found.

Hajin was once a stronghold of government-backed militia, who were responsible for inflicting major damage on militant networks. Today, Hajin is a ghost town; no one knows who is the next target and grapevine is that after three consecutive killings by unknown gunmen, senior members of the community visited Tehreek-e-Hurriyat’s former chairman Syed Ali Geelani’s residence in a bid to find out who was responsible.

The motive of the killings remain unclear. Some sources say the state is attempting to use these gunmen to provoke the civilians to form an Ikhwan-type militia in response. Others say the attacks are by militants who are targeting informers. Either way, the increase in the tension on the ground has been the main result.

On many occasions, posters with pictures of suspected informers and their details have been shared in their villages and on social media. There have also been videos of them being beaten up and ordered to stop working for intelligence agencies.

Unidentified gunmen are believed to have been responsible for many of the dead found in unidentified mass graves, thousands of which were discovered in 2009. They have also targeted children. As per the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of the Civil Society’s annual report of 2018, “unidentified gunmen killed at least 147 children since 2003”. These figures signal the failure of the state apparatus in preventing the deaths, leading to the further intensification of the conflict which continues to consume the fourth generation of Kashmiris.

It is clear that the killing spree is highly counterproductive to any kind of political mobilization. Unless the state is able to effectively intervene in putting a stop, the inevitable result will be a fear psychosis taking over the populace, reminiscent of the chaos during the Ikhwan era, which saw a cycle of violence that wrecked society in Kashmir.

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