The city militants: Srinagar back on radar

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“My name is Shoaib Khursheed,” the youth from Srinagar says in an audio statement circulated online this month. “I want to inform my family that by the grace of God I have joined the ranks of militants. Therefore, do not try to look for me”.

Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city and the summer headquarters of the government, has changed in the seven months since Jammu and Kashmir police declared that there was no militant from the city following the killing of Lashkar-e-Toiba militant Ishfaq Rashid Khan in the city’s outskirts on 25 July 2020.

Mindful of the temporary nature of the achievement, the police had words of caution. “Srinagar is a city where militants come often. Sometimes they come for medical treatment, meetings, or collecting funds,” the police had said. “Srinagar can never be militant-free as long as militancy is there.”

The militancy is still there; 174 youth joined the militancy last year, many of them among the 221 militants killed in all of 2020. While the long-operational militant groups are seemingly on the back foot, new organizations have taken the center-stage.

“The name of my organization is TRF [The Resistance Front]. And you are well aware of it,” Khursheed said announcing his recruitment to TRF, an outfit that emerged after the unilateral abrogation of J-K’s limited-autonomy in August 2019.

With the addition of Khursheed, the city now has at least five known militants and a spurt in the number of attacks, even in areas otherwise considered high-security zones, show signs of a resurgence here after the previous crop of militants was eliminated last year.

A new resurgence in the offing?

After a hiatus of a decade, Srinagar had emerged back on the militancy landscape when attacks picked up at the beginning of the last decade. 

During the past decade, the militant attacks within the summer capital Srinagar were sporadic and rare, sometimes taking place after a gap of several years.

On 6 January 2010, militants had stormed the city center Lal Chowk reportedly intending to attack a paramilitary bunker. In the nearly day-long gunfight, police personnel, a civilian, and two militants were killed.

Three years later, five paramilitary troopers were killed when two militants carried out a fidayeen attack in a paramilitary camp adjacent to a police-run school in Srinagar city’s outskirts on 13 March 2013.

Three months later, on 24 June, the eve of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit, militants attacked an army convoy passing through Hyderpora on the Srinagar bypass road, killing eight troopers. The attack was among the first to be video recorded on camera.

Thereafter the attacks diminished in their intensity. On 15 August 2016, amid a widespread anti-government uprising, a paramilitary commandant Pramod Kumar during a gunfight in downtown Srinagar’s Nowhatta. Two unidentified militants, suspected to be non-natives, were killed in the gunfight.

On 3 October 2017, the Jaish-e-Muhammad carried out a typical pre-dawn fidayeen attack on a camp of the Border Security Force near Srinagar’s high-security airport. One border guard official and three militants were killed in the attack.

The last fidayeen attack in Srinagar occurred on 12 February 2018. Two Lashkar militants attempted to storm a paramilitary camp close to the J-K Police zonal headquarters and the District PCR. It took government forces at least thirty hours to kill the militants. One paramilitary trooper was also killed. 

The latest uptick in militant numbers in Srinagar is the second in recent years. The last uptick had begun in 2016 and continued till 2019 during which more than a dozen Srinagar boys joined militant ranks.

City on permanent alert?

As the new decade began, attacks also picked pace. On the afternoon of 19 February, an attack by the militants in Srinagar, just a stone’s throw distance from a police station and troops’ deployment, sent shockwaves across not only Srinagar but all of Kashmir.

A lone gunman was recorded on a surveillance camera, calmly walking towards a man wearing a khaki uniform standing outside a sweet shop. The attacker drew an assault rifle from under his pheran and opened fire at the man, whose back was turned towards him.

Two police personnel were killed. The attacker, who didn’t conceal his face, fled the spot.

The security-military establishment was so shaken that it brought back a long-abandoned practice — but etched in Kashmir’s collective memory as humiliation — of sudden crackdowns, this time with a new euphemism coined by police: “Surprise limited CASO”.

The instructions were given during a security review meeting at the Police Control Room in Srinagar after the surprise attack. The Inspector-General of Police, Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, emphasized the need for “the importance of round the clock checkpoints/nakas at strategic locations, surprise (flash) naka, surprise limited CASO in crowded places, placing cut-off points on exit routes immediately after such incident and dominating from high reaches, use of drones to check the movement of elements inimical to peace.”

The practice introduced by the Indian Army, which calls it “humane” approach of “psychological dissuasion” that “do serve to harass the civilian population and cause them hardship,” as per an unpublished paper on ‘Low-Intensity Conflict Operations: The Indian Doctrinal Approach’ by G. D. Bakshi, a former army major general.

The paper was part of a study by the Stimson Centre on the attitudes within the Indian Army. “At the conclusion of such operations the civilians are clearly told that this harassment could be avoided if they were able to prevail upon the insurgents to desist from such hostile acts and come overground,” the former general writes in a paper. “Over a period of time, such operations tire out the civilian population.”

The Jammu and Kashmir Police sent out a message within two days of the attack. In the heart of Srinagar, police and paramilitary personnel halted traffic and ordered young Kashmiri men and boys to form a line as they frisked them one by one and allowed the press to take pictures of the search operation.

Pictures of another such search operation in Srinagar went viral. Young boys queued up on the same road leading to the shop where two police personnel were killed, an area crowded by high school students and pass outs — studying in the plethora of tuition centers at any point of the day.

Hot summer in Capital?

The attack in February had come after a series of militant strikes within the city and apparently pushed the government forces above their threshold. The first grenade attack in Kashmir after the abrogation of J-K’s limited-autonomy took place here.

On 24 September 2020, suspected militants assassinated a prominent lawyer who often appeared on Indian television as a debate panelist and was locally a rival to the staunchly pro-freedom High Court BAR Association.

On 2 January 2021, a non-native jeweler Satpal Nischal was killed just weeks after he had reportedly acquired a domicile certificate and legally acquired in his name his decades-old residence from a native friend who had lent his name for the property’s title registration.

On 18 February, as New Delhi guided envoys of twenty-four diplomatic missions on a tour of Kashmir, suspected militants attacked Krishna Dhaba, a popular restaurant owned by a native Hindu in a high-security area, close to the office of the United Nations Military Observer Group. Its owner’s son Akash Mehra was shot and succumbed to his injuries nine days later.

Since the attack on minority-owned businesses, the police have beefed up its presence around other such businesses and increased the use of small drones to monitor public places in busy areas of the city — primarily the Lal Chowk area.

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