The killing of two suspected militants in an encounter with the police and Army in north Kashmir's Bandipora district on Tuesday marks the beginning of counter-insurgency operations that had taken a backseat in the valley in the aftermath of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani's killing.
According to police, the two suspects, believed to be residents of Pakistan and affiliated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, were trapped following "specific inputs" about the presence of militants near Hajin village of Bandipora.
"A cordon was laid around the area in the wee hours of Tuesday by personnel of Army's 13 Rashtriya Rifles and J&K Police's SOG. When the militants were asked to surrender, they opened fire at our men. In retaliation, both the militants were killed," a senior police officer told Firstpost.
According to the officer, a cache of arms and ammunition, along with two Rs 2,000 notes and Rs 1,00 notes were recovered from the suspected militants, who were buried at an undisclosed location after massive pro-freedom and anti-India protests broke out in the area.
The killing is the first such intelligence-based operation after a prolonged pause during which counter-insurgency missions were put on a hold as the authorities diverted the forces to deal with an unprecedented "law and order" situation in the Valley.
North Kashmir's five police districts — Bandipora, Baramulla, Sopore, Kupwara and Handwara — have recorded a sharp jump in number of active militants, most of the foreigners, operating in these place as infiltration increased along the de facto Kashmir border.
"As of now, there are around 100-150 militants, mostly foreigners, who are active in these districts. The numbers have almost doubled since the last year due to increase in infiltration along the LoC and International Border," an officer with the J&K Police's Criminal Investigation Department, told Firstpost.
The officer, who wished to remain anonymous as he is not authorised to speak with media, said there are 250-300 militants active in the Valley at present with at least 45-50 local youths, mostly from south Kashmir areas, joining militancy following Burhan Wani's killing.
With insurgency at its peak after years of relative calm, and public sympathy for militants growing in the Valley following the Burhan episode, the security agencies are staring at tough times where the war on insurgency will open fronts on two sides.
In the two months following the 8 July encounter of Wani, many villages and towns across the valley remained inaccessible to the state administration as well as the security agencies due to the massive scale of the civilian unrest.
To curb the pro-freedom and anti-India protests during the ongoing uprising, at least 94 civilians were killed in retaliatory action by government forces while hundreds lost vision due to use of pellets.
"While we will have to deal with insurgency, we will also have to work out a strategy to reach out to the people. To bring some semblance of normalcy, we have a three-pronged strategy: first, we will go after militants with same strategy that was in place earlier," the officer said.
He said the security agencies are also going to make more arrests of separatist leaders and their sympathisers, and stone-pelters in coming days to ensure that the peace prevails on the streets of the Valley.
"Finally, we will have to reach out to people through different welfare programs and adopting a more humane approach of policing. Our image has suffered badly in the last five months and we will have to work hard and do some course correction," the officer said.
The killing of two militants in Bandipora may be a step in that direction. But, with the borders recording a dangerously high level of violence since the surgical strikes were carried out, and relations between India and Pakistan at an all time low, the winter freeze in Kashmir may be too much to bear.