Brazen 'gun salute' by Kashmir militants shows extent to which political space has vanished in Valley

As soon as the four pheran-clad boys brandishing automatic rifles entered the courtyard of the Jamia mosque of Qaimoh in Kulgam district on Sunday and fired a volley of bullets in air to offer a 'gun salute' to their fallen comrade, young men and women rejoiced as pro-freedom and anti-India slogans filled the air. Fayaz Ahmed Ashwar, also known as Setha, was killed in an exchange of fire with forces in the adjoining Anantnag district on Saturday along with three civilians and a cop.

The gathering and sloganeering to mark his passing is not an unusual sight in the Valley these days where the graph of militancy has gone up significantly and the space for mainstream politics is shrinking swiftly. Militants appearing at funerals for their slain comrades is not something new. But the sheer audacity of parading themselves in front of the cameras of mediapersons has brought back memories of the early 1990s when this used to be a common sight.

The pictures that came in from Kulgam on Sunday showed a group of four militants, among whom was Junaid Matto, the district commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba, brandishing two rifles, amid the cheering crowd of men and women. After flaunting their guns, the militants proceeded to open fire skywards.

Four militants giving their slain comrade a gun salute in Kulgam. Firstpost/ Hilal Shah

Four militants giving their slain comrade a gun salute in Kulgam. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

If anything, this brazen display symbolises how the ground for political battles has been completely lost in the Valley to the culture of violence and why it is an extremely difficult task to restore some semblance of normalcy. On Sunday, when people were marching with the funeral procession of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant Fayaz, a resident of Reshipora Qaimoh in Kulgam district, dejection and anger was palpable.

Fayaz was killed when a police party was clearing the Srinagar-Jammu Highway following an accident in Mir Bazar. The militants fired at the police party and a brief gunfight left five people dead, while three more are injured. Fayaz was one of the main accused in the 5 August, 2015 attack on a BSF convoy in Udhampur. The attack resulted in the death of two BSF personnel while 13 others were injured, sparking a diplomatic row between India and Pakistan. The case that was initially investigated by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, was subsequently transferred to the NIA for investigation.

"We were clicking pictures of people offering funeral prayers. More then two thousand people had gathered to offer the Nimaz-e-Jinaza (funeral prayers). Suddenly, four militants entered the courtyard of the Qaimoh Jamia Mosque and started firing in the air," Hilal Shah, a photojournalist based in Ananatnag told Firstpost.

"I got goosebumps and struggled to click pictures. I had never seen a militant walking in front of my eyes in my entire life," said Shah, 27, who has covered hundreds of encounters in south Kashmir. Meanwhile, the police in Anantnag said it has identified two militants, Junaid Ahmad Matoo and Shakoor, both from the LeT, while the identity of the third and fourth is being ascertained.

"What was surprising was that there were young boys shouting slogans and walking in front of the these militants without any fear. The people soon encircled them as they kept firing in the air," Vikar Ahmad, a Srinagar-based photojournalist, who had travelled to cover the funeral, told Firstpost, adding, "It felt like a liberated place."

LeT militant Fayaz Ahmed Ashwar being carried to his funeral. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

LeT militant Fayaz Ahmed Ashwar being carried to his funeral. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

The pictures of militants and their funerals spread like wildfire in Kashmir and for many, it reminds them of the early 1990s when the insurgency had just begun and militants would give gun salutes to their fallen comrades almost every other day. "There is so much support for militants these days that it is difficult to make out who is a militant and who is not," a police officer in Anatnag said.

Despite some semblance of normalcy returning to Kashmir, the militancy never disappeared nor is it likely to, given the prevailing crisis, go away anytime soon.

More than 30 locals have joined the militancy in the first four months of this year with at least 224 militants being active in central, south and north Kashmir, police says. Of 224 militants, 130 militants are locals with the highest number of locals from Pulwama, which has become a springboard of militancy with the presence of 70 militants, including 12 foreigners.

"It is a disturbing trend, but a reality and a graver indication of how there is absolutely no semblance of law and order in Kashmir," said National Conference provisional president Nasir Aslam Wani.

Updated Date: May 08, 2017 10:34 AM

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