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Kashmir after Article 370: As govt lifts curfew after month, Sopore attack shows citizens face renewed jihadist threat

  • The government’s curfew is giving way to a brutal, new crackdown imposed by jihadist groups

  • Though the government claims to have reopened hundreds of schools, neither teachers nor students have shown up across the countryside

  • Businesses across Kashmir have closed down following the killing of affluent Srinagar wholesale trader

The single shot aimed to maim, not kill, the gun held less than a foot from Asma Arshid Jan’s right leg. Her father, Arshid Rather, was held down and forced to watch his daughter’s punishment, before his elbow was blown apart.

Two family employees who guided the killers through the lanes to his home, Muhammad Ramzan Dar and Muhammad Arshad Dar, received bullets in their legs. The man the terrorists were looking for, Asima Jan’s grandfather, Abdul Hamid Rather, wasn’t home.

 Kashmir after Article 370: As govt lifts curfew after month, Sopore attack shows citizens face renewed jihadist threat

Asma Arshid Jan was shot by militants in north Kashmir. Image courtesy: Parth MN

Two-and-a-half year old Asma is too young to understand her blood was shed for her people’s freedom, or to comprehend the twisted compassion of the sadist who shot her. Everyone else in the small, north Kashmir community, though, has read the message written with her blood.

Last week, two terrorists visited Abdul Hamid Rather at Sopore’s apple market to demand he shut down his warehouse. Leaflets had been posted on walls across the countryside, demanding public servants resign, and businesses keep their shutters down.

Even though key members of the local apple traders’ association quit their jobs fearing attack, Rather kept his warehouse open.

Four weeks since Article 370 was abrogated, the shutdown imposed by the government has ended. In all but a handful of neighbourhoods, like Srinagar’s Soura, barbed wire rolls and riot-police squads have disappeared.

Telephone lines, and some mobile connections, have been restored. Traffic moves late into the night, even through roads traversing terrorism-torn South Kashmir. Large crowds gathered, this Friday, to peacefully pray at mosques in town like Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam.

Now, the government’s grim curfew is giving way to a brutal, new crackdown: this imposed by jihadist groups, determined to demonstrate that Kashmir will resist New Delhi’s efforts to tie its destiny to that of the Indian Republic.

Following the killing of affluent Srinagar wholesale trader Ghulam Muhammad Mir in Parimpora last month, and the shooting of migrant worker Shafi Alam at a Baramulla store this week, businesses across Kashmir have closed down.

Even though the government claims to have reopened hundreds of schools, neither teachers nor students have shown up across the countryside. Residents in Tahab, a small apple-growing village in Shopian, said they feared sending their children to the two educational institutions.

“Frankly, I understand their concerns,” said a counter-terrorism police officer stationed on the village’s main road. “I’m here all day, but at night, there’s nothing I can do for them.”

Further south, in Damal Hanjipora — home to ferocious protests in 2016, when villagers burned down the police station and looted weapons from its armoury— street vendors and food carts are open in the evenings.

The stores, however, keep their shutters down: though their owners sit nearby, just in case a customer shows up, and discreet transactions can be made.

In Kul, perched in the mountains above Damal Hanjipora, terrorists showed up last week to tell shopkeepers to keep their businesses closed. To make sure their message was taken seriously, they sealed the locks with plumbing cement.

“Open the door,” Aqib Naikoo remembers the soldiers shouting, as they hammered on the front door of the family’s spartan home. The teenager they were looking, Aqib Naikoo’s brother, Umar Naikoo, was in bed, worn from working late into the night for the Eid rush the next day.

Umar Naikoo, his brother says, was dragged out into a waiting jeep. A relative who stepped in, Aqib Naikoo alleges, was beaten, losing a tooth.

The story of the Naikoo family’s village, Memender, helps understand why jihadist groups are having to use increasingly brutal means to enforce their shutdown: young people are deserting Kashmir’s Islamist-led army of stone-throwers.

In 2016, the village — home to some 1,200 families — was torn apart by violence after the killing of jihadist militant commander Burhan Wani. Four were blinded by birdshot fired by riot police; dozens injured, and over a hundred arrested.

This time, Umar Naikoo — named in three rioting cases in 2016 — is the only person who has been arrested. In Naina-Batpora, where an army armoured vehicle was set alight by a mob in 2015, and a police counter-terrorism outpost destroyed in 2016, there hasn’t been a single arrest.

Through the entire district of Shopian, there have been just 144 arrests: of whom only 80 are still in custody.

Even though there’s little doubt police action across Kashmir has involved violence, its scale has been limited. Figures obtained by Firstpost from Jammu and Kashmir government sources show there have been 1,571 recorded clashes between stone-throwing mobs and police until 6 September, 2019. That shows government claims of peace in Kashmir aren’t entirely true: but the story doesn’t end there.

Key to understanding the jihadist crackdown is that the clashes seen since Article 370 was abrogated are far less intense — and have caused far less harm to human life — than in 2010 or 2016, when Islamist-led protests challenged the Indian State across Kashmir.

Even in 2017, when there was no large-scale rioting, there were 14 fatalities in police action: far higher than today.

In essence, the Islamist-led street protests seem to be running out of steam. Part of the reason for that is more rigorous policing. Both Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti released rioters en-masse; ever since Governor’s Rule was imposed in 2017, though communities haven’t been able to mount political pressure on legislators to release rioters.

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Police have since been using legal provisions that allow rioters to be released only after community members vouch for their future behaviour: and, in other cases, send alleged mob leaders to prisons outside the state, imposing huge financial burdens on their families.

“Few young people are engaging in stone-throwing mobs today,” a senior police officer notes. “The typical perpetrator is a very young juvenile, part of a mob of perhaps just 10 or 12 people, acting not so much from ideological motives as incoherent rage.”

Aqib Naikoo’s brother is now in prison outside Kashmir “somewhere in Bihar-Odisha”, he says. “India is crushing us,” he adds “but this tyranny won’t succeed.”

For now, there’s little sign that prediction will prove accurate. Through the Valley, recruitment by terror groups is in sharp decline. The last Pulwama resident known to have joined a jihadist group was Delipora’s Adil Ahmed Hafiz: in debt, police records say, over ₹25 lakh, because of a failed business.

Hafiz left, moreover, days before Article 370 was abrogated. Last year, by the end of August, five Shopian residents had joined jihadists; this year, just one has: school dropout Adil Dar.

The numbers help explain why. From 2016, plunged into crisis by the mass violence, the People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance government scaled back counter-terrorism operations sharply. That has changed dramatically since 2017, when Governor’s Rule was imposed.

In Shopian, 20 joined jihadists in 2016, but 5 were killed; 27 in 2017, against ten killed. In 2018, though 44 terrorists were killed against 39 recruited; this year, the numbers are 38 and 17. “Basically, it’s become clear to potential recruits that joining a jihadi group isn’t a free ticket to becoming the local big-shot,” said Shopian senior superintendent police Sandeep Chaudhury.

This could, however, change. There’s been just one successful operation against terrorists since Article 370 was revoked: in part, the result of the security forces’ reluctance to operate in populated areas, where clashes could lead to civilian fatalities, and fuel mass violence.

In addition, the shutdown of mobile phone networks has meant police and intelligence services are blind, unable to communicate with informers on the ground.

Late last month, intelligence officials say, signs have also emerged that Pakistan is starting to resume support for jihadist groups. Large groups of Jaish-e-Muhammad terrorists crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in Gurez on 20 August, the Intelligence Bureau reported, followed by another group through Gulmarg on 27 August.

The government promised Kashmir that the end of Article 370 means a new start, and a bright future. The path to paradise, though, is clearly a fraught, uncertain one.

For one little Kashmiri girl and her family, the new Kashmir has already proved tragically similar to the old one.

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Updated Date: Sep 09, 2019 12:39:20 IST