On 13 February, as the encounter was on between the militants and the security forces at Frisal, Kulgam, a viral video from the scene showed a seething group of youth making a determined attempt to rescue the trapped militants. They shouted slogans and taunted police, calling them “Rs 1500 government employees” in a pejorative reference to a section of adhoc police personnel largely drawn from the counter-insurgents. Soon one of the protesters at the forefront and visible to the security personnel is hit by a bullet, apparently in his leg and he mentions it to his colleagues in a matter of fact way.
“I am hit by a bullet. I am hit by a bullet,” he tells them as they bear him away. “Give me a muffler. I will wrap it around my wound”.
The villagers had risen up in revolt within hours into the encounter. Not only them, the youth came rushing from the adjacent villages, appearing from behind the surrounding hillocks, raising slogans and throwing stones at the security personnel. What is more, they were drawing closer by the minute, undeterred by the ongoing encounter. This forced the security personnel to turn the direction of their guns towards protesters. A civilian identified as 22-year-old Mushtaq Ahmad Itoo of the adjacent Hatigam village was killed, 15 were hit with bullet injuries and several others with pellets, two of them in the eyes.
By the time encounter ended, three militants, two security personnel and two civilians were killed in the encounter. Another civilian was Ishfaq Majid Reshi, son of Abdul Majid Reshi, the owner of the house where militants were holed up.
The house was blown down, leaving no trace of it on the ground. The Army soon left the site. An old, half-burnt Chinar with a large hole in its trunk stands there.
A day later, in two more encounters at North Kashmir areas of Hajin and Handwara, four more security personnel including Major Satish Dhaiya were killed. This formed the context to the Army Chief Bipin Rawat’s then unusually harsh statement against the people trying to disrupt the encounters. He warned the protesters that their attempt to help militants escape will be deemed as “acts of terrorism” and that the Army will “treat them as anti-national elements and go for them”. The statement generated a sharp political reaction in Kashmir and also at the national level with political and civil society groups criticising Rawat for painting all Kashmiris as anti-national.
Mobs rushing to encounter sites should concern us and alarm us into constructive political action – Not issuing threats of ‘no mercy’. The Govt needs to engage politically with the alienated youth of Kashmir – threats and warnings will only compound their hostilityJunaid Mattu, Spokesman, National Conference
Many more encounters have followed since and similar scenes have been replicated. A 15-year-old Amir Nazir Wani was killed at a recent encounter at Padgampora in Pulwama. He was a part of the protest out to save the trapped militants. Like those of the militants, his funeral was also massively attended.
However, the encounters between them come as a reminder of the chilling state of affairs in today’s Kashmir. Not only are local youth joining militancy and dying in the process, most often within weeks of taking up the gun, but when they are tracked down by the security forces, people rush to help them escape and are ready to die doing so, as Frisal and the subsequent encounters have once again underlined. Two days after the Army Chief General Bipin Rawat, warned people of Kashmir Valley against obstructing anti-militancy operations and subsequent advisory by J&K government, Army had to call off its operation at Urivan hamlet of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district after facing stiff resistance from local populace who in hundreds hit roads and pelted stones on forces.
What is more, when militants are killed, thousands participate in their nimaz-i-jinaza, sometimes several villages competing for the “honour” of burying them in their respective graveyards, as was the case with the Pakistani Lashkar commander Abu Qasim in 2015.
There are by and large similar scenes of the show of mass support when foreign militants are trapped – albeit foreign jihadis being strangers do not attract frequent public attempts to free them from the cordon.
Both types of militants, however, attract large funerals. Though protests following the killings of the militants have now been a longstanding worry with the security agencies, the pre-encounter mobilisations geared to free the trapped militants have been a deep source of the concern.
“While we could live with the massive funerals as these didn’t interfere with the elimination of the militants, the mobilisations alongside the encounters disrupt the operation threatening even lives of security personnel,” said a police officer. “This forces us to retaliate and as a result, there are avoidable killings and injuries to civilians”.
The challenge, he added, is more severe in South Kashmir than in the North, replicated in encounter after encounter. It often results in civilian killings which in turn generate public disaffection. In December, when security forces had cordoned off a house in village Arwani in South Kashmir, where militants were alleged to be holed up, the residents quickly assembled and marched towards the site to rescue them. Soon they were joined by the people from the adjacent villages, leaving security forces caught between fighting militants and fending off the protests. In the consequent security action, a youth Arif Ahmad Shah of the nearby village Gund Baba was killed and around thirty others were injured, one of them hit by pellets in the eye and another in the head. This led to more protests and shutdowns across Valley.
So far around ten civilians have lost their lives in their bid to rescue militants.
This state of affairs portends a turn for worse in the situation.
“The fresh killings have come as a reminder that far from being over, the turmoil that followed Burhan Wani’s death is on a pause and may resume soon. If growing pre-encounter mobilizations are any indicator, the things have only moved to the next levelNaseer Ahmad, Columnist
If nearly a hundred killings and several hundred blindings through the last summer have ended up making people more defiant and resistant to the use of force, it is time for New Delhi to consider a change of tack. That is before this defiance takes on an even dangerous shape.