Eleven months after the killing of the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani plunged Kashmir into six month long turmoil leading to around a hundred killings and several hundred blindings, the killing of yet another top commander Sabzar Bhat has poised Kashmir on the brink of yet another unrest. Only thing that can save the situation from being pushed off the cliff is the restraint by the security forces in the face of the massive protests that have broken out across the Valley. And if the past three days are anything to go by, the government has been able not to give in to the familiar instinct to use disproportionate force to put down the fresh revolt. So far, only one civilian has been killed and 70 others have been injured, some of them grievously.
However, containing the spread of the unrest and preventing its perpetuation hardly detracts from the inherent deep alienation in Valley. Even before the killing of Sabzar, the situation in Kashmir was on the edge. The disparate and fragmented protests, including those by the students had kept Kashmir in news.
Sabzar’s killing, however, has so far been the biggest incitement to a large scale public groundswell. The tension started mounting in Valley the moment the news spread that the security forces had cordoned off early in the morning a house in Saimu, Tral where some militants were holed up, one of them Sabzar. Valley waited with bated breath as the encounter drew on until early afternoon when the commander was killed. And soon all hell broke loose. South Kashmir went up in revolt and soon the protests radiated outwards to central and North Kashmir.
Sabzar had joined militancy in 2015 on the day the forces killed Khalid Muzaffar, the brother of the then Hizb commander Burhan Wani. In the consequent protests Sabzar had snatched the rifle of a CRPF personnel. He soon became the closest confidante of Burhan whom he knew since childhood. He also featured in pictures and videos of the militants circulated by Burhan on social media to persuade more youth to take up the gun. And on Burhan’s killing in July last, Hizbul Mujahideen appointed a militant with alias Mahmood Gaznavi to take over as new chief. Since Sabzar was one of the very influential militants and closest to Burhan, people perceived him to be Gaznavi. However, it was his colleague Zakir Musa, an engineer turned militant, who generally spoke for the outfit in intermittent videos until his bitter dramatic falling out with the PoK based top leadership over the ideological underpinnings of the Azadi movement. Zakir threatened to chop off the heads of Hurriyat leadership for calling Kashmir struggle “political” and insisted it was geared to create an Islamic state. And on being snubbed by the Hizb’s top leadership, Zakir quit the outfit and hinted at floating his own outfit.
So, it remains unclear who was the Hizb’s Valley chief after Burhan’s killing last year. Was it Sabzar who operated far from the social media spectacle or Zakir who issued intermittent video statements on behalf of the outfit? Hizb also hasn’t made it clear which one of the two was its chief in Valley. Nor did it make clear who took over the outfit following the exit of Zakir.
Similarly, three days after Sabzar’s killing, Hizb has yet to nominate its new Valley chief. Even though a section of media, quoting intelligence sources, have said that the outfit has appointed Riyaz Naikoo as its new chief. Other reports said that the another senior militant Saddam Padder is the new commander. However, there has been no independent verification of the development. Nor has Hizb chosen to respond so far. Normally, Hizb issues a statement about the appointment of a new chief following the killing of its commander.
And that the outfit hasn’t so far testifies to the complexity of the situation. Zakir who recently quit Hizb was at the funeral of Sabzar and according to the eye-witnesses he broke down on seeing the body.
Despite stringent security restrictions, fasting mourners had arrived in Tral from various places for a last glimpse of Sabzar. Seven back-to-back funeral prayers were held at a playground in his native village Rathsun for him. Zakir was among the few militants who attended those prayers. In fact, he even offered funeral prayers behind a Hurriyat leader who led them.
Is Hizb waiting for Zakir to return to the fold? Or has it already appointed another leader in Valley, possibly Riyaz Naikoo? Or for that matter Saddam Padder? There are as yet no answers to these questions. But, yes, the appointment of yet another militant as commander is going to further cement the divide. Would this create an ideological tussle with Zakir batting for a struggle for an Islamic state and the other one calling the movement essentially political? May be. But for now such a scenario seems unlikely to play out.
“Zakir’s presence at the funeral does not give credence to the reports that he is at daggers drawn with the Hizb,” said Ghulam Rasool Bhat, a mourner at the funeral. “Zakir is respected in South Kashmir for his commitment to Kashmir cause”.
However, in the absence of any clarity about Zakir’s new role, the speculations about the fallout of Sabzar’s killing on the militancy in South is likely to engage the people for some more time to come. The biggest worry facing the security establishment is however the impact of the commander’s killing on the fresh recruitment of youth to the militant ranks. Burhan’s killing led to more than hundred youth taking up gun in South Kashmir alone, and also from the areas in central and North Kashmir.
“We hope that Sabzar’s death will not lead to more recruitment,” says a police officer active in the counter-insurgency. “But then we can only hope against hope. The commander’s death has been widely mourned and protested, and predominantly so by the youth”.