ON THE evening of April 15 in Hajin, militants barged into the house of Abdul Rashid Parray alias Rashid Billa, a dreaded commander of Ikhwan, the government-backed counter-insurgency militia of the 1990s, and killed him. Twenty days later, two militants appeared at Hajin’s Jamia Masjid, addressed the Friday congregation and joined a pro-freedom rally. The Friday after, they were back. Billa was a “proclaimed offender”, indicted for the killing of five men and two women in Sadarkote village in 1996 for supporting a National Conference candidate against Ikhwan chief Kuka Parray, who was gunned down by militants seven years later.
And Billa’s killing, and the appearance of militants at the local mosque, tells the story of how the ground has shifted in Bandipore’s Hajin, which was once a hub of the Ikhwan. It also shows the steady rise of militancy across North Kashmir — whose contours are strikingly different from the strands that have emerged in South Kashmir. Despite a relative calm in North Kashmir, this region has more militants active on ground than the South. While Burhan Wani became a symbol of militancy among youth, particularly in South Kashmir, when he abandoned Valley North is home to foreign militants, witness to bigger attacks anonymity and posted pictures and videos on social media, the militants in North Kashmir have stayed the old course.
Their numbers have grown but the difference is mainly on two fronts:
* While militancy in South Kashmir is predominantly local, the North has largely foreign militants (militants from Pakistan and PoK). According to J&K Police records, the number of militants active in South Kashmir is 112, of whom 99 are local. The number of militants active across North Kashmir is 141 — 118 are foreign and 23 local.
* The militant demographic is different, too. In South Kashmir, Hizbul Mujahideen has 63 locals (including Musa group) and one foreigner, Lashkar-e-Toiba has 35 locals and nine foreigners, Jaish-e-Mohammad has three foreigners, and Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami has one local militant. In North Kashmir, Hizb has 20 locals, LeT has 102 foreigners and two locals, and Jaish has 16 foreigners. Al Badr outfit, present in North, has one local active on the ground.
* Unlike in South Kashmir, where militants openly declare their affiliation on social media, the situation in North Kashmir is in complete contrast. Here, nine local militants have gone underground because of the Burhan Wani phenomenon but most of them have shifted to the South — not including five youngsters arrested in Baramulla for their alleged involvement with Jaish-e-Mohammad.
* In South Kashmir, the focus of militants is primarily survival. To garner weapons and funds, they have snatched rifles from police and CRPF or allegedly looted banks. There have also been targeted killings of political activists or those accused of being informers. But there hasn’t been a single instance of a big militant attack on an Army or paramilitary camp.
In North Kashmir, the militants are well-trained and equipped, and the major attacks have been reported in this region. On October 3 last year, a BSF man was killed in a fidayeen attack on a Rashtriya Rifles Battalion headquarters in Baramulla — the militants escaped. On February 14 this year, three soldiers and a militant were killed in an encounter at Hajin. On the same day, a Major and three militants were killed in an encounter at Kralgund in Handwara. On April 27, three Armymen, including a Captain, and two militants were killed and five soldiers injured in a militant attack on an Artillery unit at Panzgam in Kupwara.
* The recruitment patterns, too, are different. Sources said that around 30 youngsters in the Sopore-Zaingir belt had approached militants, wanting to join. But they were turned down by the militants who wanted “proper scrutiny” and “subsequent training”.
“We are aware that militants in North Kashmir are lying low on purpose. They are well-trained and have no dearth of guns and ammunition. They can escalate whenever they want, they have enough men on the ground. There are four modules in Lolab valley, three in Kupwara and six in Handwara. There are militants in the Sopore belt, as well,” a police officer told The Indian Express. He said that forces see “serious problems” in the Zaloora belt, Vilgam, Hafruda, Affan, Lolab, Dardpora, Devar, Anderbugh, Malangam, Kunzar, Kralweth, Zunreshi and Marsari. “There are reports of militant presence in Sumlar (Bandipore) and ahead, in Koota Satri, too. These militants don’t expose themselves to the local population and stay anonymous. Unlike in South, the local population will only know them by their codes. For example, little is known about Sarfaraz Seer, a Hizbul militant from Malangam,” said the officer.
According to a recent verification report on the presence of foreign militants in North Kashmir, 102 are with Lashkar: 12 in Bandipore, 6 in Baramulla, 9 in Sopore, 37 in Kupwara and 38 in Handwara. Similarly, Jaish has 16 foreigners: one in Bandipore, three in Baramulla, 7 in Sopore and 5 in Kupwara. The report says Umar Gazi, operating in Sopore area, is Lashkar’s divisional commander; Adil, operating in Zaingir, is Jaish’s divisional commander. While Khalid bhai and Abu Qakah are Lashkar’s commanders in Baramulla and Kupwara respectively, Lashkar’s slain top commander Abu Qasim’s brother Salahudin is active in Bandipore.
However, despite the differences in the nature and complexion of militancy in the two regions, there is a growing “apprehension” among police and security agencies that North Kashmir may go the South Kashmir way. “During 2016, there were massive protests at several places in North Kashmir too. But it was nothing like in South Kashmir. Srinagar city was relatively calm. Post-election (after the Lok Sabha bypoll), we have seen that the new protests have begun from all the old Ikhwan centres in North Kashmir. Militants are taking a lot of risk, like in Hajin,” said another police officer.
SSP Bandipore Zulfikar Azad, however, has a different take on the Hajin escalation. “There are five-six militants active in the area who have been under tremendous pressure to do something after Abu Musaib was killed in an encounter. That was a big jolt to Lashkar,” said Azad. Musaib was the nephew of Lashkar chief Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and a divisional commander of the outfit.
“There is no selfie militancy in North Kashmir. But we don’t know how long it will stay this way. Either North will go the South way or militancy in South will gradually become like in North again. It will depend largely on what will happen to the Zakir Musa group,” said a police officer.
Musa was a Hizb militant till mid-May, when he threatened to hang separatist leaders for calling the Kashmir issue “political”. He quit the militant outfit after Hizb reprimanded him. The police officer also said there was “chatter that veteran Hizb commander Qayoom Najar is back”. “If Najar decides to support Musa, the entire complexion of militancy will change here. But if he stays with the Hizb, it will give a boost to the outfit in North,” he said.
One of the longest surviving militant commanders in Kashmir, Najar was expelled from Hizb in 2015 after he had questioned the militant leadership and Hurriyat. Sources said the differences between Najar and the militant leadership were resolved and he went across.
The security establishment wants the ideological differences among militants to deepen, but sees little hope. “Like Najar, this recent ouster of Musa from Hizbul Mujahideen has again opened an opportunity. There isn’t any other efficient antidote to militancy than a clash among groups. We have seen it in the early-1990s. Najar is a hard nut to crack and even with a feud going on with the militant leadership, he didn’t cross over to us. Zakir’s case seems similar,” said a police officer.
Yet, it’s the Musa brand of militancy, placing Kashmir on the larger global Jihad map and questioning the separatist leadership, that is “worrying” security agencies. They feel this ideology, though at a nascent stage, “may not be limited to South Kashmir” and “can get out of control”. The story of Jameel Sheergojri, a mechanical engineer from Naz colony in Bandipore, is a case in point. Sheergojri was a teacher at the polytechnic in Bandipore before he left for Dubai in search of a job in May 2016. His family members lost contact with him, until several months later when they received a four-page letter addressed to his parents.
Sheergojri began by thanking them for taking “good care” of him, giving him a good education and providing for all his needs. He wrote that he has decided to join “Jihad fi sabililah (Jihad for Allah)” and explained his decision by quoting from religious texts.
At the end, he requested his parents to pray for the “victory of Mujahideen and his martyrdom”. He asked them not to cry when they hear about his death, but read these pages instead. The family declined to speak about Sheergorji but Bandipore police confirmed the contents of the letter. “We received information and contacted the family who showed us the letter. We think he has gone to Pakistan. There is no further information,” said an officer.