The New Hardline in the Valley Part 3: Who’s shattering the calm in central Kashmir

Before his arrest Tuesday, Tufail was being counted as the sixth local militant in Srinagar city — the latest case of young men leaving the comfort of home to become militants.

Written by Muzamil Jaleel | Budgam | Updated: June 2, 2017 7:57 am
Sabzar Bhat, Sabzar Bhat killing, Kashmir unrest, Hizbul militant In fact, the scenario was similar across central Kashmir — Budgam and Ganderbal have been relatively calm. But that situation is changing — fast. (Representational)

For a week this month, a family in Qamarwari in Srinagar city had no news of the 19-year-old who returned home from college, had lunch and disappeared. On May 24, Mir Tufail Qadeer showed up on social networking sites, attired in camouflage military fatigues, cradling a rifle. On Monday, Tufail’s brother Tajamul was called to the headquarters of the Special Operations Group of J&K Police for questioning. And on Tuesday, police sources said that Tufail had been taken into custody. Police claim that Tufail was involved in stone-pelting and was “required” in a case registered during the protests that followed the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani last July.

Read | The new hardline in the Valley: South Kashmir their roots, new militants tap into local anger

Tufail was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in commerce at the Government Degree College, Bemina. Earlier, he worked as a salesman in a medical shop in Parimpora. His father, Abdul Qadeer Mir, works with the handicrafts department. The family declined to speak to The Indian Express but one of Tufail’s friends said: “There was nothing that would make his family or friends suspicious. He is a silent kind but he didn’t seem to have confided in anyone. Once you have a police case, it is a burden for life. Perhaps that pushed him to leave home. We don’t know.”

Before his arrest Tuesday, Tufail was being counted as the sixth local militant in Srinagar city — the latest case of young men leaving the comfort of home to become militants. For years, there was hardly any local militancy in Srinagar. In fact, the scenario was similar across central Kashmir — Budgam and Ganderbal have been relatively calm. But that situation is changing — fast.

Read | The New Hardline in The Valley Part 2: North Kashmir is home to foreign militants, witness to deadly strikes

J&K Police data reveal that 31 militants are currently active in the central Kashmir districts of Budgam, Srinagar and Ganderbal. Of these, 14 are local and 17 foreigners. The 14 local militants belong to Hizbul Mujahideen, although two among them from Srinagar city are ideologically aligned to Zakir Musa. There are five foreign militants in Budgam who operate with Lashkar-e-Taiba. Among the nine foreign militants active in Ganderbal, three are with Hizb while six are with Lashkar. The records show that there are three foreign militants of Lashkar active in Srinagar district, who shuttle between Pulwama and Brein, Harwan, New Theed and Dachigam forests.

While police sources say that Tufail joined the Hizb, records show that all the other five local militants in Srinagar too joined Hizb. Two of them, police sources say, have joined Zakir Musa’s splinter group. J&K Police sources say that these local militants shuttle between South Kashmir and Budgam district.

The local militants in Srinagar include 33-year old Mehraj-ud-Din Bangroo of Malik Aangan, Fatehkadal in downtown city. Bangroo cleared Class 12 when he started working in a soap factory. Mugeez Ahmad Mir (25) of Parimpora (on the Srinagar outskirts) studied till Class 9; Dawood Ahmad Sofi alias Danish (26) of neighbouring Mustafa Abad, Zainakote who dropped out of school while in Class 7. Yasir Rashid Bhat and Fayaz Ahmad Hamal are from Chhota Bazar and Sangeen Dukan, Khankah respectively in downtown Srinagar. Fayaz worked at a local printing press before joining militancy.

In neighbouring Ganderbal district, the records show three active local Hizb militants: Shabir Ahmad Chopan of Akhel Kangan, Mushtaq Ahmad Kasana of Yar Muqam and Latief Khan of Gutlibagh.

But it is the development in Budgam district that is considered the most important. In fact, militant modules in south have been trying to extend their new brand of militancy towards central and north Kashmir. While central Kashmir, especially Budgam district, was relatively calm for more than a decade, there has been a sudden spurt in militancy in the last six months. Since some villages of the district border Pulwama, one of the militant strongholds in south Kashmir, Hizb militants would occasionally shift their base to Budgam villages to escape the police radar.

An injured Hizb militant, Tauseef Ahmad Wagay, a resident of Kulgam, too had shifted to a hideout in Chadoora to stay away from the gaze of security agencies. It was the security operation at Chadoora on March 28 against Wagay that triggered protests in the district. Three civilians were killed when police and security forces opened fire on civilians who were throwing stones to help Wagay escape — he was killed.

The killing of the civilians at Chadoora fuelled anger and, eleven days later, when Budgam went to bypolls for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency, it witnessed widespread protests. Eight civilians were killed in Budgam that day. A fortnight before the Chadoora encounter, Budgam had a new militant recruit. Younis Maqbool, a resident of Patrigam, joined the militant ranks following alleged police persecution. Younis was killed on April 22 in a brief encounter with the Army. Police say that besides Budgam in central Kashmir, the south Kashmir influence has spread up to Parimpora on Srinagar’s outskirts where north Kashmir begins.

Muneer Khan, IGP, Kashmir zone, told The Indian Express.”We have information that militants were sighted in Qamarwari, Chanpora, Mochuwa (neighbourhoods in Srinagar). We are aware that militants are trying to set up base in the city. There is local recruitment too. It (Srinagar) is the capital — seat of power. And a minor incident in Srinagar will catch more attention than an attack in far away Kokernag.”

As per J&K Police records, there are five local militants with Hizb from Budgam: Tariq Ahmad Dar of Wadipora Chadoora, Muzaffar Ahmad Allie of Sandipora, Yaseen Yatoo who has emerged as the top commander of the Hizb, and fresh recruits — Javed Ahmad Sheikh (22) of Beerwah, who joined Hizb while he was studying in BA second year, and Tafazul Islam of Budgam. Five foreign militants of the Lashkar are in the district.

Police sources say that Muzaffar Ahmad Allie is the only Hizb militant from the Shia sect — Budgam has a sizeable Shia population. While several Shia leaders are in separatist politics, especially Hurriyat, the Shia presence in militant ranks has been almost negligible after the initial phase of militancy in 1990s when Hizbul Momineen, a predominantly Shia militant organisation was formed.

Though militancy in Kashmir has always been non-sectarian, Allie provides Hizb an important edge. “Our information is that he (Allie) is currently in south Kashmir. There is an apprehension that he may bring in more youth from his community,’’ a police officer said. Forty-year-old Yaseen Yatoo is also a worry. A senior police officer says Yatoo is a “thinking militant with lot of experience and training” and is thus “a bigger challenge”. His story explains why.

READ | From PhD and MPhil to BTech and BE: New local militants are young and educated

In June 2016, police called Parvaiz Yatoo to Chadoora police station and told him that his elder brother, Yaseen Yatoo was still alive. Police broke the news six months after the family had been told that their elder son slipped to his death during an operation at the Line of Control. They had performed his funeral prayers (in absentia) at the family home in Nagam village of Budgam. Police claim that Yatoo, who is Hizb’s operational chief in Kashmir, had feigned death to escape the security radar.

He was a in the second year of Amar Singh College when he left home in 1996 to become a militant. Police say Yatoo was motivated to join militant ranks by “a section commander of Hizb, Bashir Ahmad alias Jehangir of Kaisar mohalla Chadoora” in July 1996. In the last week of September 1996, police say, he left for arms training across the LoC.

“After reaching Tujar Sharief by taxi, it took him 15 days on foot to cross the Line of Control and reach Neelum Valley,’’ a police source said. “He was sent to the ‘Oogi camp’. He returned in 1998 but “remained active for five months in Bandipore area. He had a fight with some foreign militants and was disarmed. He fled and arrived home (in Budgam),’’ the source said. Police say Yatoo “surrendered” before SSP, Budgam in November 1998.

READ | The New Hardline In The Valley: Overnight lock-up, 5 days in custody for this 10-year-old

After his release, Yatoo resumed studies. In April 2002, police sources say, “he was motivated to reactivate by a Hizb commander Mohammad Yasin Rather alias Musaib of Kralpora Chadoora”. In April 2002, police say, he was involved in two incidents in which one of his associates, Ishfaq, was killed. Yatoo remained active in Budgam for seven months. In October 2002, while they were crossing Chadoora bridge at night, the militants were ambushed by the BSF. “He escaped and went to Jammu for a few weeks. On November 21, 2002, he was arrested by BSF in Chadoora market,’’ the source said.

Yatoo was released in June 2004 and returned home to start a readymade garments and stationery business in Chadoora that continued till March 2005 when he again joined Hizb. In December 2005, he and his associates were encircled by 34 Rashtriya Rifles at Gulab Dagi Tangmarg. In the encounter, Musaib and three other local Hizb militants were killed. “He (Yatoo) escaped and was subsequently made Hizb’s district commander for Budgam,’’ the police source said.

In June 2006, Yatoo was travelling from Pampore to Awantipora when police intercepted his vehicle. Three years later, he was released in 2009. He started working with his brother at their grocery shop. “This time, he had left militancy and was busy at home,’’ a police source said. “However, he had started giving sermons during Friday prayers.”

In August 2010, Yatoo was arrested while he was waiting for a bus near his home. He was accused of participating in the protests that summer and was put under the Public Safety Act. He was finally released in April 2015.

In the last week of the December 2015, Yatoo left home again, this time to fake his death and slip off the security radar.

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