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Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

J&K DGP: ‘(Not returning militants’ bodies to families) effective in checking recruitment … Faceless modules a challenge’

Union Territory’s police chief Dilbag Singh tells ‘The Indian Express’ that there are no 'figures of iconic value' anymore whose appeal can get Kashmiri youth to join militant outfits, says ‘Internet and Pak media propaganda’ main contributors to terror recruitment.

Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police Dilbag Singh. (File)

Jammu and Kashmir’s Director General of Police (DGP) Dilbag Singh has been a constant in the Union Territory’s security apparatus since the time before the revocation of the former state’s special status. Three years since Article 370 was repealed, the police officer speaks to The Indian Express about the security landscape in J&K, including the challenge of dealing with “faceless modules” and the role the Internet plays in terror recruitment.

Three years since the revocation of J&K’s special status, what is your assessment of the security scenario?

As far as security is concerned, every year has been better than the previous one. The situation has overall improved in all respects. If you speak of incidents of terror violence, the numbers may be the same as last year. But in terms of the intensity of attacks, they are far less aggressive as compared to previous years.

The law-and-order situation is, I would say, almost normal. The incidents are very minor and much less in number and not a single incident where there has been any serious engagement with security forces. Again, no incidents of stone pelting or other law-and-order problems have taken place at an encounter site. That was a normal sight a couple of years ago. Similarly, bandh calls and public response to such calls are almost a thing of the past now. Not a single bandh call succeeded though a number of bandh calls were given by Pakistan in the name of the Pakistan chapter of Hurriyat, sometimes in the name Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

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They have also tried to use the name of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq but not a single strike called by Pakistani agencies has found any response from people. This is a very welcome sign and I congratulate and thank people. This is the one big change that can be seen in terms of change in the security scenario.

In the past four years, we have continued to maintain a record of zero civilian casualties during a law-and-order situation or during any anti-terror operation. This speaks for itself. Earlier there would be serious engagement at encounter sites, people would get agitated, and they would throw stones. No such thing anymore. This is another big change. The provocations for these episodes would come in different forms. Handlers from across (Pakistan) would send messages, appealing to people to come out on the streets and engage with security forces, to ensure that terrorists holed up in a particular place are given cover to escape. Not a single incident has taken place in the last four years.

What do you think contributed to these changes?

I would mainly give credit to people, to our youth who perhaps are now understanding that such emotional outbursts or getting swayed by emotional appeals from across (the border) through social media were meant to sabotage security operations.

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Second, I would also compliment the security forces for maintaining strong self-restraint and ignoring small provocations that must have come their way post abrogation or during the course of operations. They have been very responsible, barring one or two incidents of abrasions that took place and which were taken very seriously by senior authorities.

What about the argument that the J&K Police have been operating with a free hand in the absence of an elected government? Is there lesser accountability in the absence of local representatives?

You can’t say that. Free hand does not mean that one would go out and harass people. Free hand means we have the liberty to operate without any interference. But this does not mean you have a licence to go out and beat or harass people. That will never be allowed. That hasn’t been allowed and that will not be allowed at any cost.

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Free hand is to operate with a sense of responsibility and we are there to ensure that sense of responsibility is observed on the ground. And we have ensured it. That is why I am saying that if people have behaved responsibly, forces have behaved doubly so.

What about local support for militancy? Is there a shift there and how do you view it?

There is hardly any scope to support militancy by way of agitation, giving them escape routes or engaging forces while they are carrying out their lawful duties or throwing stones or sloganeering or any form of aggression by crowds. That is not there. The only thing that worries me is that some of our youth are still falling prey to Pakistani propaganda and machinations. Getting swayed on social media by Pakistani handlers and agencies and leaving their homes. Many of them have been brought back by the involvement of the police, the security forces and their families.

The modus operandi of the handlers now is that they immediately ask them (terror recruits) to commit an act of terror violence — throw a grenade, fire at somebody, or kill someone. Once they are involved, it becomes a way of preventing their return to society.

In most of the recent killings — the targeted killings, especially — the person involved has absolutely no past history, only a social media sort of follower, they look at some propaganda, get motivated by these things on the Internet. Then, you suddenly find that someone who was missing today has committed a crime tomorrow, fired at someone or such activity. So, that is blocking their return to homes. Unfortunately, many of them were killed. Around 80 individuals became active (in militancy) this year and 60 per cent stand eliminated. What have they achieved in the process other than their own death and the grief they have brought to their families? Therefore, that is the only worrying factor. Social institutions, families, and religious and political leaders, it is their responsibility to advise young people not to get swayed by such machinations or Pakistani media propaganda.

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What is still contributing to the increase in militant numbers across the Valley? How big a factor is the Internet?

Absolutely, social media alone is a big factor. Being operated by Pakistan and its agencies. That is the only way which is leading to recruitment now. Of course, the number is much lesser compared to previous years. Seventy-plus so far this year. A majority of them are recent and they have lost their lives and it is regrettable. Earlier, a young terrorist would become an iconic figure in his area. People would follow and try to emulate him. There is hardly any militant of that kind or vintage today. Of course, there are those like Abbas Sheikh — he raised cadres in different parts of the Valley, including Srinagar. A number of operations took place in Srinagar city only because of Abbas Sheikh.

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There are no figures of iconic value now whose appeal would bring people into the terrorist cadres. Riyaz Naikoo and Burhan Wani were there earlier. The numbers are coming down but it is a cause of concern that some recruitment is still taking place, especially in south Kashmir, mainly Shopian.

Are you saying that era is over?

For the time being, I think that era is over. There are hardly any leaders of any terror outfits, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad or Hizbul Mujahideen. Hardly a couple of them are still surviving. So, the Internet and Pak media propaganda are mainly still contributing to recruitment.

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J&K Police took a decision not to return the bodies of militants to their families with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic around March 2020. Will that continue?

That will continue, yes. This is a very effective method in checking recruitment. Generally, during funerals, with passions running high, some boys would simply leave their houses and go and join terrorist ranks. That is not happening now. That is one big benefit that has come through. I think we have been able to save many young lives because of this.

Maybe the families will not like it but when you look at the interest of the society at large, this practice has been relevant and useful in checking the recruitment of terrorist cadres.

We saw an uptick in targeted killings this past year. This has been termed faceless militancy. How big a challenge is this?

This is a strategic shift in militancy since most of the senior militant leadership has been neutralised. Earlier, the job would be taken over by the senior leadership of these outfits. You hardly find any leaders now who can handle planning, execution, recruitment and other aspects. So, they started reviving their old connections who were active earlier. They would get in touch with them and create a module of four or five people. One would lead and the others would be the support structure and they would be involved in targeted killings, weapon smuggling, and transportation from Jammu to Srinagar or from border areas of Kashmir to the hinterland. These kinds of modules are being directly raised and handled by Pakistani agencies and in most cases, along with an old terrorist, you would always find an absolutely new face. He is not known to you as a terrorist at all.

The second thing they were doing was pushing absolutely unknown Pakistani terrorists into Srinagar city. You would not know who they are and they would find support in someone who is an old OGW (overground worker). He would arrange logistics to carry out killings.

So, he could be a student going to his tuition or any normal person. This is a challenge and many times their family members also think that he is innocent. They may not know anything and the boy may be pretending that he is not involved in any activity related to militancy. He would suddenly surface in some terror violence. My advice to senior members of families is they should not take anything at face value. They must be careful with their wards.

So, these faceless modules are a challenge but this is being dealt with effectively. We’ve been able to identify at least 50 plus modules this year.

Another shift is that organisations are trying to revive militancy in areas that have been earlier free of such activities. Areas such as Reasi, Doda, and Kishtwar. They are trying to show presence and they need cadres to carry out attacks. Another factor is that some of the guys who went across the border and did not come back, some of them are being used as handlers. We have seen drones being used to carry weapons and cash.

So, in identifying those carrying out attacks, what do we know about these individuals?

Recruitment is being seen among school dropouts of a very young age. Sometimes in their teens. It has shifted to a younger demographic. Earlier, there would be 25 or 27 or 30-year-olds. Now it is 16 or 17 even. This is unfortunate.

Incidents of questioning of journalists in the Valley have increased in the last couple of years. Even for tweets, if not stories, they have been booked under UAPA and, in some cases, not given bail. Is that something you consider an aggressive approach towards narrative control in Kashmir?

That they have not been given bail is a matter of the exercise of honourable courts’ judgment. If they are not given bail, it shows that there is substance in the case. We do not simply go after journalists and pick them up and book them in cases. It is an absolutely logical and reasonable way of looking at what people write and action is taken based on that context.

There are so many journalists operating. Not everyone is picked up by the police. We are generally friendly with the media fraternity. Of course, they have to do their job and most of them do it responsibly. But some of them, when they try and act more as activists or OGWs rather than journalists, then at some stage we have to intervene.

What about the stalling of passport verifications and denial of travel abroad in some cases?

There were some journalists who went abroad and then the venomous kind of narrative they spread from there. They are very well known to the media fraternity. Some of them are here, who are at the borderline — neither fully on the other side nor on the side of the people. Therefore, as a matter of precaution, you have to keep some people on the watchlist. And keeping them on this watchlist, if this means that they should not be allowed to travel abroad, I think it’s quite logical. There have been cases like this before. We can’t make this public.

There are often no reasons provided for such denial of travel. If they go to court, what reasons will the police be able to provide?

Let them go to court. We will see what is to be said. We are a sovereign country, our sovereignty is important to us. Our national security and the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir are important to us, for which we are responsible.

First published on: 02-08-2022 at 06:28:02 pm
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