Illustartion by Suhail Naqshbandi/KI
Angry protesters are assembling and protesting near the encounter sites, which is worrying the government authorities
There is no coordination and it is never organized but it begins, as has been a norm, with countless whisper-like messages coming in from several directions, social networking sites and news portals and, most importantly, through word of mouth. Everyone moves, paddles, drives, walks, runs towards the ‘cordoned area’. Reports of militants trapped in the locality and an operation being conducted and sometimes a single slogan or a volley of stones pelted towards the police or paramilitary forces begins it all. The protesters make attempts to break the security cordon and help militants escape, or at least distract forces during the operation to buy militants some more time.
A week ago, Raahil Lone (name changed on request) was surfing internet on his mobile phone when he came to know about a search operation being carried out in his locality of South Kashmir’s Pulwama. This time, as usual, his left hand began to shiver but notwithstanding his urge, Raahil came out and began to look for the heavy presence of security forces in his locality. He did not know the exact location but as he began to stroll in his locality, he saw many more anxious neighbors. “There is always someone to tell you more about what is going on the way,” he says.
Abu Dujana’s name is being whispered this time. “They said it is him. He is trapped.” Although it is not for the first time his name came up. “But, even if he is not, there is someone there in the middle of the huge security cordon- trapped, battling for his life,” Lone says.
The whisper becomes louder and louder as the cordoned area nears, then turning into slogans and abuses with aggressive colloquial expressions. “There is a sense of guilt and a sense of responsibility, we have to play our part,” Lone adds.
This time, unlike most of the times, there is no militant trapped there. The security forces, however, had to engage with Pulwama locals and resort to teargas smoke shells to disperse dozens of protesters assembled in the locality, primarily to aid a militant, and attempt to disrupt the forces’ operation.
The Pulwama police, 55 RR of the Indian Army and 183 Bn of the Central Reserve Police Force called off the cordon and search operation (CASO) at Urvan locality in Pulwama.
For security forces, this is not for the first time that local population has turned hostile against them while carrying out a counter-insurgency operation. Pulwama especially is one of the most sensitive areas in Kashmir. Despite the fact that all district authorities issued an advisory for people not to move towards the encounter sites, people in Urvan repeated what has now become a ‘norm’ not just in South Kashmir but across the Valley.
Scores of protesters appear near these encounter sites, where militants and police and paramilitary forces are locked in gun-battle, and attempt to disrupt the ongoing operations.
Clashes erupted on February 22 in Tarigam village of Kulgam after a search operation was launched near Public health center where the security forces had to resort to teargas shelling to disperse the angry protesters.
This is not a new trend and has been going on for more than two years now. But, the trend, security officials say, has now become more ‘explicit’ and ‘concerning’.
On February 12, in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, four militants, two army men and a civilian was killed in an encounter in Frisal area. Another civilian was also killed in protests that erupted against the encounter. At least 20 others were reportedly injured in the protests, many of them with grievous bullet injuries following which the administration issued the advisory.
A year ago, two civilians including a woman were killed and at least 16 persons were injured in Kakapora area of Pulwama when security forces opened fire at protesters near an encounter site.
Another local resident of Pulwama, who also wished not be named, believes these protests are an indication of the ‘participation and legitimacy’ of a locality towards the armed resistance. “It is not just an individual trying to break the cordon or merely helping the militants. It is the whole village population collectively expressing their will,” he says. The local resident, however, says he doesn’t get involved in the stone pelting but manages to stand with the “crowd”.
A police official posted in Pulwama, while expressing concern over the security situation in the area, says the policing in the district remains ‘difficult’ for several reasons. “The operations are based on specific information and unlike in the past the security cordons off a specific house on which the information is based,” he says. Although, the official says the protests lead to ‘distraction’ but no operation, like the one at Urvan was called off because the locals were successful in helping the militant escape. “That doesn’t happen,” he says. “We withdrew the operation only after cordon and search was successfully carried out.”
According to reports, Abu Dujana, a top Lashkar e Toiba militant active in South Kashmir, was believed to have been trapped on February 14. Earlier, in December in an encounter which ended with the killing of militant Majid Zargar, Dujana reportedly gave forces a slip, if a statement from the militant outfit, carried next day, is to be believed.
A week later, when Hizbul Mujahideen’s militant commander Burhan Wani was killed in Bemdoora area of Kokernag in South Kashmir on July 8, villagers around the township of Tral woke up, in the middle of the night, to a loud announcement. The whispers in the area pointed towards Zakir Bhat aka Musa, a local militant, trapped in Noorpora village. According to a local, people from several nearby villages answered the ‘call’. They were armed with axes, shovels, stones and other household tools. “It was during the time when the whole valley was already angry and had erupted, up in arms against the killing of Burhan, also a local from Tral,” he says. However, no encounter was later reported from the area.
Two days after the Frisal encounter in Kulgam, protests erupted in Hajin area of North Kashmir where an encounter ensued between a militant and police and security forces.
IGP Kashmir Javaid Gillani says they have taken up several measures to discourage locals from creating a law and order situation near the encounter sites. “We have introduced non-lethal weapons as well to secure the security perimeter and avoid grievous injuries to locals,” he says.
Like Pulwama, recently locals of Hajin especially in Par Mohalla had made several attempts to disrupt an ongoing counter insurgency operation against militants. On December 22, the security forces had to withdraw a cordon and search operation, reportedly, due to local protests.