J&K new counterinsurgency strategy: spare the locals, kill the foreigners
In the wake of last summer's unrest, which was sparked by the killing of the popular militant leader Burhan Wani, the Jammu and Kashmir government has embarked on a new counter-militancy strategy which seeks to positively discriminate in favour of local militants.
While there will be no mercy for foreign militants, who will be tracked down and eliminated, security agencies will seek to persuade local militants to lay down their arms by engaging them either directly or through their families.
Already, six youth who had picked up the gun during the recent unrest have been rescued during encounters with the help of their families. This includes Umar Mir, 23, of Tujar Sharif Sopore who was persuaded by his father Abdul Khaliq Mir to lay down the arms during an encounter and hand himself over. Khaliq went into the house where his son was holed up and urged him to choose life over certain death. Sometime later, both the father and the son walked out. Soon after, police took Umar into custody. Of the six youth, three each are from north and south Kashmir.
In a recent speech to the J&K assembly, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti revealed that in her last Unified Command meeting she had categorically directed the security agencies to ensure the return of local youth involved in militancy to mainstream life. "I told them they should take all the measures required for that," she told the House.
Earlier, in the throes of the unrest in October, Mehbooba had counselled the J&K police to work towards bringing local militants back into the political mainstream and ensure they pick up "bat and ball". She had reasoned that instead of killing local militants in encounters, the police should reach out to them and "bring them back home".
"Our children have gone into militancy. My appeal to the police is to try to see that they return home," Mehbooba had said in her speech at the Police Commemoration Day. "Those who are missing for years, if possible, instead of encounters in which they are killed, bring them back home and make them a part of the mainstream. If we can hand them a bat or a ball instead of guns, we should make every effort to do so."
The refrain was repeated by the state's Director General of Police, SP Vaid. In an interview to a local daily, he said the "first choice" for the police during an encounter was to ask local militants to surrender and offer them a chance to live. He said directions have been passed to SSPs of all districts in the valley to use loud speakers to offer surrender to holed-up militants before engaging them in a gunfight.
"J&K police doesn't want to kill our own boys as Kashmir has seen enough of bloodbath. It is time to give peace a chance." Vaid said. "We have already started reaching out to the families of local youth who have picked up guns in the recent past. Our effort is to bring them back and to allow them to live a normal life".
According to official figures, 179 militants were active in Kashmir before the unrest began. The number is between 275 and 300 now. In a written reply to a question by the legislator Mubarak Gul in the assembly, Mehbooba revealed that 59 youth have joined militant ranks following the killing of Burhan on 8 July. They have joined both the largest indigenous group Hizbul Mujahideen and the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.
This has decisively skewed the ratio of local and foreign militants in favour of the former, with even Lashkar, which earlier comprised largely of foreign militants, now aggressively recruiting the local youth.
A video that was widely circulated on social media recently showed a group of local militants from both the outfits being introduced together to an unidentified top commander at a house believed to be in south Kashmir. An earlier showed another group from the two outfits playing in the snow. Such videos are intended to attract more youth to the militancy and form a part of the social media propaganda strategy devised by Burhan to glamourise the militancy.
The rethink on tackling the local component of the Kashmir insurgency is driven by the still unfolding fallout of Burhan's killing. The security forces had to kill at least 96 people, blind several hundred and injure more than 14,000 to put down the runaway uprising that followed the militant leader's killing.
The state government has since appeared to rue the decision to kill Burhan. Its leaders have made an effort to distance themselves from the killing. No less than the chief minister herself told the media that the security forces would not have killed Burhan if they knew he was inside the house.
A senior police officer, however, said the policy is not easy to execute on the ground. "Most local militants refuse the offer of surrender and even reject the appeals from their parents," the officer said, not wishing to be identified as he was not authorised to talk to the press. "And when a militant opens fire, we have no choice but to retaliate."
He said the family was the "most critical link" between the militants and the security agencies and that efforts are made to reach out to the militants even when they are in hiding. "It is a very delicate undertaking. And the outcome always is very uncertain."