On Sunday morning, when security forces cordoned off the house of Abdul Majid Reshi at Frisal in Kulgam, they knew they will have to fend off a determined rescue attempt by the villagers. But they had hardly bargained for the numbers that turned out and reached the encounter site within a short duration into the firing exchange, another serious error of judgement given the public attempts to help militants flee the cordon are no longer exception but a routine development in Kashmir.
The result was an operation whose success in the elimination of the militants was undone by the loss of two soldiers and two civilians, one of them, Ishfaq Majid Reshi, was the son of the house owner. Another deceased civilian was identified as Mushtaq Ahmad Itoo, 22, of the adjacent Hatigam village.
At least 15 more people received bullet injuries and one of them Owais Ahmad of Lassipora has a bullet in his chest. His situation is stated to be critical. They were rushed to hospitals in Srinagar for treatment.
The death of nine people in one day has put Kashmir back on the brink, that too at a time when the harsh winter is giving way to spring and the people are looking forward to an increase in trade and tourist activity. What is more, the pain and bitterness of last summer's unrest was just beginning to fade from memory.
If anything, the fresh killings have come as a reminder that far from being over, the turmoil that followed Burhan Wani's death is on pause and may resume soon. If Sunday's development is any indication, things have only moved to the next level. In recent years, the groundswell of euphoric support for the militancy was reflected in the ever-growing participation in funerals of slain militants. Young speakers would pledge to carry forward the "mission of the martyrs".
For sometime, this mass support was exhibited in posts and comments on the social media, a trend inspired by Burhan himself. That is before the security agencies started patrolling the web, restricting the quantity of pro-Azadi online discourse. But now people don't wait for funerals to express their support but prefer to act directly in ever larger numbers to save the trapped militants.
Frisal is the latest and the most violent turn this direct public action has taken. People come out in significant numbers and are willing to die in their attempts to rescue militants. And the security forces are inclined to kill, sorely unprepared to take the necessary measures to prevent people from reaching the encounter sites. As the two deaths and the 15 bullet injuries of the civilians prove, the easy recourse is to fire directly into the crowd or use pellet guns. At Frisal, both were used.
A viral video from the scene brings home this chilling reality. A seething group of youth shout slogans and taunt the police, calling them "Rs 1,500 government employees". Soon one of them at the front, and visible to the security personnel, is hit by a bullet, apparently in his leg and he informs his colleagues about this as a matter of fact.
"I am hit by a bullet. I am hit by a bullet," he tells them. "Please wrap the wound in your muffler."
Same goes for the militants. In mid-January, the security forces tracked down three militants at Awoora village in the scenic Pahalgam area. But before the gunfight could begin, the militants made a hasty video about their preparedness for the fight and circulated it on WhatsApp. "Nobody should suspect this house owner of any mischief," one of the militants said into the phone camera. "We know who informed the police. But don't worry, we will fight to the end".
The three were killed shortly after.
This raises some really troubling questions about the developing state of affairs in the valley. If nearly a hundred killings and several hundred blindings through the last summer have ended up making people more defiant and resistant to the use of force, it is time for New Delhi to consider a change of tack - before this defiance takes on an even more dangerous turn.
The killings in Frisal have also proved that Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti's outreach to local militants isn't working as expected. So far only six youth who had taken up the gun have returned to their families. "Most local militants refuse the offer of surrender and even reject the appeals from their parents," a police officer said, asking not 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."