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Kashmir Report

'They are fighting our battle': In angry North Kashmir, the return of the foreign militant

In Baramulla district, the cradle of separatism in the Valley, the mehmani mujahideen are back.

On the night of October 2, news broke that militants had stormed into adjoining Army and Border Security Force camps in North Kashmir’s Baramulla town. At first, they were called fidayeen, men who launched suicide attacks on the armed forces. Then it was said there were at least four men who made a quick getaway.

On their part, residents are given to echoing reports in the local press, which claimed that the Army and the BSF fired at shadows, and the jawan who died was killed in friendly fire. Police sources, however, say that four militants melted away into the settlement bordering the camps, absorbed into support networks. The security forces did not pursue them for fear of causing civilian casualties.

“There has been a surge in militancy in the last three or four months,” said Imtiaz Hussain, senior superintendent, Baramulla district. “There was a lot of infiltration. The police got busy dealing with the unrest, otherwise they would have been knocked down.”

North and South

Baramulla district has a long and particular history of militancy. It is home to Sopore and Baramulla, the angry towns of the north. These were the old ideological centres of Kashmiri separatism, the hub of the armed struggle in the 1990s and the focus of military attention in the years that followed. Their very geographies were changed by the turbulence of that decade.

Like South Kashmir, this district too rose up in protest after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces on July 8. But the protests here also draw from older memories of dissent and rebellion.

In the boisterous protests of the South, a new coalition of socio-religious groups, called the Ittehad-e-Millat, took centre stage as it held rallies in the countryside. The North, it is said, followed the old patterns of mobilisation, attending rallies by the Jama’at-e-Islami or other individual tanzeems (organisations). These parts saw more controlled protests. While South Kashmir’s Anantnag district suffered at least 24 casualties, Baramulla district lost five lives to the unrest.

Protestors in the South think now that they have come out, azadi will come tomorrow, residents of Sopore like to say. “But people here are politically matured,” said Abdul Salam Mushki, a retired government school teacher from the town. “We know it is a long struggle, it cannot be solved in one day.”

As the months wear on, protests have begun to give way to militancy. In South Kashmir, the life and death Burhan Wani prompted many local boys to take up arms. The North, however, braces once more for “mehmani mujahideen”, or guest militants, seeping in through the Line of Control. The fence that was completed in 2004 is reportedly beginning to give.

In June, the state home department was saying there were 145 militants active in the Valley. Police officials say there are now 250-300 – only rough estimates are available, since the noise of the unrest allowed many to slip in through the LoC or leave home undetected.

According to police estimates, there are 150 to 200 militants in the north, up from 70 to 80 before the unrest. They are mostly Pakistani, linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad. Baramulla district alone is said to be hosting around 30 foreign militants at the moment.

The old towns

The 'Martyrs' Graveyard'  in the old town, Baramulla.
The 'Martyrs' Graveyard' in the old town, Baramulla.

Across Kashmir, the protests spread from their traditional urban centres into the rural areas this year, and North Kashmir was no exception. Over time, the protests in Baramulla district began to recede into their established strongholds, the old town area that almost every city contains. The traditional old town, with its narrow, winding lanes, its cheek-by-jowl houses and intensely networked communities, has become a hothouse for unrest.

In Sopore, the roads leading out of the old town and into the main market are sealed with sheets of asbestos and manned by security forces. Reportedly, other major exits have also been blocked with barbed wire and sandbags, leaving only the smaller gullies free. For three months, people living in these parts have had limited access to the outside world.

Baramulla town is shaped like a bowl, a dense cluster of settlements ringed by mountains and an army post on almost every peak. The Jhelum cuts through the town, bisecting it. On one bank, the more affluent uptown, home to the Baramulla Degree College, St Joseph’s School and the Civil Lines, which came up in the 1990s. People who could afford it moved to the comparative safety of these areas in that turbulent decade.

Five bridges across the river take you to the old town. For two months, they were barricaded as protests raged inside. Now, the roadblocks have been removed but heavy consignments of security personnel remain. Every Friday, residents say, the area turns into a war zone, spewing smoke and slogans, security forces firing tear gas shells from across the Jhelum. For months, residents said, the police did not enter the old town.

But in the last couple of weeks, they had they started making brief sorties inside, rounding up protestors. One Thursday afternoon in early October, boys rushed up to meet police who had ventured into one of the alleys. Stones met tear gas in the skirmish that followed and the police soon retreated. But on October 17, security forces launched a cordon and search operation that lasted nearly 12 hours, and arrested several people. The police and army said it was a counter-insurgency operation, and 44 persons were apprehended for "terror-related activities". Residents claimed mere protestors were rounded up.

Like other storied parts of the Valley, the old town of Baramulla has its own Martyrs’ Graveyard. Most of the gravestones bear names of local militants who died in the 1990s. In the evenings, old men sit quietly outside its gates. Young boys lounge around, some of them after a day of protest.

Residents, sitting among the graves, will tell you stories about the dead. That one was brilliant, we used to call him “Computer”. That one over there, he came from a very rich family, died in 1990. That row of seven graves, they belong to a family killed by the security forces.

There are two newer graves, dating back to 2008. They belong to Tanvir Ahmed Zargar and Imtiaz Ahmed Khan, boys from the old town who were militants for five years before they were killed in an encounter. They were the local Burhan Wanis, considered heroes in their time. Wani’s name is painted on the gateway to the graveyard, flanked by posters of Zargar and Khan.

Until Monday's raids, police officials say, five Jaish-e-Mohammad militants were hidden in the old town. There were nine before, but two were arrested and two killed.

Inherited rebellions

“I was a first-year student at the Baramulla Degree College and a worker with the Muslim United Front,” said Abdul Quadeer as he pulled on his cigarette. Once a commander with the militant group, Al Jihad, Qadeer was arrested in 1995 and spent some years in prison. Now he is executive director of Voice of Victims, a human rights group.

Qadeer was remembering some history. “When the elections of 1987 happened, I was a counting agent for Ghulam Mohammad Safi [the MUF candidate from Baramulla] in the college” he recounted. “Safi was leading when the Central Reserve Police Force came and pulled us out of the room. Then they told us the National Conference had won. There was a group of us in Baramulla. We wanted a scientific approach. So we took up arms. If they could not hear our voice, maybe they could hear the sound of guns.”

In Baramulla district, decades of dissent tipped over into militancy in the 1990s. The region had remained mutinous even in the early years of Independence, when Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference held sway over Kashmir. “If the NC had any opposition, it was in Sopore and downtown Srinagar,” said Mushki. “One reason was that people here wanted to merge with Pakistan. That sentiment was more dominant than azadi. Sopore became a stronghold of the anti-government sentiment.”

Mushki recalls rallies in the 1960s where people would wave green cloth or brandish clumps of Pakistani rock salt, easily available in those days – gestures of fealty to the country across the border. Local residents put forward several theories about why this northern district was always so angry, always straining against the Indian state.

Some say it is because of the district’s relative affluence. Sopore, once called “Chhota London”, was a trading hub, an important stop on the way to markets farther west. Many of its residents were wealthy businessmen and orchard owners, and when your stomach is full, you can think of other things, said one town dweller. Baramulla, they say, was a town of well-educated, upper-middle class professionals, people who were able to speak a sophisticated language of dissent.

Others point out the district’s proximity to the LoC and the fact that many families were split apart when Kashmir got divided. The wrench of 1947 was felt here the most, they say, and the longing for relatives cut off for years have pushed imaginations across the border.

Most importantly, perhaps, Baramulla district bred prominent leaders who later spearheaded the separatist movement. Sopore was the constituency of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who contested Assembly elections as a Jama’at-e-Islami candidate and won three times. Indeed, the Jama’at has always had a strong hold in the district. “But their ideology gave vent to the feelings of the people, not vice versa,” observed Irshad Wani, director of Kashmir University’s North Campus. “Sopore’s Jama’atis are not highly religious, but they spoke of Kashmir as a disputed territory and of plebiscite.”

When the Muslim United Front, a coalition of Muslim parties, was formed in the 1980s, Jama’at leaders played an important part in the new political unit. After the Assembly elections of 1987, won by the National Conference but popularly believed to have been rigged, Muslim United Front candidates and supporters abandoned the political mainstream.

Many of the Muslim United Front leaders formed the nucleus of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference, including Geelani, who had contested and won the Sopore seat, and Safi, who is now convenor of the Hurriyat. Abdul Gani Bhat of the Muslim Conference was another prominent northern leader who made the transition from Muslim United Front to the Hurriyat. Incidentally, the Muslim United Front candidate from Srinagar was a man named Mohammad Yusuf Shah, who left for Pakistan soon after the elections. He is now known as Syeed Salauddin and armed group he formed is called Hizbul Mujahideen.

Baramulla district never returned to the mainstream fold. In the South, the rise of the People’s Democratic Party, with its soft-separatist agenda and its wooing of the Jama’at, drew voters to elections. In the North, residents says, nobody votes in elections.

Arms and the men

“It was a people’s movement,” said Qadeer. “We would get food and shelter from common people. If we did not get support from ordinary people, we could not have survived for so long. If this was just a militancy, it would have packed up long ago, like in Punjab.”

Qadeer became a commander in the Muslim Jaanbaaz Force, which merged into Al Jihad in the late 1990s. At the height of the militancy, he claims, there were thousands under his command. “For six years, we had a hukumat [reign] here,” said Qadeer. As elections were suspended and the mainstream disappeared, militant groups had a free run, even deciding everyday disputes.

In the early 1990s, according to Qadeer, there were about 15,000 local militants in the old Baramulla district, which then included present-day Bandipora district. In Baramulla town alone, he says, there were 1,000 militants. Most of the major commanders of the Hizbul Mujahideen came from this district.

“Patake phattey the dukaan ke bahaar [bombs would go off outside the shop],” said a trader who owns a garment shop just outside the old town in Baramulla but did not want to be identified. The shop had been set up by his grandfather in 1956 and endured through the militancy. “The police was nowhere. We had to keep the shop closed for three months,” he said.

From the mid-1990s, as Army operations intensified, militants who were once based in the towns were pushed into the mountains. As their supply lines were cut off, they grew weak. Besides, the armed struggle took a heavy toll on the families of militants. “My father disappeared for six months, he was in a Jammu jail. My family members were tortured,” said Qadeer. “We needed people who had no one around them.”

That is when they invited them, the “mehmani mujahideen”, foreigners who came from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and other places to fight for a fee. After the mid-1990s, local militancy started giving way to foreign fighters who came in hundreds.

Ghosts of Sopore

Though all parts of Kashmir would be engulfed by militancy, Sopore was the epicentre. It was here that both militancy and the army crackdown was the most intense, leaving behind a town irrevocably changed by violence.

“Till 1996, it was regarded a liberated zone,” said Irshad Wani, who taught at the local degree college in the 1990s and commuted daily between Sopore and Baramulla. “It was as if we were living in a surreal world.” The campus was about 200 yards from a BSF camp and, very often during classes, firing would break out from all sides, recalls Wani. Students would then have to lie down to dodge the crossfire; several were injured.

Residents remember a time when a Pakistani flag flew from every major government building and landmark, when the army dared not enter the town. That was in the early 1990s.

But then came January 6, 1993. The town had just seen five days of protest against the creation of a new BSF post in the town’s Arampora locality and a band of JKLF militants had attacked a platoon, killing at least one soldier. Later that day, residents recall, BSF troops marched into the main market, set it ablaze and opened fire on civilians at the spot. A bus coming in from Bandipora town was also sprayed with bullets.

The market forms the heart of the small town and a large number of alleys lead out of it. When the fire broke out, residents rushed out into the gullies or ran to their windows. Most people living in the town at that time bore witness, they say.

“A neighbour was watching the incident with me from the gully,” said Mushki. “He got a bullet in the chest.”

A businessman from Sopore, who did not want be identified, was around 30 at the time. He said he watched the shooting from a crowd. “One of my friends was on the bus from Bandipora," he said. "He took shelter in a shop, but then someone told him to come out, it was ok. When he came out they shot him.”

The official toll that day was 55, with many others injured. Still, for nearly a year after that, the Army could not enter Sopore. “Whenever they came they they were chased away by grenades,” said the businessman.

From the end of 1993, the crackdowns started. Qadeer, who was based in Sopore for a while, says Army tanks rolled into town to flush out militants. In one incident, seven boys were killed in Arampora. “We had two options,” said Qadeer. “If we fought, we would have heavy casualties. If we withdrew, ordinary people would not die. We decided to withdraw and draw the forces into mountainous regions, which were our battlefields.”

Eventually, the Army and BSF moved in, and set up camps all over Sopore. But the militancy lingered for years, in spite of the security crackdown and long after it had died out in other parts of the Valley. Till around 2010, police sources say, Sopore held around 50 militants, mostly foreign.

In 2015, the ghosts of the old militancy returned, as unidentified gunmen ranged the town once again, attacking telephone towers and killing six men. Across town, it was widely believed to be a fight between two militant factions. But one case is still talked about, that of Altaf Ahmed Yousuf, a pharmacist at the sub-district hospital.

“He was a frank, open-hearted boy,” said his mother, Haneefa Yousuf, who taught at a local government school. “That day he left home for night duty and was supposed to come back at 10 am the next day. He could not come back. Some militant called him and took him to another street.” Her voice trailed off.

Altaf, she said, had been interrogated and tortured by security forces several times. He even had to go to Amritsar for healing surgery. Fifteen years before he died, his brother Rouf Ahmed Yousuf was returning from Aligarh Muslim University, where he was doing his PhD. He never reached home, killed by security forces on the way back.

Altaf’s father, 75-year-old Sheikh Mohammad Yousuf, has been a member of the Jama’at-e-Islami for decades. This year, after he took part in protests, the police arrested him under the Public Safety Act.

A different story

Today, Sopore is a brooding, secretive town, yet to recover from the militancy. The market, which had been set on fire before the killings of 1993, would be set on fire several times afterwards during that decade. So most of the buildings in the central part of the town are new. “More than settlements, there are Army camps here,” said Haneefa Yousuf. Besides, the militancy had played havoc with its once thriving economy. “Everything that had defined Sopore till then was destroyed,” said Irshad Wani.

Most of all, the militancy and the crackdown have left behind a tense, watchful population. It is believed that the town is now covered with a network of state informers. “The government has poured in so much money that if someone goes into a house, informers will tell on them,” said Mushki. “Even if there is support for militancy, it is not visible.” As of now, police officials say, there are five militants in Sopore, two of them on the run.

Like Sopore, Baramulla town has not forgotten the first phase of militancy in the Valley, which turned it into a garrison town. In the South, many young protestors discovered the past anew when the unrest of 2008 broke out. But the North remembered. Protestors in the town, barely out of their teens, will tell you they grew up hearing stories about the armed struggle, which carried away many of their relatives. Since the militancy tapered off later in these parts, they even saw some of it first hand.

“We all sit together and talk about it sometimes,” said a stone pelter near the graveyard in Baramulla’s old town. “Some will say my father was beaten, someone will say my mother was beaten.”

Graffiti on shops in old town, Baramulla
Graffiti on shops in old town, Baramulla

Unlike Sopore, however, Baramulla town makes no secret of its sympathies. It is difficult to gauge how popular foreign militants are. Police officials claim there are a few ideological pockets of support in the district. Once foreign militants stray out of their support networks, the police said, they are exposed. But in the old town, at least, residents tell a different story.

Back in the 1990s, they say, no one checked whether a militant was local or foreign before inviting them into their home. Local militants were heroes, and foreigners were also extended a warm welcome. “The foreigners were active because of the local militants,” said the owner of the garment shop outside the old town.

This time, too, sympathies have expanded. “This is for our struggle,” said the shop owner. “Foreigners are coming to fight for us.”

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