On the evening of November 19, Rayees Ahmad Dar and a companion were speeding down a bylane in Begumbagh village, part of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Both were militants. Dar had left home to join the Lashkar-e-Taiba on October 6 this year.

“The mujahideen were coming in from the main road,” said a resident of Begumbagh, “When they entered the bylane, the army closed it off behind them.” They were then faced by troops advancing towards them from the other end of the road, goes the local account. The bike skidded off the road into a poplar grove and the riders were thrown off. As they ran through the grove, the forces closed in on them from two sides. Dar was shot and killed while his companion managed to escape.

The place where he fell is fenced off and planted with flags, a makeshift memorial rigged up by the residents of Begumbagh. Poplar trees surrounding the spot are still scuffed where the bullets had passed. Soon after Dar was killed, residents came out on the street, pelting stones. The encounter had lasted about five minutes, they said.

The place where Rayees Ahmed Dar was killed.

The encounter

In the Kashmir Valley, where thousands of security personnel are pitted against a few hundred militants, the armed conflict is a constant thrust and parry between two unequal forces. Militants have inflicted damages through lethal ambushes on the police and army. But conflict has also found another flashpoint: the encounter. Lanes and fields and houses in the Valley are peppered with the memory of encounters, forming a grim geography of conflict.

Over the decades of militancy, the encounter has become a storied thing. In most cases, it is not, as the word suggests, a chance meeting between militants and security forces where a sudden burst of fire is exchanged. Even in police and army parlance, it has become a word to describe carefully planned operations where militants are tracked down and cornered.

In local usage, “encounter” has become a synonym for the death that awaits almost every militant in the Valley. “Uska encounter ho gaya (He was encountered),” it is said, meaning that a particular militant has been killed.

Over the last few weeks, several militants have been encountered in the Valley, especially in the southern district of Anantnag. On December 10, the charred bodies of Majid Zargar and Raheel Amin, both Lashkar operatives, were pulled out of a blasted house in Bijbehara town. On December 14, a foreign Lashkar commander, Abu Bakr, was killed in Sopore in North Kashmir. On the same day, Basit Rasool Dar, an engineering student who blogged about being arrested and beaten by the police, was killed near Bijbehara.

“Engineer” Basit had reportedly joined the Hizbul Mujahideen soon after militant commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter this year. Indeed, it was predicted that Wani’s death and the protests that followed would lead to a sharp rise in militancy in the Valley. Militants from across the Line of Control had stolen in under the cover of the chaos, it was believed. Meanwhile, local boys went missing from their homes.

While security agencies say the number of foreign militants in the Valley has increased by 151% since the unrest began, there are conflicting estimates for the number of local youth who have taken up arms. Local militancy remains anchored in the four districts of South Kashmir - Shopian, Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama.

In Kulgam, a district that saw intense protests and heavy casualties, 20 youth have gone missing during or after the unrest, police sources say. “At least 50% of them run away just to evade arrest,” said a police officer from the district. So far, the surge in local militancy is lower than expected, they say.

As the protests receded, counterinsurgency operations resumed and encounters returned to Kashmir in full spate.

Cordons and crackdowns

The word “encounter” first entered the everyday vocabulary of the Valley in the 1990s, when militancy was at its peak. Other words slipped in with it. “Cordon” and “crackdown”, for instance, words that still recall the nightmare of that decade. But as security forces changed tactics, encounters shifted shape in the Valley. Cordons and crackdowns are not what they used to be.

Kashmiris who lived through the 1990s still recall the announcements at the local mosque, asking everyone to leave their house and come out, the advancing band of security men encircling the area where militants were reportedly hiding, and then the waiting. The announcement could come at any time of the day or night, and the waiting could last for hours, sometimes days.

“They used to beat the whole public,” said a school teacher from the Qaimoh area of Kulgam district. He remembers a crackdown in his village in 1996, when he was writing his Class 12 exams. “They raided my house and beat whoever came before them,” he said. “One of my relatives had a heart attack. I am still taking anti-depressants.”

Many residents of Qaimoh have similar stories of indiscriminate violence. In March 2002, a cordon was laid around Guffabal village, recalled a post-graduate student who lives there. “Two mujahideen were hiding in a house,” he said. “The army burnt all the houses in the locality, including ours. They also burnt grains and rice. Then they killed the militants and the owner of the house they were hiding in.”

“Between 1990 and 2001-02, we cordoned off whole villages and went in large numbers,” said an army officer based in the Valley, acknowledging that people were often “harassed” during such operations.

Cordons have now split into concentric circles of security, say the residents of Qaimoh. The inner cordon zeroes in on one or two houses where militants are said to be hiding. The next layer surrounds the mohalla. Finally, an outer ring of security surrounds the village.

When militancy first surfaced in 1989, it was left to the Central Reserve Police Force to respond to the emerging situation. “There were about a dozen special task forces,” said Rajesh Yadav, comandat of the CRPF’s 161 battalion, “at a time when militants held flag marches in Sopore, old Baramulla, downtown Srinagar and Pulwama.” In a few years, the Border Security Force moved into the Valley and the army raised Rashtriya Rifles units to handle counterinsurgency operations.

More recently, encounters have become joint operations largely conducted by the army, the CRPF and the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Each force has its intelligence wing, and the involvement of the state police has helped gather minute, local-level intelligence. In Qaimoh, for instance, residents say houses are marked with numbers for identification and police maintain records - local informers will then tell the police the number of the house that is said to be hiding militants.

Technology and the spread of cell phones have also helped track militants to specific locations, security forces say. “There was a time when cordons were laid based on theory and we would take all the civilians out, young and old,” said Yadav. “Now we have more pinpointed situations.”

Stone pelting at an encounter site in Bijbehara.

Supporters of the cause

Encounters now are violent confrontations between security forces and militants in small, concentrated areas, often with local residents rushing in to intervene. Both residents of Kulgam and security forces identify the Amarnath land protests of 2008 as a turning point.

“Post-2008, the policy changed, we got some relief,” said the university student from Qaimoh. “They [security forces] did not force civilians to throw grenades or use them as human shields.” At the same time, the protests had changed the dynamic between civilians and security forces. “People used to run away [from encounters], but after 2008, they lost fear,” said the student. “The young population had directly faced the police, the military and the paramilitary. Now they want to save militants.”

Successive popular uprisings, he feels, have helped legitimise militancy and created strong solidarities, at least in the districts of South Kashmir. “No one would talk of self-determination before,” he said. “They would say this is India and Pakistan’s fight. Now they want to fight for the militants’ cause.”

Residents of Qaimoh remember an encounter in Redwani village, two and a half years ago. Two Hizbul Mujahideen militants were holed up in a single storeyed house, they said, and the police got to know through informers. “At iftar time [that is, evening, when the fast is broken in the month of Ramzan], the cordon started,” said a shopkeeper from Qaimoh.

The usual three-tier cordon was put in place and there was firing all night. The militants, he said, had fled from their initial position and were hiding under the portico of the next building; the army had set fire to the one-storeyed house.

“In the morning,” the shopkeeper continued, “we civilians started pelting stones to break the cordons. We had even broken into the first cordon. They were coming towards us when they were shot.”

In many instances, militants have managed to escape under the cover provided by the public, or the hail of stones have forced security forces to back away.

Collateral damage

With civilian presence came civilian deaths at encounters, described by security forces as “collateral damage”. The Redwani encounter, for instance, killed 24-year-old Asif Tantray, who worked at a cell phone service centre.

The level of public participation varies from place to place. Typically, operational parties, or the forces directly engaging with militants, move in first, explained a police officer in Pulwama district. “After that, we have a window. In a place like Lilhar, we have a window of 15 minutes. If we don’t move in by then, there will be trouble,” he said, referring to a town in Pulwama.

Yet it was in Lilhar that 22-year-old Shaista Hamid and Danish Farooq, an engineering student, were killed during a skirmish this February. The police version suggests the two civilians were killed in the “crossfire” between forces and militants. Shaista’s family insists the killings happened after the actual encounter was over, that Shaista had been in her kitchen garden and Danish was playing cricket when they were hit by army bullets.

“The rules of engagement say the use of force has to be proportionate,” insisted the army officer. “Security forces cannot open indiscriminate fire as there is danger of collateral damage, almost without exception.”

Collateral damage, however, has marked the scene of most recent encounters - from civilian deaths to gutted houses. In Kakapora main town, an encounter in August 2015, which killed Lashkar militant Talib Hussain Shah, has left an empty plot scattered with rubble and cracks in buildings around it. The rubble had once been a house that sheltered Shah. It was blown up after the encounter was over, because forces suspected there were Lashkar fighters still hiding inside, residents said.

In local accounts, buildings hiding militants are blown up as punishment. The police and army claim it is a safety measure to avoid booby traps and undetected militants who might take forces combing the area by surprise.

Few encounters end without the death of a militant.

A blasted house in Bijbehara. Picture credit: Muneeb ul Islam

Surrender and shahadat

In the local imagination, two words are associated with the site of an encounter. One is “surrender”. The other is “shahadat”, or martyrdom, a word which has great power in the Valley. The outcome of an encounter flickers between these two possibilities.

“They cordon to kill,” said the student from Qaimoh. “Saying the militant opened fire first, we had to shoot - that’s a formality.” The school teacher, sitting next to him, reflected, “In most cases, they will not surrender. But they are never given a choice. They [the armed forces] have a policy to kill.”

In local lore, forces are driven by generous cash rewards for killing militants, who are assigned categories according to their order of importance - the higher the category, the more money offered for their demise. Police officers argue there is little difference between the rewards for killing a militant and for arresting him. The army, for its part, says their rules of engagement dictate that they try to “elicit a surrender” and that they are almost never the first to open fire.

But if killing is not a matter of policy, it may be a matter of expedience. Neither police nor army wants to risk the lives of security personnel by engaging militants until they run out of ammunition. Besides, the police reason, the longer an encounter lasts, the larger the crowds it attracts, leading to a deteriorating law and order situation.

But surrender is never easy. According to police officers in the south, militant groups have ways of preventing them. In Kulgam, the police said, new recruits are made to commit an offence that would make it difficult for them to return - throw grenades at the armed forces, for instance. In Pulwama, the police claimed that militants feared their former comrades would target their families.

Surrenders also have a fraught history in the Valley. Of the previous generation of militants, many were arrested, others surrendered. Some of them were coopted into the Ikhwan, the dreaded counterinsurgency militia raised by the Indian Army in the 1990s. In popular perception, the Ikhwan era tainted surrenders for years to come.

The new militancy, which distanced itself from the legacies of the past, is built around the idea of “shahadat” or martyrdom. “Forty four days he was active, after that he achieved martyrdom” said Fayaz Ahmed Dar, the uncle of Rayees Ahmed Dar, quiet pride in his voice. It may be a reason why there have been few public surrenders in the last couple of years.

Instead, encounters enact the idea of martyrdom in the Valley. They are usually followed by the vast public funerals that have become a familiar sight by now. Later, videos of the militant’s last hours are circulated on phones and social media, so he becomes “shahid” over and over again. In Kashmir, the word “shahid” also means to bear witness.