The residents of a village in Pulwama district in South Kashmir tell a popular story. During the unrest in Kashmir last year, a man riding a motorcycle was stopped by stone-pelters at a roadblock in Pulwama. When he ordered them to make way, he was thrashed. It later turned out that the man was Abu Dujana, the 24-year-old “divisional commander” of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in South Kashmir.

In May, the Army released a list of the most wanted militants in Kashmir. A rare picture of Dujana featured in it, along with the information that he is an A++ category militant, that he had been active since December 2014, and has an alias, Hafiz.

Unlike the Lashkar’s usual Punjabi and Pashtun recruits, Dujana is a native of Gilgit, police officials believe. Like Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, whose death last July sparked months of violence across Kashmir, Dujana has become something of a name in the Valley, albeit within a more limited area. Most stories about Dujana circulate in Pulwama, and parts of Kulgam district.

Unlike other foreign militants, Pulwama residents said, Dujana has an intimate knowledge of the lanes and topography of South Kashmir, and even speaks Kashmiri. A large network of civilian scouts, mostly young men, keeps a vigil for approaching security forces.

If you are passing through one of the vast orchards or praying at one of several hundred mosques in Pulwama, you might just run into Dujana, residents say. One resident said that Dujana travels unarmed, sometimes wearing a pheran. “He looks like any other Kashmiri walking down the road,” he claimed.

His knack for hiding in plain sight is believed to have helped him elude the security forces for the last few years. A police official in Pulwama conceded that it made their job difficult. “One can never be sure if it is him,” the official said. “We do not want to open fire and cause a civilian casualty.”

Dujana has earned a reputation for escaping cordons. In April, residents in Pulwama said, Dujana and at least two other militants slipped through a cordon in Hakripora, where they had been surrounded by the Army in an orchard. The presence of civilians, one resident said, prevented the forces from engaging the militants in a gun battle.

Police officials said that though Dujana planned most of the group’s operations, he was rarely directly involved. “Survival is his tactic,” a police official said. “The aura that he has built around himself has caused a headache for the security forces.”

Dujana’s flair for “charismatic leadership” has helped amplify the Lashkar’s influence in South Kashmir, police officials said. It is seen as a formidable group in the region, drawing numerous recruits from the area.

Foreign and local

Dujana’s rise to fame may have helped galvanise support for the Lashkar in South Kashmir, where the lines between the Hizbul Mujahideen, considered indigenous, and the Lashkar, a Pakistan-based group, have faded. The ranks of the Lashkar, once dominated by foreign fighters, now include several Kashmiris, many in their 20s. In the four districts of South Kashmir, the Lashkar-e-Taiba has at least 35 local members, who operate alongside nine foreign infiltrators.

The group has other pockets of support as well. “Bharat teri maut ayi, Lashkar ayi, Lashkar ayi (India, your end has come. The Lashkar has arrived)“ is a slogan shouted during protests in Kashmir. In April, students at the Women’s College on Maulana Azad Road in Srinagar also chanted it.

The Lashkar’s rise to prominence, however, is not sudden. The group’s previous South Kashmir divisional commander, Abdul Rehman alias Abu Qasim, was killed on October 29, 2015. It sparked one of the first instances of mass participation in a militant’s funeral, at least in recent years. Some estimates suggest 20,000 residents of Pulwama, Shopian, and Kulgam districts attended his funeral.

Since then, the Lashkar-e-Taiba has not only gained popularity but also managed to reinvent itself as an “indigenous” group, as it claimed in a press statement released in April 17.

In 2016, on October 6, a 25-year-old diploma holder, Rayees Ahmad Dar, gave up his job to join the Lashkar’s ranks. After he was killed on November 20, Dar’s brother-in-law, Showkat Ahmad, said: “The Indian media tells us that the Lashkar is operated from Pakistan but Hizb is Kashmiri. But on the ground level we see no difference.”

Fayaz Ahmad, Dar’s uncle, added that regardless of the group, “the mission was the same: freedom from India”. He concluded, “Jihad is the only option.”

On March 9, as security forces engaged Lashkar militants in Padgampora village in Pulwama, a crowd of stone-pelting civilians decided to intervene. In the melee, 14-year-old Amir Nazir Wani was killed after being hit by a bullet. It led to a fresh bout of protests in the district. Wani had rushed towards the encounter site, some 8 km from his home in Begambagh, Kakapora. The teenager, the police said, had been a fan of Majid Mir alias Abbas, also a resident of Kakapora and an active militant.

Days after his death, Wani’s 23-year-old brother, Bilal Ahmad, echoed Dar’s family. “People do not see a difference between [Hizbul Mujahideen], Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad,” he said. “They are all mujahideen. People do not even see if he is a local or a foreigner.”

Similarly, on June 16, when the security forces engaged three militants in a gunfight at Arwani village in Bijbehara, Anantnag district, a crowd of stone-pelters tried to disrupt the operation. The forces opened fire, killing two civilians, Muhammad Ashraf, 22, and Ahsan Ahmad, 14. The three militants, including the Lashkar’s South Kashmir commander Junaid Mattoo, were killed subsequently.

North and South

After counter-insurgency operations were halted during the protests of 2016, the Lashkar managed to re-establish itself in the north, police officials say. Yet, South Kashmir remains the more volatile region.

Police officials call it a “Jama’ati belt”, or an area where the Jama’at-e-Islami, a socio-political organisation that believes in “political Islam”, is influential. The police believe militancy is higher in areas where the Jama’at has a strong presence. Parts of the south have also become “fish bowls”, or areas where militants operate freely with a strong support network among residents.

“Militants go to live in areas where there is a culture of stone-pelting,” said a senior police officer. “There are grey areas where you do not find militants.” These are usually regions of instability, which provide a conducive environment for groups like the Lashkar to thrive in, police officials say.

According to one police official, Dujana is based in a cluster of five villages in Pulwama district, with occasional visits to Kulgam. “There is no better place to disappear than Pulwama,” another police official said. Rivers pass through four of the five villages that Dujana is believed to frequent, while the fifth village is nearby.

Police officials believe the river networks and sand mining boats are used to travel between villages. Many of the rivers and smaller canals are known only to residents, with no name outside the immediate localities. A police officer formerly part of counter-insurgency operations in South Kashmir said militants “have a geographic advantage to escape cordons”.

Within the Valley, police officials said, collaboration between militant groups is evolving as well. After a global outcry over terrorism, scrutiny of the Lashkar intensified. Police officials now believe it has led to the group allowing the indigenous Hizbul Mujahideen to claim credit for most operations. This also helped reinforce the idea that militancy in the Valley had a purely “local face”, they surmised.

According to one police official, the group has support from across the border. In the early years of militancy, Pakistan had supported the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which claims to seek independence from both India and Pakistan. This was gradually withdrawn and shifted to groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen and, finally, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. “They want their own on the ground too,” said the official.

Why Lashkar?

Police officials attribute the Lashkar’s popularity to various factors. First, they blame the “bombardment of a one-sided narrative” that speaks only of state violence and is not critical of militants. Then they speak of increasing religious radicalisation among Kashmiri youth. They point out that certain militants have asserted that the armed struggle is not political but for Islam. They remain popular in the Valley.

Still, a major factor, some police officials admitted, was the police’s bad attitude towards ordinary people.

Sajjad Haider, editor of Kashmir Observer, said the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s daring attacks had made the group a formidable opponent for security forces. “They attacked SOG [the state police’s Special Operations Group] camps, outside which ordinary people were even scared to walk,” he said. “They showed that this could be done, too. More than any organisation, it has remained and sustained the militancy.”

Senior journalist Ahmad Ali Fayyaz, however, said that recent events do not necessarily indicate a groundswell of support: “We cannot lose sight of the fact that everyday someone tips off the security forces and gets militants killed. These people do not come from Delhi. They are all natives. But, conveniently, politicians, media and social scientists do not take their headcount.”

If there is support for the Lashkar, Fayyaz said, it is enabled by the discourse of “competitive separatism” emanating from the so-called political mainstream. Of late, even the state’s oldest party, the National Conference, has voiced the kind of sympathy for militancy that is associated with the “soft-separatist” People’s Democratic Party.

National Conference patron and member of Parliament from Srinagar constituency Farooq Abdullah has publicly valorised militants. “They left to fulfil their promise with God: we will give our lives to make this nation free,” he said in February.

Fayyaz recalled how the late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, People’s Democratic Party leader and chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, had in 2015 released Masarat Alam, a member of the pro-Pakistan Hurriyat faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Alam was believed to be the driver of the 2010 mass protests in the Valley, against alleged fake encounters and human rights abuses by security forces, that had left over 100 people dead. The chief minister also “permitted his pro-Pakistan show” to welcome Geelani back from Delhi that spring, said Fayyaz.

Fayyaz believes that such demonstrations encouraged the youth to abandon their studies and join militancy. “Obviously, their slogan will be ‘Hafiz Saeed ka kya paigaam? Kashmir banega Pakistan’ [What is Lashkar founder Hafiz Saeed’s message? Kashmir will become Pakistan], which Masarat Alam and his supporters shouted in front of the police headquarters that day,” the journalist said.