Early on Tuesday morning, security forces, reportedly acting on specific inputs, swooped down on Hakripora village in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. In the gunfight that followed, two Lashkar-e-Taiba militants were killed. One was a boy from Lelhar village in Pulwama, Arif Nabi Dar, known as Arif Lelhari. His family says he was still a minor. The other was Abu Dujana, a militant famed for his ability to evade security cordons.

According to residents of the area, the security forces were led by senior police officials and the encounter was swift and discreet. “We didn’t hear a thing,” said a woman who lives near the house where the encounter took place. “It was around 7 am or 7.30 am when there was a knock at our doors. When we opened the door, we found there were forces everywhere.”

Her husband said, “The army asked us to lock our belongings upstairs and leave the house immediately. After the surrounding houses were cleared, they asked the owners of the [target] house to leave.”

The operation did not last long, they said. “The encounter began 10 minutes after the family left the [target] house,” the man recounted. “There was a pause after just 15-20 minutes of firing. They had killed them [the militants]. But they [the security forces] kept firing for another hour or so.”

In the protests that broke out after the encounter, a civilian was killed. Firdaus Ahmad Bhat, a resident of Begumbagh, a village in Pulwama’s Kakapora area, was hit by a bullet. He succumbed to his injuries at the District Hospital, Pulwama. A police statement attributed his injury to “cross firing”. On Wednesday morning, 22-year-old Akeel Ahmed Bhat, who had been hit in the abdomen by a bullet during protests in Pulwama, died at the Sher-i-Kashmir Insitute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar.

Soon after the encounter, the Jammu and Kashmir police tweeted that the killing of Lashkar-e-Taiba “chief commander Abu Dujana of Pakistan” was a “huge achievement” for the police and security forces.

The house where the encounter took place. Photo: Rayan Naqash

No longer a commander

Yet, at the time of his death, Dujana may no longer have been a commander. Few details are clear about the shadowy militant who had acquired a reputation for hiding in plain sight, unlike the poster boys of the new militancy in Kashmir who had become easily recognisable faces through social media.

But the 26-year-old, who is believed to be from Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kahsmir, is one of the longest surviving militant in recent times. He survived about as long as Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, who left home to join militant ranks in 2010 and was killed on July 8 last year. Dujana, according to police officials, entered the Kashmir Valley some time in 2010, initially operating in North Kashmir. According to local security officials, he shifted south in 2013, setting up base in Pulwama district, and was behind several attacks on security forces.

Senior police officials said there was reason to believe that Dujana had joined the former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Zakir Rahid Bhat or Zakir Musa. In May this year, Musa had declared that Kashmir’s armed struggle was not tied to nationalism but aimed at establising a khilafat, an Islamic caliphate. This had caused a rift with the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen. A few days ago, an al Qaeda propaganda channel claimed Musa would head a new cell based in Kashmir, called the Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind.

Meanwhile Dujana, police officials said, had fallen out of favour with the Pakistan-based Laskar command. They believe that Dujana drifted away as he was sidelined in the Lashkar. “They started giving instructions to other Lashkar groups, separately,” said a senior police police official. “He was no longer a commander for the Lashkar.”

Said another police official, “Dujana had said if I am not in control, then I’m not with you. For at least the last two months, Lashkar was and is Abu Ismail. His [Dujana’s] handlers across the border were not happy with him.”

An undated photograph of Abu Dujana. Source unknown.

In South Kashmir, Dujana had gathered a local support base. According to the local police, he married a Kashmiri woman in Hakripora in November 2016, which irked the Lashkar leadership in Pakistan. Additionally, Dujana’s “dependence on a few chosen OGWs” –overground workers, or non-combatants who provide logistical support to militant groups – had made matters worse, they said. In May this year, a known overground worker for the Lashkar, on whom Dujana relied heavily, was killed, said the local police.

By the end of May, police officers had received inputs of Dujana’s association with Musa. Dujana, along with a small group of militants close to him, including Dar, were believed to have joined hands with Musa.

On July 19, Dujana managed to escape security forces for the last time. Police officials said that day, he had been returning from Tral after a meeting with Musa. “He was with Musa just two days ago,” said the officer. “This is a major blow to Musa.”

‘How many Arifs’?

Arif Dar's funeral procession. Photo: Rayan Naqash

Meanwhile, Pulwama on Tuesday reeled under a shutdown and scattered incidents of stone pelting. Outside the district hospital in Pulwama, security forces opened fire on protestors, injuring two and putting holes through windows. Around 40 people were injured in the clashes on Tuesday morning.

Later in the day, residents of Hakripora gathered at the house where the encounter had taken place to assess the damage. The walls of the house had caved in, after security forces blew it up, residents said. They poured buckets of water on debris that was still burning.

Police authorities in the district have not released Dujana’s body, since he is not a local Kashmiri. Dar’s body, however, was given to his family by afternoon on Tuesday. Thousands had gathered for Dar’s funeral, in the open fields near the school where he had once studied. A tractor carried his body from the field, where prayers were offered, to his home nearby.

According to his family, Dar was 14 when he joined militancy two years ago. Over time, police officials say, he was involved in bank robberies. In the lanes leading up to the Dar’s home, mourners jostled for space.

The crowd did not seem particular about which ideology Dar had owed his allegiance to. Youth shouted slogans in favour of Zakir Musa, who had distanced himself from Pakistan and nationalism. They also shouted slogans in favour of Pakistan. Flags of Pakistan and black flags commonly associated with the Islamic State were waved together.

Local residents gathered there reaffirmed their support for militants. “It doesn’t matter who he was with, he was fighting a common enemy,” said a mourner. “How many Arifs can you kill? There will come an Arif from each house.”

Arif Dar's funeral procession. Photo: Rayan Naqash