On Monday, the calm of a sleepy cluster of villages in North Kashmir’s Pattan area is disturbed by the wails of women. Deep inside Kongomdar village, a tent has been set up and the compound gate of a modest two-storey house is wide open to let in mourners.

This was the home of Mohammad Yasin Teli, a 32-year-old Kashmiri constable in the Central Reserve Police Force. Teli was on duty at the District Police Lines in Pulwama in South Kashmir, when militants believed to be from the Jaish-e-Mohammad launched a fidayeen attack at dawn on August 26. The ensuing gunfight lasted 19 hours, killing eight security forces personnel, including Teli, and three militants.

The son of an apple farmer, Teli had dropped out of college to join the paramilitary force in 2007. In a decade of service, Teli received multiple commendations and was awarded a gallantry medal on August 15, for his role in repelling a militant attack in Srinagar city last year.

Teli’s funeral was held in his native village on Sunday. A day later, his brother-in-law, Javaid Ahmad worried about the young child the constable had left left behind. “Over a thousand people attended his funeral,” he said. “But what does that mean to his nine-month-old baby? Will that bring his father back?”

Teli’s brother Mohammad Saleem described a caring elder brother who never discussed work at home. “First, we are taught not to disclose fauji matters outside, that is our training,” Saleem, himself a rifleman in the Indian Army, said. “He never told us he was in the field. He did not speak about his work thinking it would cause worry to all of us.”

In Pulwama, Teli was part of a paramilitary response team that was dispatched to reinforce the troops at the Police Lines.

Police under fire

Of the eight security forces personnel killed, four belonged to the Central Reserve Police Force and four to the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Of the latter, only constable Imityaz Ahmad Sheikh was part of the counterinsurgency unit. He lived inside the Police Lines.

Early on Saturday morning, Sheikh was just leaving his house to report for duty, when he was fired at. Last August, during the unrest, Sheikh was injured when a grenade was lobbed at security forces allegedly from within a stone-pelting mob. Sheikh is survived by his mother, wife and five-year-old daughter.

Mohammad Rafiq Hajam, the son of a barber, was killed a year after he joined as a special police officer. A resident of Chandgam in Pulwama, Hajam had braved the unrest to attend a recruitment drive last August, to support his poverty-stricken family of six. Mohammad Yusuf, another special police officer, was Hajam’s cousin and from the same village. He was also killed in Saturday’s gunfight. Their charred bodies were buried late on Saturday night, according to reports.

The fourth person to be killed was a non-combatant, a nursing orderly named Amarjit Singh, who is survived by his 10-year-old daughter and aged father.

The damaged buildings at the District Police Lines.
The damaged buildings at the District Police Lines.

Not an easy target

An eerie silence had fallen over Pulwama town on August 27. Shops remained shut and traffic was largely off the roads. According to reports in Valley-based newspapers, the town went into shutdown mode to mourn the deaths. On Sunday, passersby on the main road stopped to take stock of the damaged buildings. Inside the Police Lines, damages were being officially assessed and the area was being “sanitised”, or cleared of any remaining arms and explosives.

Residents said gunfire was heard at the crack of the dawn and echoed throughout Saturday. As the Pakistani militants stormed the residential complex inside the Police Lines, over 36 families had to be evacuated amid gunfire. The encounter has left three buildings of the residential complex partially collapsed.

The Police Lines is home to several offices and a constant stream of civilians enter the complex for work or to use the mosque and the playground. Besides, Independence and Republic Day celebrations are also held inside. “It is a very lively place,” a police official said. “That makes it a target.”

The attack was one of the biggest in terms of casualties in the past few months. Not far from Pulwama town stands another favoured target for militants: the Entrepreneurship Development Institute, which was attacked twice last year, with encounters lasting days. But at the Police Lines in Pulwama, militants would have had to work through more tiers of security.

“Unlike the EDI, where they simply needed to walk into the building, take positions, and wait for the forces, attacking the DPL [District Police Lines] with its fortifications points to a greater planning,” the official said. He pointed out that the police complex is surrounded by dense orchards and vegetation on three sides, making a stealthy approach to its boundary walls easier. Few commercial establishments are located opposite the complex on the main road.

Police officials said the stand-off was prolonged because of the layout of the residential complex at the periphery of the compound. Eight buildings, which together house 12 families, are located close to each other, making operations difficult.

‘Afzal Guru Squad’

Police officials said Pulwama may also have been chosen as a target because many senior militant commanders had been killed in the district this year. The Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba, and Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind have taken a hit in the district after counterinsurgency operations intensified in the last couple of months. Police officials said “non-specific inputs” about possible attacks on security forces came in at least two months ago.

The attack on the Police Lines was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad. The walls of the damaged buildings bore the signature of the “Afzal Guru Squad”. Afzal Guru was hanged in 2013 for his role in the 2001 attack on the Parliament, carried out by the Jaish, triggering protests in the Valley, where it was widely felt that he had been unjustly punished. Since then, several fidayeen attacks have been signed off by the “Afzal Guru Squad”, which claims to be avenging his death.

The squad is believed to have carried out its first fidayeen attack on an army base in Uri, near the Line of Control, on December 5, 2014, which left 11 security personnel and six militants dead. On Sunday, SP Vaid, the state’s director general of police, said only “a few small groups of militants” from Jaish had infiltrated into the Valley with the express purpose of carrying out fidayeen attacks. Yet, according to other police officials in the Valley, the outfit has strengthened its presence in South Kashmir this year, and recruited local youth as well.

The last attack attributed to the Jaish took place in April this year, when militants attacked an army camp in North Kashmir, killing three soldiers.

Fight until death

“Fidayeen” is an Arabic term which means “those who sacrifice themselves”. It is used to describe suicidal attacks that are launched with the intention of a prolonged stand-off, with the militants inflicting maximum casualties on the security forces before being killed. There is little scope for escape.

Fidayeen attacks began in Kashmir in July 1999, when five personnel from the Border Security Force were killed in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. Since then, the state has witnessed a large number of fidayeen attacks, most of them between 2001 and 2006. According to security officials, the attacks were carried out largely by foreign terrorists.

The officials believe the attacks are targeted at symbols of the state in order to grab headlines when the state appears to have the upper hand. “It is not only the operations in Pulwama but South Kashmir in general that has hit them,” said a senior police officer. “Local militants are losing their hold and with the resurgence of the Jaish this has happened in the South, where it wasn’t usual. The militants are facing the heat, and the police are facing the backlash.”