“They have crushed South Kashmir,” yelled a man as the funeral procession of a militant named Ishfaq Malik made its way down the street in Pinjura village in South Kashmir’s Shopian district.

Malik was among the 19 people killed as three separate gunfights broke out in South Kashmir’s Shopian and Anantnag districts on Sunday morning, leaving at least 12 militants, three army personnel and four civilians dead. One more militant casualty is yet to be confirmed, tweeted SP Vaid, director general of police for Jammu and Kashmir. At least eight of the militants killed were local Kashmiris who had joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen. The identities of the others were still being ascertained on Sunday evening.

Though the security forces have previously killed large groups of foreign militants in the northern districts, this is the first time in recent years that operations have been launched on such a scale against local militants in South Kashmir.

On Sunday, normal life ground to a halt in the Valley. Civilians took to the streets in protest after the gunfights broke out. Several people were injured as the security forces used pellets and tear gas on the crowds. Security forces also fired into the air to disperse protestors after the funeral of Zubair Turray, one of the militants killed in Shopian. Many of the injured, including those shot in their eyes with pellets, have been sent to hospitals in the state capital of Srinigar. A policeman was also injured in clashes in Srinagar.

Restrictions on movement are in place in several parts of the Valley. Mobile internet has been blocked across Kashmir, train services have been halted and several educational institutions have postponed examinations and interviews scheduled for Monday.

Separatist leaders of the Hurriyat have called for a Valley-wide shutdown for two days.

Three gunfights

The gunfights took place in Anantnag district’s Dialgam area and in Shopian district’s Kachidoora and Dragad villages.

According to the police, the security forces launched a search operation based on a tip-off and surrounded a house where two militants were hiding in Dialgam. When the security forces asked them to surrender, one of the militants came out of the house and gave himself up. The other opened fire, said the police, and was killed in retaliatory fire. He has been identified as Rouf Khanday. He is said to have joined the Hizbul Mujahideen last month.

Search operations were also launched in Dragad and Kachidoora villages in Shopian. The police said militants hiding at both sites opened fire on security forces, sparking gunfights. At least seven militants were killed in Dragad. The police said they were members of a group that had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in the summer of 2017 and were behind the murder last May of Kashmiri army man Umar Fayaz as he attended at relative’s wedding. One member of this group, Ubaid Malla, was a minor when he joined the Hizb in 2017.

The search party also found the body of a civilian, Mushtaq Ahmad Thoker, along with the militants, the police said. Another civilian, Zubair Ahmad Bhat, was killed near the Kachidoora gunfight, which ended after three jawans were killed and security forces used explosives to blow up the house where militants were hiding. According to the police, Bhat was caught in the crossfire between security forces and militants.

Two other civilians in Shopian died of bullet injuries received near the gunfights.

Army men carry away a slain colleague at Kachidoora.
Army men carry away a slain colleague at Kachidoora.

‘He became a militant for Kashmir’

The younger residents of Pinjura, the village from which Malik hailed, do not recall having witnessed such an incident before. Till Sunday afternoon, residents of the quiet village had not even heard the sound of the the gunfights raging all morning. They learned about the violence only when Malik’s body was brought home. A few hundred residents gathered for his funeral, shouting slogans demanding “azadi”, freedom, in support of Pakistan and the Hizbul Mujahideen. There were also slogans of support for Zakir Musa, the militant who had broken away from the Hizbul Mujahideen to start the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwatul-Hind.

Malik’s body was placed on a platform in an open ground. His frail father, assisted by two others, had mustered just enough strength to scatter sweets on his body, a ritual in Kashmir that is associated with welcoming the groom to his wedding. As the prayers began, mourners began to wail.

Malik had visited his village last month to offer a gun salute to a civilian killed in army firing, residents said. The two had been friends. The army had initially described the civilian as an overground worker, or a non-combatant who provided logistical support for militant groups.

Asked why Malik had joined militancy, one of his former classmates took offence at the question. “He became a militant for Kashmir,” he said.

Funeral of Zubair Turray.
Funeral of Zubair Turray.

Storming the district court complex

Meanwhile in Shopian town, hundreds of residents gathered at the Eidgah ground for the funeral of 24-year-old Zubair Turray. Turray had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen last year. But he had been joining protests since he was a teenager. Slapped with charges under the Public Safety Act, he had put in long spells in jail for throwing stones and inciting protests.

Banners featuring Hurriyat leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Ashraf Sehrai, as well as Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin hung from trees. As the funeral ended, young men charged to the gates of the district court complex, across the road from the ground, hurling stones.

As they burst in, they did not even spare a mosque inside the complex. “We must burn the papers,” a man shouted to two others with him, urging them to destroy the court records. However, members of the security forces deployed inside the complex drove back the crowds with a barrage of tear gas shells and aerial firing.

Protests break out in South Kashmir
Protests break out in South Kashmir

Rubble and ash

About six kilometres from Shopian town, in Kachidoora village, the gunfight between security forces and militants began at midnight, local residents said. Residents said a group of seven militants had arrived there on the night of March 31, just hours before the gunfight began. “Within an hour, someone informed on them,” a resident said. “May that informer be cursed.”

The house in which they had taken shelter was destroyed during the gunfight, while the buildings around it were were also damaged. Residents of a damaged house next to the rubble said that they were relieved that at least their lives had been spared. “First they thought militants were in our house,” the owner said. “We evacuated the building but then they realised it was the other house.”

On the morning of April 1, announcements were made from the loudspeakers of nearby mosques: local residents were urged to try to disrupt the security operations. Zubair Ahmad Bhat from from the neighbouring district of Kulgam was killed in clashes that followed.

By evening, dozens of people thronged the sites of the gunfights to take stock of the damage and to help clear the rubble. Around 7 pm, another body was recovered, causing a commotion. Local residents said it was that of a militant but they were not sure if he was alive.

The gunfight and the damages have left the residents seething. “If they have to kill militants, do they have to destroy our houses?” asked an angry resident. “They damaged our houses even after the gunfight had ended. Why can’t they send fire services now to help douse the fires?”

“We are all militants,” said another resident, also angry about the damage to property. “It doesn’t matter how many operations they do, how many of us they kill. We have never voted, we will never vote. If they keep doing this, they can’t win us over.”