A fresh spate of videos from Kashmir surfaced on social media this week. Two were particularly chilling. In the first, 17-year-old Nadeem Manzoor Bhat, whose hands are tied, is asked to turn around. “Is the video on?” asks an unseen voice.

As the teenager pleads for forgiveness, he gets a question in reply. “What did our Abrar and Soban Saeb do to you? Tell us.”

Then there is a burst of bullets. At the first shot, the screen goes dark, pierced only by the flash of bullets and cries of “takbeer”. The 27-second long video ends with a glimpse of the killers walking away.

The second video is just two seconds long, its images in fast forward. It shows a man slitting the throat of 19-year-old Huzaif Ashraf Kuttay in an orchard. It is hard to decipher what happens without the clips that were released later, one showing Huzaif’s blind-folded body, the other, his blood-soaked face.

Another clip is meant to explain the reason for his execution. In it, Huzaif says he was promised Rs 10,000 for information on two militants.

“I am very poor. That’s why I became an informer. I thought the money will help me to pay back my loans. They [security forces] asked me to give information on Shahjahan and Waseem,” Huzaif says in the video, while referring to two local militants. He eventually passed information about some militants to the army after which the security forces launched a cordon and search operation in the village, he admitted. There is no information on whether any militant was killed in the encounter.

An audio clip from Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo followed Nadeem’s killing. “Some people say that militants have no mercy,” he is heard saying. “If the two companions who achieved martyrdom due to Nadeem’s information were from your own family then perhaps you would not be talking like this. From today, we’ll only be exposing videos of death. And whosoever betrays our movement will face the same consequences.”

According to the audio message, the outfit’s “do or die” squad had carried out Nadeem’s killing. The message also carried a warning for those taking part in the ongoing panchayat elections. Although the Hizbul Mujahideen released the videos of both killings, they only took responsibility for Nadeem’s.

An old photograph of Nadeem Manzoor

From poster boys to masked killers

Nadeem’s bullet-riddled body was found in Niklora village in South Kashmir’s Shopian district on November 16. The next day, Huzaif’s body was recovered Shopian district’s Hermain village, a police statement said. They were not the first civilians in the Valley to have been killed by militants for allegedly being informers for security forces. But execution videos are believed to be a first in the history of Kashmir’s militancy, in spite of its visibility on social media over the last few years.

The videos accompanied a spate of abductions from Shopian district – no less than nine in one week. While Nadeem was taken on November 15, five other civilians were abducted from two different places on November 17. They included Huzaif and his cousin, Shahid Ganaie, picked up from Saidpora Payeen village. Everyone apart from the two who were killed was released shortly afterwards. Tractor driver Parvaiz Ahmad Bhat, taken from Batmuran village on the evening of November 19, was released after being shot in the leg.

All those kidnapped were accused of being informers. Especially in the last year, such incidents have become common. But the execution videos show how far the social media presence of the militancy has changed.

The so-called new wave of militancy became visible after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani made deft use of social media, posting photographs and videos that served as a rather jaunty call to arms. A picture of Wani and his band of boys, which floated up on social media in 2015, became an icon of this new militancy. By 2015, it was an established practice for every new entrant in a militant group to post his gun-wielding photos on social media to announce that he had joined up.

But as more youth joined up and security forces launched a crackdown, the social media content reflected changing equations in the real world. The cheerful videos of militants enjoying a feast or playing cricket gave way to more grim footage. This included “punishment videos” which emerged every few weeks. They showed militants torturing or reprimanding a suspected police informer, a bootlegger, a pimp, or someone who confessed to being all three. In the course of the video, the captive would promise never to repeat his actions again.

In the latest raft of videos, torture turned to death. On November 19, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, S P Pani said they were investigating the social media handles involved in “propagating” the execution videos.

Hashish and bread

“Next time, whoever takes any step against militants or works with police or becomes an informer, this will be his fate. We are leaving his head behind so that it can become a lesson for you. Next time, when we catch an army man or policeman, we will cut his head and throw it in a river,” said a masked man in one of the videos, standing near the body of Huzaif with a bloodied knife in his right hand, speaking Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent. Police suspect that the masked man is a Pakistani militant from Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Yet, in the villages of Shopian, the families of the two murdered boys say they were in the dark about their sons’ alleged activities. Two years ago, after Nadeem started smoking cannabis, he became an outcast in his family.

“But we didn’t suspect anything of this kind,” said Nadeem’s father, Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, who owns a bakery in Safnagari village. “If he was really an informer on militants, then he deserves much more strict punishment and if he was innocent, then Allah will do justice His own way.”

On November 6, government forces gunned down two Hizbul Mujahideen militants, including a former soldier of the Indian Army, just a few hundred metres away from Nadeem’s home. Nine days later, a group of four militants were at the doorstep of Nadeem’s house. “It was around 3 pm. Nadeem was not home. The militants made some searches in our houses and then left,” said Abdul Hamid Bhat, Nadeem Manzoor’s eldest uncle, who was home at that time.

According to the family, Nadeem returned home after the militants had left but did not seem concerned about the fact that they had come looking for him looking for him. “I gave him Rs 2,000 and advised him to go to Jammu till we found out what the matter was. He said: ‘I haven’t done anything wrong. I have only one mistake – I consume charas [hashish],” said Nadeem’s elder brother, Sartaj Ahmad Bhat, 25. According to Sartaj, Nadeem left home to look for the militants who had come for him. He would never return.

Huzaif lived in a dilapidated two-storey house in Kulgam district’s Manzgam village. “From the last five-six months, Huzaif was working at his uncle’s bakery shop in Saidpora Payeen in Shopian. I have no idea why he was killed,” Mohammad Ashraf, a soft-spoken man in his 50s, said.

On November 17, Huzaif was at the bakery when a group of militants called him out and bundled him into a car.

“People are congratulating me that my son has returned alive, but we have lost Huzaif. They had cut his throat,” said Mohammad Amin Ganie, Huzaif’s uncle and the father of Shahid Ganaie, who was released a few hours after being abducted. He owns the bakery where Huzaif had worked.

One of eight children, Huzaif had studied till Class 8, until poverty forced him to look for work. “He wanted to support the family. I thought while working at his uncle’s bakery shop, he’ll make good money and get proper care,” said his father, who owns a tailor’s shop.

But the shop could have been the site of a fateful meeting “I once heard that the army had come to meet Huzaif at the shop and bought some bread from him,” Amin Ganie recalled. In retrospect, Ganie said, he saw an “army angle” to the incident.

Manzorr Ahmad Bhat, father of Nadeem Manzoor, said they were in the dark about his son's alleged role as an informer.

Final warnings

According to observers in the Valley, heavy losses among militant ranks have turned the “warnings” from punishment to death. Since 2015, more than 650 militants have been killed in Kashmir by security forces.

“It has to be seen in a larger context,” said a scholar from from South Kashmir who has studied militant groups in the valley, wishing not to be identified. “Since Burhan’s time, militant groups have been largely issuing warnings to informers. If you observe, the line, ‘Ye aakhri warning hai[This is the last warning] – can be heard in almost all of those videos. In recent times, militants have been suffering losses unilaterally. Now, I think they [militants] have decided that it’s not working and have started going after them.”

It might also be a reaction to the way militant bodies have been treated by the forces, the academic argued. “There have been encounters where locals alleged that the bodies of slain militants were burnt down and mutilated by the army.” he said. “Civilians have been used as human shields and many of them have been killed during encounters or stray explosives. All these factors might have prompted such a reaction.”

Said a senior journalist, “By making the videos public, I think that they [militants] want to send a word across that we can do this as well. It is to just deter people.” Social media gave these acts of violence a new platform, he said. But in three decades of militancy, beheadings, the mutilation of corpses and the slitting of throats have been documented in Kashmir.

Whether by militants, security forces or the Ikhwan, the militia of surrendered militants raised by the Indian Army in the 1990s, these brutal killings were also meant to be symbolic, sending a message to the other side. According to Khurram Parvez, programme coordinator, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, the army was responsible for most of the incidents where people were picked up and killed. But neither side would claim responsibility. “This is perhaps a very rare occasion when militants are owning it,” Parvez said. “Normally, they don’t own such types of killings.”

Take the case from August 2017, when the headless body of 24-year-old Muzaffar Ahmad Parray was recovered from the Jhelum river in the Hajin area of North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. Parray had spent time in jail for stone pelting and participation in pro-freedom rallies but the police had said that the slain youth was not involved in any militancy-related incident. However, Parray’s family had alleged that, after his release, he was continuously harassed by the police. The Lashkar-e-Toiba also issued a statement on Parray’s killing, blaming “Indian forces”.

No change in public mood

Earlier generations of militants depended on newspapers and other publications to get their message across, the senior journalist said, now, they just took to social media. With the result that Kashmir is getting broadcasts from the battlefield almost in real time. For instance, emotional last phone calls between a militant trapped in a gunfight and his family have become popular on social media for some years now. For the most part, such audio clips and footage helped generate public sympathy for militants.

Will the execution videos turn the tide of public opinion against them? “Why don’t you say that by this people will now start looking at militants with hate?” asked Munir Ahmad Khan, additional director general of police for law and order. “This kind of brutality is not acceptable to anybody. Not to talk of us, even the general public. Kashmiri society has never accepted this.”

Officials in the security forces also said the killings had had no clear impact, as yet, on the human intelligence network.

For now, there is fear. The videotaped killings had made them a more immediate reality. “People see how they do it. Obviously, it will have an impact on the psyche of the people,” said the journalist. But such killings were unlikely to turn militants into villains, he felt, since they represented the fight for “azadi”. “It can create problems for them. But I don’t think it will change the perception towards militancy because the political sentiment is there and that’s very strong. People will try to justify everything.”

Indeed, most of the voices that came out in condemnation against the killings were of politicians – former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, for instance, or Srinagar mayor Junaid Mattoo. From the larger public, there was mostly silence.

In South Kashmir, even the family members of the murdered teenagers are ready with an apology, keen to distance themselves from the allegations of “mukhbiri”, or collaboration with the state. “You can’t believe we are ashamed to face our own neighbours,” Nadeem Manzoor’s uncle, Bilal Ahmad Bhat, 40, said while breaking down. “We appeal to entire Kashmir and all the militant groups to forgive us if we have committed any wrong.”