On May 6, security forces in Kashmir killed Riyaz Naikoo, the operational commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, the Valley’s largest militant group.

The gunfight took place in his native village, Beighpora, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. On the evening of May 5, security forces had launched search operations across South Kashmir.

According to the police, the exchange of fire between the militants and security forces in started on the morning of May 6 in Beighpora. Hours later, Naikoo and an unidentified militant were dead. Two other militants were killed in the Khrew area of Pulwama district the same day. After the gunfight in Beighpora, civilians rushed to the spot, pelting stones. As security forces retaliated, at least 16 were injured.

The twin gunfights came amidst a month and a half of intensifying violence in Kashmir. This period coincides with a nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus crisis. Even while the administrative machinery was busy tackling the pandemic and security forces were deployed to enforce the lockdown, there seems to have been no change in the counterinsurgency plan.

“Of course, lockdown duties are vulnerable but we have to perform in the interest of people,” said Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police, Kashmir. “We had already prepared our strategy and are following it. Anti-terrorist operations will continue.”

Militant attacks also increased, with new groups appearing on the scene.

Violence under lockdown

One police officer in Kashmir, speaking off the record, suggested that Pakistan was behind the growing toll. According to him, Pakistan was bent on destabilising the situation as the Valley returned to “normalcy” after August 5, when the state of Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of special status under Article 370 and split into two Union Territories.

“You have to see that after August 5, the situation in Kashmir is gradually normalising and people have sort of accepted the reality,” he said. “But we have to see that those who don’t want peace to prevail in Kashmir will do anything to disrupt this normalcy. Otherwise, it’s unthinkable that militants would carry out violence against civilians and security forces during a pandemic which has enveloped the whole world.”

The August 5 decisions had been imposed under a strict lockdown and a communications blackout in Jammu and Kashmir. As the first lockdown tapered off, a new lockdown was imposed, this time to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Since Naikoo’s death, the restrictions on movement and communication have been strengthened again – Section 144 restricts gatherings across the Valley, mobile internet has been suspended, as have prepaid mobile connections and postpaid connections apart from BSNL.

A file photo of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo.

A rising curve

But the coronavirus lockdown did not halt armed violence or political developments. Even after lockdown was imposed on March 25, unidentified gunmen shot at civilians. Then on March 31, the Centre announced new domicile rules for the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The rules considerably diluted earlier protections and were finalised without consulting stakeholders in Jammu and Kashmir. They drew protests from Pakistan and were unpopular in Kashmir. Days later, the Centre retracted some of the new provisions.

A cycle of violence had already started. On April 1, militants infiltrating through the Line of Control were intercepted by the army in North Kashmir, leading to a protracted gunbattle deep inside the Valley. By the time it ended five days later, five militants and five security forces personnel had been killed. It was the first in a series of gunfights that would stretch through April into May. While ceasefire violations continued at the Line of Control, the Valley hinterland also saw bloodshed.

Between March 25 and May 7, there have been about 22 fatal incidents of violence, including gunfights, grenade attacks and shootouts. Since March 25, 61 people have been killed in violence inside the Valley – 31 militants and two associates, 18 security forces personnel and 10 civilians. That includes three civilians, among them two children, killed by Pakistani shells that landed about 80 kilometres inside the Valley.

January saw at least 26 casualties, while February and March saw 13 each, according to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal. But in April, the number of casualties shot up to 44. In the first week of May alone, 15 have been killed.

These figures do not include deaths at the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir and incidents which led to injury.

New militant groups

Gunfights in South Kashmir have chipped away at militant ranks. The Hizbul Mujahideen lost its top commander and the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, affiliated to al Qaeda, also saw losses.

Meanwhile, militants staged attacks in North Kashmir. In the days leading up to Naikoo’s killing, security forces bore heavy casualties in the Handwara area of North Kashmir’s Kupwara district. “The terrain is slightly tough in the north,” said Kumar. “Two, three successful operations would change perceptions. Wait for our actions.”

A new militant group called The Resistance Front claimed responsibility for the two incidents in Handwara. It is part of a cluster of new militant groups in the Valley, the police say.

“The Resistance Front is basically an offshoot of the Pakistan backed Lashkar-e-Taiba,” said Kumar. “A few terrorists from the Hizbul Mujahideen have also joined The Resistance Front. They are projecting it as a local group. We are taking action against The Resistance Front too.”

According to him, Pakistan had also forged two other groups, the Tehreek-i-Millat Islami and the Jammu and Kashmir Fighters Front, to “create fear amongst people and instigate youth”. There were about 225 active militants in the Valley at present, Kumar said.

Gunfight in Chanjimullah.

A red May

The violence in Handwara began on May 2, taking local residents by surprise. Around 8am that day, Saleema Bano had left her home in Chanjimullah village of Handwara to go into the nearby forests for wood and vegetables. She left an empty house. Her husband, who works as a carpenter, and her two sons had already left. Saleema deposited her six-year-old daughter with neighbours before heading to the forest.

“I didn’t put a lock on the door,” she said. “It’s usual for women here to go to the jungle for wood every day here. I returned at 2pm and found my house just as I had left it. I thought I would pray first and then start preparing food for Iftar”, the breaking of the fast during Ramzan.”

Saleema’s house is on a hillock that looks over the village of Chanjimullah. A freshwater stream below her house cuts through the village and a bridge over the stream connects the two halves of Chanjimullah. As Saleema was preparing to offer prayers, she stole a glance towards the bridge from her kitchen window.

“I saw SOG personnel approaching my house from various directions,” she said. The SOG, or the special operations group, is the counterinsurgency unit of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. “I panicked and rushed out of my house. When I reached the street, I saw my neighbours were also fleeing. I had no idea what was happening.” she recalled.

As she was running for safety, Saleema said, the gunfire started. According to the army, security forces launched a joint operation in Chanjimullah after they received intelligence inputs of militants taking civilians hostage. They were apparently hiding in Saleema’s house.

“The team of Army and JK Police entered the target area, and successfully extricated the civilians,” said a statement issued by army spokesperson Rajesh Kalia. But in the process, the team “was subjected to heavy volume of fire by the terrorists,” the statement continued. By the time the gunfight ended on May 3, two militants had been killed but so had five personnel from the army and police.

But Saleema denied that civilians were held hostage in her house. “When I returned from the forest, I checked my house and there was nobody inside except me – no militant or civilian,” she said.

Death of a teenager

The next day, militants struck at a security check post at Wanzgam village in Handwara, killing three personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force. While the attackers fled with two rifles that had belonged to the slain CRPF men, the shootout left a 14-year-old boy dead in the “crossfire”.

He was Hazim Shafi Bhat, a specially-abled boy from Khaipora village in Handwara. “We were working in the orchards and tending to our sheep,” said his uncle, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat. “Apart from family members, there were some neighbours with us. When the firing took place, all of us rushed home but Hazim couldn’t run. Late in the night, when he still had not returned, we got worried and called the police. After some time, they said there was an unidentified body at the police station. Around 10:30 pm we received a call from the police telling us it was Hazim.”

The family was not allowed to take the boy’s body home. “We called everyone in the district administration but they told us that there are orders because of the coronavirus situation to not give the body to the family,” said Bhat. “On Tuesday morning, we were told that he would be buried in Sheeri Baramulla and some family members could accompany the body for funeral rites.”

Sheeri is in Baramulla district, some 40 kilometres far from Handwara. For years, foreign militants killed in Kashmir have been buried here to avoid mass funerals. But, over the last month or so, authorities have also been burying bodies of local militants in remote areas. Bhat was the first civilian whose body was not handed over to his family for last rites.

“In total, 17 members of our family, including his mother, visited Sheeri to take part in the funeral,” Bhat said. “Somewhere, it hurts you that he was buried in such a far-off place. If he was buried in our native graveyard, we could pray for him daily. Now, we will have to travel so far to pray at his grave.”