It’s very easy for activists and intelligentsia who safely sit in the confines of their homes to decry temporary suspension of mobile and internet services in Jammu and Kashmir where an encounter is on between terrorists and the security forces. For such ‘concerned’ champions of human rights, these actions is tantamount to “restrictions” on the right to freedom of expression and some of them get so paranoid that they start drawing parallels of India with Nazi Germany or fascist Italy of yesteryear. While everyone is entitled to have his or her own views as well as express the same, but for our extremely discerning activists to outrightly reject any counter argument without assigning any reasons is indeed both intriguing and unfortunate.
Nawakadal in Down Town area of the old city of Srinagar is a popular locality for terrorists to hide for many reasons. Firstly, being a very congested locality, it’s easy to shake off ‘spies’ trailing them by simply slipping in and out of the myriad bylanes. Secondly, since the houses in many localities are ‘hugging’ each other, at times it becomes humanly impossible to effectively ‘seal-off’ a house in which terrorists have taken refuge. Thirdly, the proximity of houses with each other makes it easy for trapped terrorists to escape by jumping from house to house and through the numerous passageways. Lastly, the labyrinth of alleys makes it easy for crowds to reach the encounter site from all directions and disrupt the activities of security forces by diverting their attention through violent acts like stone pelting and setting their vehicles ablaze.
It’s perhaps the dense population and closely built homes that raise concerns of collateral damage to life and property, due to which operations by security forces against terrorists in the old city area of Srinagar have been comparatively less as compared to other areas. The last time an operation was carried out here was more than six months ago when four Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists were killed. Probably its comparative safety was the very reason why Hizbul Mujahideen’s (HM) self-styled ‘district commander’ Junaid Sehrai and his associate Tariq Sheikh decided to take refuge in this locality that also provided the best of facilities. How exactly did intelligence agencies get inputs that this duo was hiding in Nawakadal area is not known, but there are many rumours and one is that this was an ‘inside job’.
But the undeniable fact is that on 19 May 2020, someone did provide intelligence agencies with such compelling evidence about his whereabouts that security forces decided to launch an operation in the crammed Nawakadal area of Srinagar. The security forces proved their mettle because despite the numerous advantages provided by this congested locality, Junaid and his compatriot were unable to make good their escape. After the duo were trapped, security forces managed to intercept a mobile call made by Junaid’s aide Tariq to an ‘Over Ground Worker’ (OGW) named Shahid and its contents are quite illuminating as it reveals the reality of stone pelting mobs congregating at encounter sites.
In this audio, a heavily panting Tariq Sheikh can be heard talking to Shahid in Kashmiri and the transliteration of the monologue is as follows:
Aslam o Aliekum Shahid sahib, Tariq Sheikh bol reha hoon. Hum Nawakadal mein fhus gaye hain. Wahin se bande bejna jo pathrao karein; joh pechhli wali road se pathrao karein aur humey bahar nikale. Meray sath Junaid hai -Sehrai ka beta. Jaldi karo. Yeh akhri ghadi hai, jaldi karo – humey bachao!
Peace be on you Shahid sir, Tariq Sheikh speaking. We are trapped in Nawakadal. Send guys from there who should pelt stones; stone pelting should be done from the road behind and we should be extricated. I have Junaid with me (who is) the son of (Ashraf) Serhai. This is the last moment (chance), so be quick and save us!
This mobile call from Tariq Sheikh shatters two myths that have been woven by those with vested interests in an attempt to glorify the ‘last stand’ of terrorists. Firstly, it dispels the belief that once they are trapped, terrorists don’t try to escape but instead fight valiantly to embrace ‘martyrdom’. Secondly, that crowds don’t converge automatically onto the encounter site after hearing gunshots and start pelting stones at security personnel on their own in order to express their anguish. The truth is that trapped terrorists use every trick in the book to escape the security force dragnets but to be fair to them there’s nothing wrong in seeking self-preservation. However, putting unarmed crowds to grave risk by using them as ‘human shields’ in order to escape the dragnet is a despicable act but unfortunately this is exactly what trapped terrorists do; as is clearly evident from Tariq’s mobile call.
Terrorist sympathisers, the separatist camp as well as many activists argue that crowds voluntarily congregate at the site of encounters and this reflects the public outrage against security forces. But this isn’t true, because gathering crowds is done through subtle intimidation. The separatists and terrorists have established a wide network of OGWs in each ‘mohalla’ (segment) of every village in Kashmir. They assist terrorists by organising their logistical support and like the hated commissars of erstwhile Soviet Union they keep a close watch on the activities and ‘loyalties’ of the people. When terrorists are trapped in a village, the concerned OGWs give a call for all men to reach the encounter site immediately and the large turnout is not because the people are anxious, but only because the OGWs keep a mental note of absentees.
Names of those who disregard the call to congregate at encounter site are promptly passed on to the terrorists who in turn pay the absentees a nocturnal ‘visit’ and mete out punishments that could range from a severe beating to being shot in the leg or much worse, being executed. So, rather than facing the muzzle of a terrorist’s gun for being absent, locals choose the comparatively easier and psychologically less traumatising option of joining a crowd as the numbers give people a sense of security.
Stone pelting at encounter sites pays rich dividends since it exploits the security forces’ hesitation to take firm action against mobs and the resultant high prospects of protesters’ not being harmed makes the OGWs task much easier. However, there are occasions when mobs come so dangerously close to soldiers engaged in the ongoing gunfight with trapped terrorists that they imperil safety of troops and in such cases, use of force becomes inevitable.
But even in this eventuality, the OGWs ‘win’ since the security forces’ action against a violent and menacing mob is still billed as use of ‘disproportionate’ force against ‘unarmed’ people and our hallowed activists echo the same sentiment despite the fact that stones pelted by crowds in Kashmir have taken many a life, be it that of the locals, security force personnel and even a young tourist!
Another often heard complaint of parents is that even though their child had not been part of the protesting crowd but had either gone on an errand, was working or playing in the area or simply returning home after meeting a friend or attending tuition ended up being shot or injured when the police fired on a protesting mob. In such cases, the parents aren’t telling lies but what they don’t know is that even though their ward may not have been part of the mob, but the moment his (or her) path crossed that of the mob, that person had no option but to join and become part of the crowd.
One such tragic incident occurred in 2018, when an MBA returnee from Indonesia named Abid Hussain was killed when police fired on an unruly mob that had gone out of control. Abid had left his home in Karimabad village of South Kashmir’s Pulwama to fetch milk for his 3-month-old daughter born to him from his Indonesian wife when he was forced to join a crowd and ended up being shot! The OGWs and activists had a field day making this tragic incident look like a ‘targeted’ killing, not realising that no one would buy their story because when even the locals in the crowd didn’t know who this person was, how could the security forces have singled him out?
So, the next time you see a crowd at an encounter site, don’t get carried away by romantic notions of people voluntarily coming out and exposing themselves to danger out of pure love and affection for trapped terrorists. Because if this was really the case, then why did United Jihad Council chief Syed Salahuddin himself recently admit that 80 ‘mujahideens’ had been gunned down by security forces during this year alone. An inordinately high monthly attrition rate of 16 terrorists (or one terrorist being killed on every alternate day continuously for five months) doesn’t reflect a very high degree of public adoration for these so called “freedom fighter” mujahideens.