ON JANUARY 30th, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Qasim Faktoo, who is serving a life sentence in Srinagar’s Central Jail, spoke to a local reporter at a hospital where he had been taken for a health checkup. In the interview published on February 5th in a local English daily, when Faktoo completed 25 years in jail on murder charges, the terror mastermind said he would never compromise his political beliefs. He also claimed that he had written 20 books in prison, and that 150 students he’d taught as a lecturer for the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) had got graduate and post-graduate degrees.
A day after the interview, a dreaded Pakistani terrorist, Naveed Jutt, managed to escape from the same hospital (where he had been brought for a checkup), after two unidentified gunmen shot two of his police guards dead. Another version is that Jutt himself fired at his guards; some eyewitnesses report a pistol having appeared in his cuffed hands. Jutt, who hails from Multan in Pakistan and was a deputy to Abu Qasim, Lashkar’s chief in Kashmir (killed in an encounter with the police in South Kashmir in October 2015), was arrested in June 2014 from South Kashmir. Given his risk profile, he was shifted to a jail in Jammu. But his counsel persuaded the J&K High Court to transfer him back to a prison in Kashmir Valley; it was done in July 2016, when Kashmir was in the throes of a war-like situation in the wake of terror commander Burhan Wani’s death. Last September, nine other Pakistani terrorists were moved from the Valley to Jammu prisons. But the court again placed a stay on Jutt’s shift to a jail in Jammu.
It is a telling sign of how intelligence agencies and the Central Government failed to read the gravity of the situation, making possible the escape of such a dreaded terrorist. “Look, he was as high-profile as Ajmal Kasab,” says a senior police officer in Kashmir. Immediately after his arrest, Jutt was kept under high security. But so far, there seems to be no investigation on what prompted the authorities to send Jutt to a hospital for a checkup when he had no serious ailments and a routine examination could have been arranged within the jail premises. Questions also arise about how he was sent to the hospital with such little security.
There are several high-profile terrorists in the Central Jail of Srinagar. Sources claim they enjoy facilities that should be denied to them, such as access to smart phones and the internet. “It is a good life inside,” says a senior police officer. Last year, according to a source in the Intelligence Bureau, the police chief in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district conducted a raid on the district jail and recovered 17 refrigerators and over 40 cell phones used by inmates. One of the fridges, a probe revealed, was reserved for Asiya Andrabi, Qasim Faktoo’s wife, who is the chief of the radical Islamist group Dukhtaran-e-Millat (and is out of prison currently). But no such raids are conducted on the Central Jail. “We are killing terrorists, risking our lives day and night, but it is all going waste. The counter- insurgency has become a joke here,” says the police officer.
By the state government’s admission, 126 Kashmiri youth joined militant ranks in 2017. This figure stands in stark contrast even with 2013, the year that Parliament-attack accused Afzal Guru was hanged, when only 16 local men joined militancy. Even as the police and other security forces continue to clean up the law- and-order mess created over the last two years, sources reveal that hundreds of youngsters are raring to join militant ranks. “In Shopian and Pulwama, terrorist commanders are selecting youth for training through lucky draws,” claims a senior police officer Open spoke to. He says that the count of 126 is very conservative and that at least a similar number more were being trained locally for terror activities. “In Srinagar city today, there are 15 active local militants; it is the highest since 1995,” he says. Other police sources say that the militants are facing a shortage of weapons; otherwise, they say, the numbers would be much higher.
Just a few hours before Jutt’s daring escape, unidentified men looted Rs 23 lakh from an ATM outside that hospital. It is likely that this money has been looted to fund militancy. Sources reveal that Pakistan is also pushing arms and drugs—mostly heroin—across the Line of Control, especially in the Kupwara sector, to support violence in Kashmir.
If Kashmir remains volatile within and along its border, a significant reason is the increased frequency of ceasefire violations by Pakistan; there have been over 240 incidents already this year. On February 4th, three jawans and an officer of the Indian Army were killed in Rajouri along the LoC, as the Pakistani army attacked Army positions with mortar and anti-tank guided missiles. The mood at the border remains grim, and life has been thrown out of gear in several villages within its range. Last month, over 300 schools along the International Border and LoC had to be ordered shut as a safety measure.
By the state’s admission, 126 youth joined militancy in 2017. This stands in stark contrast even with 2013, the year Afzal Guru was hanged, when only 16 did so
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There are specific intelligence inputs that dozens of highly- trained terrorists of the Pakistan-based terror organisation, Jaish- e-Mohammed, are preparing to enter via launch pads situated in the Kel sector of Pakistan. Three groups of terrorists, according to these inputs, are also encamped in Pakistan’s Chittian, Pachhiban and Chham areas, and there are indications of a cross-border raid being planned by Pakistan Army’s Border Action Team (BAT). Two groups of terrorists are also reportedly waiting in a newly pitched camp in Khoja Bandi. According to these reports, Pakistan’s ISI held a high-level meeting in Barali camp near Kotli in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on January 11th, aiming to increase attacks on Indian territory. Police in North Kashmir recently arrested two youth who had gone to Pakistan on valid passports and underwent arms training in Muridke and Muzaffarabad. “They told us they saw several young boys in the age group of ten to twelve getting trained and were told that in the next few years, all of them will be pushed into India,” says a police officer.
The casualties of February 4th in Rajouri have prompted yet another chorus—from families of deceased soldiers to politicians— in favour of going in for an all-out war with Pakistan. On its part, the Army has declared that retaliatory action will be taken for the killings. “It goes without saying… our action will speak for itself,” in the words of Lieutenant General Sarath Chand.
As the Army gears up to contain the new threat and prepare its response, there are signs that within Kashmir as well, it will face multiple changes in the coming months. A recent incident of Army firing in South Kashmir’s Shopian has evidently divided the state’s ruling PDP-BJP combine, with both speaking a different language. On January 27th, an Army convoy came under intense stone-pelting by a mob of over 200 people in Shopian’s Ganowpora village. As a junior commissioned officer got off his vehicle to reason with the crowd, he was hit on the head and fell unconscious, and as attackers tried to set some of the vehicles on fire, the Army opened fire. It resulted in the death of three civilians, while seven Armymen were injured. An FIR was filed. The Army lodged a counter complaint, which has been incorporated in the report. Though there is no possibility that any action will be taken against the Army and the officer who led the convoy (who was not at the spot), the lodging of an FIR, say sources, is a problem in itself. The father of one of the men killed in the Army response has questioned the firing, saying that even if stones were being thrown at the soldiers, they should have fired warning shots or aimed no higher than the legs of assailants. For years, Army veterans have been cautioning against the use of the force to maintain law and order, which is a job of the police. “We are not the police. We are not trained to deal with civilians. Forget that, what are we supposed to do when we come under such serious attack which puts our life in jeopardy?” asks a serving Army officer in Kashmir.
On February 6th, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy urged President Ram Nath Kovind to summon Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for a clarification on whether her ministry gave its consent to J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti for allowing an FIR to be registered against the Army for the Shopian firing. “They are all playing politics,” says a police officer. “Have you heard a single leader in the state Assembly urging people to not pelt stones at security forces? Not one of them would dare venture out of their home without security.”
Though a senior police officer argues there is hardly anyone among the militant ranks who has pan-Kashmir appeal, many insist that in the new situation, with more youth getting radicalised and Pakistan sending across Jaish cadre, greater firmness will be required to keep peace in the Valley. Several members of India’s security establishment are now calling the recent decision to grant amnesty to first-time stone pelters a ‘grave mistake’. “Many of them are overground workers of militants. You set them free, they will go and join the militant ranks ranks or help them carry out attacks against security forces,” cautions a police officer. He also says he is unsure if the Centre’s special representative, Dineshwar Sharma, is making a difference. “What can he do? Nobody except a few insignificants have been meeting him. So he is just speaking the language of the PDP, which is more or less the language of separatists in Kashmir,” he says.
The state government has deferred panchayat elections scheduled later this month. According to sources, the top police brass had advised Mehbooba Mufti to go ahead with the polls, but they claim she did not seem too keen. “They are committing the same mistake. Last time, they cancelled the Anantnag by-poll despite our advice not to do so. It only emboldened the separatist groups and showed that we were not in control,” says a senior police officer serving in South Kashmir. Sources say that J&K Governor NN Vohra wants panchayat polls to be held. Vohra is said to be of the opinion that local elections would help turn the situation around, just as they did in 2011, when they saw a remarkable turnout of 82 per cent after a particularly disturbing year. But that chance is gone too.
As the police try to neutralise Naveed Jutt before he makes a move, it is clear that the situation in Kashmir remains grim and the coming summer will be hotter than it should be.