The Anger in Lolab

People in Kashmir, and perhaps outside as well, were surprised by the massive eruption in Lolab when the Army and the SOG killed 7 militants in that remote area of the frontier Kupwara district on February 24.  In flaming anger, hundreds of villagers had stormed the local police station, demanding the bodies of the slain, who, they suspected, were hunters missing from the nearby Warnav area.  When the police refused, the crowds clashed with the forces, damaged 4 CRPF vehicles, 3 police vans and 2 bunkers. Several policemen and over a score of villagers were injured.

Finally, the Government proved, and convinced people, that the slain individuals were not civilians or local militants, but foreigners who had been active in the area for at least the past six months. But had the anger been sparked off by the misunderstanding that the slain were locals killed in a fake encounter like the one in Machil two years ago? Incidentally, the Machil sector is close to Lolab, and people have vivid memories of the ruthless episode. The truth is that anger erupted in Lolab not just because of the misunderstanding created by the police delay in producing the bodies, and neither because, when it did, the faces of the slain were found to have been mangled.  The locals suspected a fake encounter for another major reason: a gun-battle with seven armed foreign militants is usually a tough proposition involving heavy fighting for hours. People witnessed nothing of this sort in this case. Only some “small” firing was noticed before authorities announced the killing of seven foreign militants.

Locals now believe that the forces had probably succeeded in poisoning the militants before engaging them in an encounter. This strategy is not new but has been in practice in the border areas for a long time now. So, when the killing of seven foreign militants in a gun-battle was announced, people did not believe it, because not much fighting had taken place. It dawned on them much later that “other” methods had been used.

But still, the larger picture is that such a huge and strong demonstration by people clearly reflects their emotional support for the azadi movement. It was not the inhabitants of just one village, but tens of thousands of people from Darpora, Lalpora, Syed Mohalla , Divar, Tikipora, Rangwar, Ratnar, Sonar, Thundoosa and several other localities, who attended the funeral prayers of the slain militants amid thunderous freedom slogans. This was a record number of people in the area showing their respect for the slain militants who they think are fighting for their liberation. The wide gap was all too clear between what the forces think and what the people demonstratively believe.

The DIG North Kashmir, JP Singh, said: “The killing of the militants is a big achievement for us and a huge blow to the LeT. Our men faced difficulties in tracking them down in the arduous terrain.  But we managed to neutralize seven of them.”  On the other hand, the anger shown by the people, and the massive congregation at the funeral prayers, demonstrated avowed support for the resistance movement.

There is one other important point to note: What the DIG said about the militants’ identification is significant:  “People told us that they had seen this group of militants roaming in the area a number of times. We showed them the photographs of these slain militants, and they confirmed to us that they were not locals but foreign militants.” This indicates several things. First, the militants were known to the people very closely, because only then could they have identified them. This means that militants enjoy a very good relationship with the locals who did not inform the Army or the SOG about their presence.

This actually speaks volumes about the success of the militants, because it means that people do not feel threatened by them. And the militants seem then to have changed their tactics from being a threat for the people to being their friends. Earlier, militants would treat people harshly and resort to acts of terrorism for petty reasons. But probably, not now.

The magnitude of support shown by the people in Lolab also speaks about their sensitivity towards fake encounters. This should serve as a warning for the forces on how counter-productive fake encounters can prove.  However, one would like to add that violent methods of protest should have been avoided. District authorities had clamped curfew in the entire district, and a valley-wide bandh was observed on February 28 in response to a call given by the Hurriyet (G). This clearly suggests that the resistance, or insurgency, mindset has spread – because a head count is still considered a bigger achievement than a real political settlement.