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The Mystery of Sopore Killings

Bashir Manzar (bmanzar@gmail.com) is Editor, Daily Kashmir Images. 

Sopore in north Kashmir is in grip of fear and anxiety after six people were killed in less than a month’s time. Separatist and militant groups blame the government and security agencies for the killings, while security forces claim the killers are renegade militants. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement about using terrorists to neutralise terrorists has inevitably got linked to the situation, bringing back hoary memories of the mid-1990s, when the counter insurgency group Ikhwan ul-Muslimoon became a law unto itself. Ambiguous statements by militants have aggravated such fears, while the government has done nothing to allay apprehensions.

Six mysterious murders in less than a month’s time have left the people of Sopore, a prosperous town in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, shell shocked.  Fear and uncertainty have gripped the populace and the town wears a deserted look. Separatist groups and militant outfits say “Indian agencies” are behind these killings. They have also linked the violence to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement about using terrorists to neutralise terrorists.

However, police claim the killers are active members of Hizbul Mujahideen who have revolted against their Pakistan-based chief Sayeed Salahudeen and are trying to assert their writ in the area. Sopore has all along been a strong hold of Jamaat-e-Islami and Salahudeen and hardline Hurriyat faction chief, Syed Ali Geelani, originally belong to the area.

The Chain of Events

It all started with Lashkar-e-Islam, a hitherto unknown militant group, issuing a warning to stop the use of mobile telephones in Sopore. Some mobile network towers were attacked and people, whose premises housed such towers, were asked to remove them. On 25 May, gunmen attacked a Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) franchisee in Sopore, killed an employee of the shop, Rafiq Akbar, and injured a few other employees. Akbar was from Pohru Peth in Kupwara district.

The attack was followed by the murder of one Ghulam Hassan Dar, a resident of Dooru village of Sopore (Geelani’s native village) on 26 May. Gunmen reportedly barged into his house and fired indiscriminately. The deceased, a former militant, housed a cellphone tower in his premises. These two killings disrupted the mobile network in almost entire north Kashmir and had an effect in other districts too.

Lashkar-e-Islam tried to justify these attacks by suggesting that that it was retaliating against the Indian security agencies. The security agencies were using the mobile network to track militants, they asserted. However, the police claimed that the militants had installed secretly installed devices on some of the towers to strengthen their communication across the Line of Control (LoC) with their operators and they had recovered these devices.

Meanwhile, Geelani and Salahudeen, who besides being the chief of Hizbul Mujahideen also heads the United Jihad Council (UJC) and amalgam of several militant groups including notorious Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, issued strong statements against the killings describing Lashkar-e-Islam, a brain child of “Indian intelligence agencies.” Following Geelani’s hard-hitting statement dubbing the killers as Indian agents, the gunmen targeted one of his associates, Sheikh Altaf-ur-Rehman, and killed him on 9 June at Sopore. Rehman, a government employee, was a former militant and actively involved with Geelani’s Hurriyat.

On 13 June, another former militant, Khursheed Ahmad Bhat was killed at Bomai near Sopore. Several cases of stone pelting were registered against Bhat, though Geelani said that the deceased was not affiliated with his group. A former militant of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Mehraj-ud-din Dar was gunned down on 14 June outside his Badambagh residence in Sopore and next day, on 15 June, Ajaz Ahmad Reshi, a former Harkat-ul-Mujahideen militant, fell to the bullets of unknown gunmen in Sopore.

Parrikar Link

The mysterious killings have rattled all the major separatist groups and forced them to react jointly. Both factions of Hurriyat Conference (led by Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq), JKLF (headed by Mohammad Yasin Malik) and Hurriyat JK (headed by Shabir Ahmad Shah) combined to accuse “Indian agencies” for these killings, linking them to the Defence Minister’s statement of neutralising terrorists through terrorists.

These separatist groups declared a bandh on 17 June and asked people to march to Sopore on 19 June to protest killings “by Indian agencies.” However, the march was foiled by the government ordering restrictions in Srinagar city’s old town and Sopore. All the leaders—Geelani, Mirwaiz, Malik and Shah—were put under house arrest. The separatist groups, backed by militant groups like Hizbul Mujahideen, are asserting that the Indian government is reviving Ikhwan culture and the Sopore killings were a prelude to such a “nefarious design.”

Ikhwan Culture

In late 1994 when militancy in Jammu and Kashmir was at its peak, the Indian army lured some militants to renege and join hands with security forces against the Pakistan sponsored militants. Some surrendered militants were also lured to fight “India’s war.” Mohammad Yousuf Parray aka Kukka Parray, who was an active militant of pro-Pakistan Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, was the first to side with the Indian army. He along with some of his colleagues floated a counter insurgent group—Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon.

Kukka Parray hailed from Hajan area of north Kashmir’s Bandipora district. Originally a Kashmiri folk singer, he made a living out of performing at weddings before he became a militant. He emerged as the dreaded counter insurgent as hundreds of other militants, deserting from different militant groups, joined his group and started killing militants and their sympathisers all over Kashmir Valley.

The group was reportedly armed and financed by the Indian army and some intelligence agencies and the members of the group were law unto themselves. Ikhwan may have led to an ebb in pro-Pakistan militancy in Kashmir, but in the process the outfit killed, looted and raped at will. Meanwhile, another militant leader, Ghulam Nabi aka Naba Azad floated his group Muslim Mujahideen and along with another militant, Liyaqat, launched a counter insurgency campaign from south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

While these counter insurgent groups put the pro-Pakistan militants on the back foot, they also targeted innocent civilians and killed hundreds. They indulged in loot and timber smuggling. Since these groups were under direct protection of army, the police couldn’t dare to challenge them.

Ikhwan has been credited with making elections to Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly possible in 1996, after a long spell of President’s rule. Pro-Pakistan militants were on the run, sympathisers of militants were demoralised and in hiding and the government could hold elections in a relatively peaceful atmosphere. Before the elections, Kukka Parray floated a political party, Awami, League. He contested elections from Sonawari constituency of North Kashmir and won (though his victory is seen as manipulation by the army and other security agencies).

Parray’s close associate Javed Dar joined the then ruling National Conference and was made member of Legislative Council (upper house) by then Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah. However, with the situation improving, Ikhwan lost relevance. Though several of its members were absorbed in Jammu and Kashmir Police’s special counter insurgency group—Special Operations Group—many were killed in the following years by pro-Pakistan militants as the army gradually withdrew protection.

In August 2003, Parray’s one time close confidante, Javed Shah was killed in Srinagar by militants and on 13 September the same year, Kukka Parray too fell to militant bullets near his home town. That was, in a way, the end of Ikhwan. Another confidante of Kukka Paray, Usman Majid, contested Assembly elections in 2002 and won from Bandipora constituency in North Kashmir and was a minister in PDP-Congress coalition. He later joined Congress and won from Bandipora again in 2014. Though for the army and other security agencies Ikhwan may seem as “the best thing” that had happened on counter insurgency front, any mention of the group sends shivers down spines of people in Kashmir.

The separatist groups allege that Manohar Parrikar’s statement hints at Indian designs of launching Ikhwan type of counter insurgency groups. Interestingly two former Chief Ministers, Omar Abdullah and Ghulam Nabi Azad too, in their recent statements, have also tried to link Parrikar’s statement and the Sopore killings questioning the timing of Defence Minister’s statement. The Defence Minister made the statement on 22 May and the first person in Sopore fell to the bullets on 25 May.

Joining the Dots

Though India has a history of arming civilians, the revival of Ikhwan seems far-fetched. When the experiment was conducted in the 1990s, there were thousands of active militants all over Kashmir. A section of people followed the believers without much thought. They had no sound ideologies or convictions and were easily lured by the army to do all sorts of dirty jobs.

However, the situation has changed since then. The graph of human rights violations has come down. Security agencies, particularly the Indian army, are behaving more responsibly and people too have distanced themselves from violent form of resistance. Right now, as per official figures, there are less than 200 militants active in Kashmir Valley. They are ideologically very strong and unlikely to be lured by government agencies.

Who are the Killers?

Police has identified two suspected killers as Abdul Qayoom Najar and Imtiyaz Ahmad Kandoo and put a bounty of Rs 10 lakh on each of them. Najar and Kandoo are known as very hardcore Hizbul Mujahideen militants who had been dominating North Kashmir, particularly Sopore area, since the past few years.

Though the Hizbul Mujahideen outfit has been categorical in accusing “Indian agencies” of these killings, it has adopted a mysterious silence over the police indicting two of its prominent members. The police statement, though, did lead Salahudeen of Hizbul Mujahideen to address a press conference in Muzaffarabad (Pakistan administered Kashmir) on June 17 and refute the allegations that “Mujahideen” were behind these killings. “We strongly condemn these killings. No Mujahideen group can resort to such steps. In fact it is the handiwork of Indian agencies and their stooges” Salahudeen told reporters.

However, instead of resolving the mystery, the militant chief added to the confusion. While stressing that Indian agencies were involved in these killings, he said, “I can give their (killers) names even now but I don’t want to push them to the Indian camp.”

Conclusion

Though one may not subscribe to the theory of revival of Ikhwan, the police reaction to the murders indicates something fishy. Salahudeen’s statements may be controversial, but they fail to explain why the police haven’t acted on the case.

There can be only one interpretation—government and police were not directly involved in the killings but by remaining indifferent and not acting, they were following Defence Minister’s philosophy of “terrorists killing terrorists.” If that is the case, then Kashmir could brace itself for more violence. Hizbul Mujahideen may not name them for fear of their joining “Indian camp” and police will not act against them thus “honouring Defence Minister’s dictat.” Killings will continue and with the passage of time can spread to other parts of Kashmir.

To put an end to this killing cycle, Hizbul Mujahideen would have to come clean and identify the killers, if the outfit really has any clue, and police will have to pull its socks and get to those whom they have identified. Whatever is to be done should be done without wasting any further time. There could be more to this phenomenon that meets the eye. The militants, who have revolted against their leadership, could be deriving inspiration from other sources like Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). For them people like Salahudeen and Geelani could be ideologically “too soft” and  thus not fit to be leaders of Jihad.

On the other hand, if Indian security agencies really have some design in sync with Defence Minister’s statement, the incidents could trigger a civil war and push Kashmir into a state of anarchy thus derailing the relative normalcy that has been achieved so far.

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