The government on multiple occasions this year claimed that abrogation of Article 370 and ‘unhindered’ security operations will stamp out militancy from Jammu and Kashmir and wean away youth from joining militancy. But official data accessed by News18 contradict those claims and suggest that 2020 saw the second highest militant spike in the last 10 years. Figures reveal there isn’t much of a gap between the number of militants killed and youth joining militancy.

From January to the first week of November, 191 militants, including 20 foreigners, were killed in security operations. But around the same time, 145 youth signed up for militancy.

Describing militancy in Jammu and Kashmir as a zero sum game, a top counter insurgency hand admitted this is a marginal drop in the overall number of militant operatives on the ground. “What matters is not the headcount, but quality of training, arms you carry, communication gadgets and back-end logistics,” he said.

Figures reveal that the highest number of militants killed — 254 in 107 encounters — and recruitment (210) was recorded in 2018. In comparison, 191 have been killed in 86 encounters and 145 youth joined militancy this year. Also, five to eight missing youth may have joined militancy, though more than 50 others were arrested, and surrendered before police. Officials say there are reports of marginal recruitments from Chenab and Pir Panjal valleys.

In 2019, 157 militants were killed in 79 gun-battles and 127 youth inducted into militancy. In 2017, a year after militant commander Burhan Wani was killed, 192 militants were killed in 83 encounters and 139 new recruits joined back.

Spike inspite of bar on funerals, e-restrictions

“A gap of 40 to 50 operatives this year (191 killed and 145 joining) will not change the complexion of militancy. One push and it will get even,” an officer warned. “Moreover, we cannot tell with certainty how many infiltrate from the across the borders and Line of Control. So the numbers remain more or less static, around 200. This is true of last many years,” he said.

In fact officials are surprised at the “fairly good” recruitment numbers this year, despite a bar on the funeral rallies of militants and a decrepit internet facility — both seen as factors contributing to militancy.

They said gun salutes given to slain militants during large funeral gatherings would add halo around militancy and would draw youth to it, some even pledging to join on the spot. “There was an impression that recruitment would fall considerably if funeral gatherings are stopped. Seems it had no impact,” an officer said, adding that not returning bodies to families must have riled the youth who continue to feed militant numbers. “We don’t rule that out but cannot arrive at any number.”

As per a new government policy, the bodies of militants killed in encounters are not handed over to their families to avoid big congregations. Instead, a few close relatives are allowed to participate in the burials far away from their homes.

Officials had hoped the suspension or slow internet, too, would dissuade youth from picking up guns but again there has not been much of a swing. “The slow internet could be an issue but it seems new recruits are not keen on announcing their induction into militancy. The Jaish and Lashkar operatives usually refrain from doing so. Maybe the new trend is not to show up and be discreet,” an official said.

Burhan Wani, slain militant commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, used social media to great effect to bolster militancy. This continued even after his death in 2016. Young recruits in late teens or twenties would post videos or photos on social media with guns slung around their bodies to announce signing up for militancy.

Militants shuffling strategies

Of the 190-odd militants killed so far, 20 are foreigners or of Pakistani origin. Last year, 154 militants were killed, out of whom 35 were foreigners.

The other thing reflected in the data is that only 15 militants were killed in operations in north Kashmir this year. While 19 militants, including Hizbul Mujahideen operations chief Saifullah Mir alias Dr Saifullah and its district commander Junaid Ashraf Sehrai, were killed in Srinagar, the rest were eliminated in south Kashmir.

In 2019, 41 of the 157 militants killed were eliminated in operations in north Kashmir, four in Srinagar and the rest in south Kashmir.

Officials note that because of a huge security footprint and intelligence network in south Kashmir, militants were shifting from south Kashmir to central and north Kashmir. As a result, there have been 10 gun battles in Srinagar, including two in the downtown locality this year. Many ambushes on security forces were reported in and around Srinagar, suggesting militants were on the move. Militants, officials say, were also sighted on many occasions in the localities bordering Pulwama and Budgam.

Recruitment on hold in winters

As is the trend, officials expect recruitment levels to fall after October due to weather and constrains of finding secure shelters. “Militant recruitments start in spring to late summers. It peaks in August and September. The last push happens in October after which it drops considerably. The cold makes life difficult in hills and militants have to hide in residential areas that too in limited shelters,” said a police officer.

“If a youth is keen on joining militancy, he would be advised to wait till next spring when more shelters become available in the mountains. In winters, a new recruit can become a liability and desert the outfit,” the officer said.

Call it a shift in strategy, he said, militants were preferring to stay in dugouts to minimise public contact and survive for longer periods.

South Kashmir vs North Kashmir militancy

Officials say militancy in south Kashmir is driven by young local recruits mostly belonging to Hizbul Mujahiden, though of late, Jaish and Lashkar, too, have started to find recruits. They say this year, too, the Hizb suffered lot of damage.

Of the 190 militants killed, 80 were recruits from 2020 and a half came from the largest homegrown outfit. The Hizb, officials noted, is crunched for rifles and ammunition, while both LeT and JeM and other fronts like Al-Badr, The Resistance Front and People’s Anti Fascist Front (PAFF) are well placed.

The recovery of 39 pistols in 90-odd encounters is an indication that militants –and this is mainly with Hizb — are short of weapons. “On the other hand, we have recovered M-4 rifles from cadre of LeT and Jaish,” he said, giving out the stark difference on arms possessed by militant outfits.

In the Nagrota encounter, the four slain militants on way to Kashmir were carrying 11 AK series rifles, 30 grenades and lot of ammunition to replenish their cadres, Dilbag Singh, director general of Jammu and Kashmir police, recently told media.

On the other hand, militancy in north Kashmir is sustained mostly by Pakistani militants. An army official recently told reporters there might be 60 to 80 foreign militants operating in north Kashmir. On crossing the borders, they either carry out sneak-and-strike assault on army fortifications – recent Macchil encounter being a case in point – or hide in the large swathes of land in north Kashmir.

Officials have observed this year that the foreign militants stayed put inside jungles or remained hidden in remote villages where security footprint is less.

Moreover, the militants here operate differently. They don’t go after local politicians or people suspicion of being police informants. “Because they avoid public contact to a large extent, the information flow leading to their arrest or an encounter diminishes. Also explains why there are fewer contacts in north,” a senior officer said.

“It is seen that militants in north are better trained and have access to arms and gadgets,” he added.

In fact, in a first of its kind operation in Pattan area of Baramulla district early this year, three militants shot their ambush operation against CRPF using bodycams. The feed was later uploaded on social media, apparently to galvanise recruitments.

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