The red-bricked house in a sleepy south Kashmir village ringed in by lush green mountains, paddy fields and apple orchards was under siege for the fourth time last month.
A rapid action team of combined security forces was searching for Mujeeb (name changed) whom they accuse of arranging logistical support for militants.
In the legal framework, Mujeeb, 26, a college dropout, had come to be known as an “overground worker,” an ambiguously worded term used by the Jammu & Kashmir Police to describe the young and the old sympathisers of militants in Kashmir.
The J&K Police has arrested over 200 such workers this year, DGP Dilbag Singh said recently.
The raid at Mujeeb’s home, however, didn’t yield any result. The search operation lasted nearly four hours but security forces couldn’t locate him in the four-room, single-storey building. Was he tipped about the upcoming siege, giving him the time to sneak out? Or was there was a hideout that they were unable to bust?
The search operation was later called off.
But, while security forces still believed they were on the lookout for an “overground worker,” Mujeeb’s family knew he had already signed up to enter the murky world of Kashmir militancy.
“We later got to know that he was recruited by Jaish-e-Mohammad only some days back,” police sources said.
"“He couldn’t bear the harassment by security forces. One day he took me in a separate room and said he was going to join the militants. He couldn’t muster the courage to tell his father. We have not seen him since.”" - Mujeeb’s Mother
However, unlike the insurgency of yesteryears, popularised by Hizbul Mujahideen’s former Kashmir chief Burhan Wani, Mujeeb, who worked as a salesman and also helped his father in their apple orchard, isn’t a social media militant. In a sharp departure from the past, there has been no announcement on Facebook or Twitter of his deathly plunge into militancy.
Changing Contours of Kashmir Militancy
In the weeks and months after Article 370’s abrogation, the photos of youngsters taking to arms in Kashmir vanished from social media platforms. However, it is not that militant recruitment has stopped.
According to official data accessed by Outlook, 35 Kashmiri youngsters joined militant ranks by the end of May this year. The number is likely to be on the higher side, according to sources.
In the three encounters that took place within four days in south Kashmir from 7 June, 14 militants were gunned down by security forces.
Of the nine Hizbul militants killed in the first two encounters, just one, Saqlain Amin, had completed nearly one year in militancy. Another militant, from Kulgam, was merely a day-old while a third one was two days old in militancy, family sources said.
However, a common thread that runs through almost all of them was that, like Mujeeb, their final descent into militancy didn’t get publicised or glamourised on social media.
Social Media Militancy
In the three years after 2016, when Burhan Wani, of the proscribed Hizb outfit, was killed by security forces, the insurgency in Kashmir went through a dramatic change.
A matter of “grave concern” rattling the security forces was the Hizb’s tactical shift to shed the cloak of anonymity and secrecy from the cult of militancy in Kashmir.
Leveraging the power of social media for violent objectives, Burhan Wani had glamorised armed rebellion. By posting pictures of his outings in the woods with his coterie, he made militancy an attractive proposition for youngsters caught in the throes of abuse and perpetual violence, drawing more and more recruits.
In a radical shift, the arrival of the new foot soldiers into the world of Kashmir militancy now was widely publicised by flooding social media with their photos.
In them, the recruits were seen in military fatigues clutching on to their automatic rifles; three details written on the photos especially stood out – the educational qualification of the recruit, date of joining the militancy and their alias.
"“This tactic was meant to serve three objectives; that the new recruits were not illiterates; that they couldn’t change their minds once in, and that their affiliations were known to one and all.”" - A senior police officer in the counter insurgency grid to The Quint
This shift may well be a closed chapter.
‘88 Militants Killed This Year, 22 in the Last Two Weeks’
As the Centre went screaming around the town that terrorism in Kashmir was going to be a thing of the past after Article 370’s abrogation, a new and more intense round of crackdown on militants started in Kashmir.
According to official data, around 200 militants have been gunned down by security forces since 5 August last year when the special status of J&K was read down and the erstwhile state was divided into two Union territories using the J&K Reorganisation Act 2019.
"“We have evidence that Pakistan is sponsoring different terror outfits. A large number of social media sites are being used to lure the youth (towards militancy) but we are foiling these attempts.”" - DGP, J&K Police, Dilbag Singh
Eighty-eight militants have been killed this year, 22 of them alone in the last two weeks, DGP Singh added.
Among the slain was the Hizbul Mujahideen’s Kashmir chief Riyaz Naikoo, whose killing last month may have inflicted a death knell to new recruitments in Kashmir, and a ring of other key militant leaders such as Junaid Sehrai, son of the Hurriyat hawk Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai.
“Militancy in today’s Kashmir is like a ship without captain,” said a police officer posted in south Kashmir, the epicentre of militancy. “The leadership vacuum is compounded by the dearth of arms and ammunition.”
The officer said there are around 200-250 militants active in Jammu and Kashmir. While the number of local militants continues to remain on the higher size, DGP Singh, according to an official handout, said a “sizeable number” of militants “get through the rough and tedious terrains” along the Line of Control and International Border in J&K.
Following the death of Naikoo, Pakistan-based Hizb reportedly appointed Saifullah Mir, a medical technician who joined the outfit after 2014 floods and is perhaps the last popular face of militancy, as the chief of the outfit.
Like Naikoo, Saifullah is also reported to keep a low profile.
“Saifullah was close to Naikoo and the new Hizb recruits might obviously follow the strategy, advocated by him, that is to stay away from gadgets and social media. But already there are unconfirmed photos and clips on social media, so we also have to see how other groups act,” the police officer quoted above said.
Ajai Sahni, the executive director of Delhi-based security think-tank Institute for Conflict Management, said the survival rate of militants exposed on social media is likely to plummet than those following the traditional route of anonymity and secrecy.
“Social media militancy was a transient aberration. It had advantages in terms of propaganda and recruitment, but made it easier for security forces to locate and neutralise the militants. Most of the individuals who had an active social media presence are being rapidly neutralised and the message would have gone out to others that such exposure is not a good idea,” Sahni said.
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