SRINAGAR, Kashmir—The most recent internet shutdown in Kashmir's troubled southern districts had an unusual trigger: dozens of special police officers were sharing videos of themselves resigning from the force on their Facebook and WhatsApp accounts.
The brain behind this most recent campaign to publicly undermine the Indian state's authority in Kashmir is Riyaz Naikoo, a 33-year-old former mathematics teacher with a love for painting roses and a price of Rs 12 lakh on his head, who has risen to become the operational commander of one of the state's oldest insurgent groups, the Hizbul Mujahideen.
Naikoo's call for policemen to renounce the force, and the response it received, has cemented his relevance in Kashmir's protracted insurgency. It was also his idea for insurgents to stage gun salutes to mark the funeral ceremonies of slain militants, as was "abduction day"—an audacious and successful plan to abduct the families of police officers.
The salutes, intelligence agents say, have made an impression on young men contemplating joining the movement. The abductions seek to drive a wedge between the police force, and the men recruited to serve it.
Naikoo is testament to the decades-long militancy's resilience, the ready supply of young men willing to fight the Indian state almost as fast as their comrades are gunned by police forces, and also his own sagacity in managing the potential disintegration of the Hizbul after its former leader, Zakir Musa, broke away to form a splinter front.
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Naikoo's rapid ascent, eight months after Burhan Wani, the Hizb's most popular face, was killed by Indian security forces, suggests that the Narendra Modi government's hard-line approach is yet to succeed in dislodging a well-supplied militant group, founded in 1989, with the self-professed aim of merging Kashmir with Pakistan.
Who is Riyaz Naikoo?
Naikoo was born to Asadullah and Zeba in Beighpora village of Awantipora tehsil in district Pulwama in April 1985. Asadullah and Zeba worked their own fields in Beighpora, while Asadullah also set up a small tailoring shop.
The second among a sister and three brothers, Naikoo studied at the government school in the neighbouring village of Gulzarpora, and then at the Higher Secondary School in Noorpora—home to the family of Musa, the man he would eventually replace as the Hizb's operational commander.
"Riyaz wanted to become an engineer but he decided to pursue his graduation in science with Mathematics as his major subject," said Asadullah, now 58, as he smoked a jijeer waterpipe, sitting with wife Zeba. "He was really good at Maths but also showed a keen interest in construction. He helped me with the building of this house and in his spare time would help me and his mother in the fields."
Naikoo's parents spoke of Riyaz in the past tense, as if already reconciled to the likelihood that their son would one day die in gun battle, much like the over 135 presumed militants killed by security forces this year alone. Over 360 have been killed in less than two years, according to CRPF Director General Rajiv Rai Bhatnagar.
"In 12th standard he scored 464 marks out of 600," Asadullah continued. "He was always the silent type and everyone in the village would think very highly of him. He was regular at praying and reading Quran and at a very young age even was called upon by village elders to mitigate local disputes. After his graduation he began teaching Maths at a private school."
Naikoo taught at the school till 2010-11, often giving free tuitions to several students in his village.
In 2010, Tufail Ahmad Mattoo was killed when a tear gas shell—fired by policemen to quell a protest against the fake encounter of three civilians in Machil—struck him as he played cricket in Srinagar's Gani memorial stadium.
Mattoo's death triggered a fresh cycle of unrest; scores of youth were arrested by the police and Naikoo was one of them. When he was released from prison in 2012, something had changed inside the young maths teacher.
That summer, Naikoo asked his father for Rs 7,000 to apply for admission in a post-graduate university in Bhopal. On 21 May 2012, Asadullah recalled, the family brought home a chicken for dinner and left for evening prayers.
"Following the prayers I couldn't spot him," Asadullah said. "I thought he must have gone to meet his cousins but he didn't return."
The family tried to call him, but his phone was switched off.
On 6 June, the police told Asadullah his son had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen.
Inside the Hizb
Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen's most charismatic face in a generation, was only 21 when he was killed by security forces in Bumdoora village in Kokernag area of South Kashmir in 2016. He was succeeded by Zakir Rashid Bhat, who was also 21 when he took command of operations in the south.
Yet, in a video released after Wani's death, Bhat—who goes by the nom de guerre of Zakir Musa—struck an off-key note.
"Nationalism and democracy are not permissible in Islam," Bhat, alias Musa, said. "When we pick up stones or guns, it should not be with this intention that we are fighting for Kashmir. The sole motive should be for the supremacy of Islam so that Shariah is established here."
The call for Shariah surprised many in the valley. Kashmir's insurgency had long described itself as an armed movement for independence, with some groups—the Hizb included—calling for a merger of Kashmir with Pakistan. Musa's call for merging Kashmir with a global Islamic caliphate was new.
Musa's pivot was also apparent in an audio clip released in May 2017, in which he threatened to cut the heads of Hurriyat leaders and hang them at Srinagar's Lal Chowk if they came in his way of establishing Islamic rule in Kashmir.
When the Hizb refused to back the statement, Musa announced he was cutting ties with them. In July 2017, an al-Qaida-affiliated propaganda channel announced Musa as the head of a newly created outfit called the Ansar Ghawzat-Ul-Hind.
Amongst intelligence circles, Musa's defection prompted speculation that the Hizb would split, with close to half of the group's estimated 330 active agents joining his new outfit.
Yet in January 2018, the Ministry of Home Affairs told parliament that Ansar Ghawzat-Ul-Hind had the support of "less than 10 militants". The Ministry further said "nothing has been established on ground that ISIS is operating in any part of Kashmir".
In conversations with HuffPost India, intelligence agents credited Naikoo, Musa's successor, with holding the Hizb together and steering the militant group away from the Islamic Caliphate and back to more familiar Indo-Pak concerns.
"In south Kashmir, slogans in favour of Zakir Musa have drowned since Naikoo took command," said a senior intelligence officer, requesting anonymity. "While Musa is partly responsible for loss of his popularity in South, Naikoo's leadership skills and ability to bind together his associates and subordinates prevailed. He might have not uttered a word against other militant outfits operating in South Kashmir, but he managed to hold his own outfit together."
Naikoo's task, the officer said, would have been much harder without his deputy Altaf Dar alias Altaf Kachroo, who was killed by security forces in August 2018.
"Naikoo was a close associate of Burhan Wani but not as close as Zakir or Sabzar (another HM militant)," said a senior police officer in south Kashmir. "However he had a strong presence in the group owing to his seniority. After Musa's defection, Naikoo and Kachroo stuck together."
Kachroo was closer to the Hizb chief Syed Salahudeen, the officer said. Naikoo leveraged Kachroo's proximity to HM's senior leadership to gain control over the group. Much like Naikoo, Kachroo too had spent time in Kashmir's prison system. He was arrested in 2012, while working as a daily wage labourer in Srinagar, and joined the Hizb in 2016.
"In fact the abductions have prompted those who favour the militancy to see how dangerous this can turn out to be for the local population."
Apart from orchestrating the online resignations of policemen, Naikoo is also the brains behind "abduction day", when eleven family members of six policemen were kidnapped by militants in four southern Kashmir districts.
The abductions were planned well in advance and involved "not less than 30 militants and 50 over-ground workers", an intelligence officer told HuffPost India.
All the hostages were eventually released, but only after Naikoo's father was let off from police custody, a development seen as a psychological victory for the Hizb. The abductions prompted a slew of measures, including salary hikes, to raise the morale of the J&K police, according to one state government official.
Vijay Kumar, senior IPS officer and currently the adviser to governor Satya Pal Malik, disagrees. "J&K police continues to be in good shape. The police is spearheading the anti-insurgency operations in the Valley and have been greatly successful ," Kumar told HuffPost India.
"Of course this was an attempt to demoralise the security forces here but it has not worked," Kumar said. "In fact the abductions have prompted those who favour the militancy to see how dangerous this can turn out to be for the local population."
Another senior police officer, requesting anonymity, said the targeting of civilians and families of police will eventually backfire. "Harassing police families and the subsequent execution of three policemen has made the militant sympathisers rethink their choices and ideology. Targeting police families shows desperation and nothing else," the officer said.
Back in Beighpora, where Naikoo grew up, his father said his family was now routinely harassed by the police.
"Ever since 2012, our home has been raided at least 30-40 times. Most of the times we (pointing towards his younger son) are beaten up," Asadullah said. "My wife too has been beaten up in the past and especially the last time police came (August 30). They broke our fridge, our rice cooker and radio. Even threw out our clothes."
Asadullah's brother Ghulam Qadir, he said, was booked under the Public Safety Act during the Wani agitation and was set free only after six months. A few months ago, he said, the police barged in and spray-painted Musa's name all over his house. The police force has refuted these charges in the past.
"There has been intense pressure on us by the police who tell us to ask Riyaz to surrender. One year after he became a militant, he came home and I told him that we were being pressured to ask you to surrender," Asadullah said. "He told me that the next time police asks for a surrender, ask them 'has my son stolen anything from you'."
Naikoo's mother Zeba claimed that he came to meet her twice, once very briefly in 2013 and the last time in 2015.
"He used to paint a lot," she recalled in a recent conversation. "He used to make the most beautiful roses. I would have shown some of his paintings to you but they all got washed away during the 2014 floods."
Naikoo was among the most humble boys in his generation, Zeba said.
"My younger son complains so much about the food that I cook but Riyaz Saab would keep his head down and eat everything that I put in front of him. Whether the food had extra or no salt, Riyaz Saab would never point out. May Allah keep him under his protection."