PULWAMA, Jammu and Kashmir — In one of the most significant encounters of 2018 in Kashmir, three suspected militants, seven civilians, and one army trooper were killed when security forces confronted three armed men holed up in a trench in Sirnoo village, adding to the nearly 500 people killed in the state last year, the bloodiest in a decade.
Yet, the significance of the encounter went beyond the death-toll: the use of trenches as hideouts and the identity of the one of the dead men — former territorial army man Zahoor Thoker, later suspected of joining the Hizbul Mujahideen — suggested that the increasingly diverse cadre-base of militant groups was adding to their sophistication.
The trajectory of Thoker’s life, and the circumstances surrounding his death in a trench fighting the security forces he once worked for, sums up the kind of year 2018 was in Kashmir: a year when security forces, and the militants actively targeted each other’s networks, expanding the theatre of the conflict well beyond the shoot-outs that capture public attention.
The use of trenches, in particular, intelligence officers said, could be interpreted in multiple ways: civilians were less supportive of militants and therefore less likely to shelter them in their homes, or that militants were no longer staying with villagers to shield civilians from the consequences of inevitable encounters with security forces.
“Thoker and two other militants were staying in something that looked like a dug-out trench covered with tin sheets, similar to underground hideouts used by Pakistani militants in North Kashmir,” a senior police officer told HuffPost India. A paramilitary officer said it was likely that Thoker might have helped with building the “cave-like hideout” owing to his experience in the army as well as being posted in North Kashmir.
While trenches had been used in north Kashmir, officers said, trenches in south Kashmir harked back to the 1990s.
“In the late 90’s and early 2000s when militancy was declining, dozens of such trenches were discovered both in North and South Kashmir,” said former DGP of Jammu and Kashmir, K Rajendra Kumar. “I remember discovery of similar structures even in Srinagar specially in Faqir Gujri area.”
Kumar said the proliferation of informer networks could have prompted militants to use methods last seen when the fidayeen, or suicide squads, were active in the valley.
“There could be multiple factors at play. One is that militants wish avoiding damage to households as there is a high possibility that the houses they used as hideouts get destroyed in case an encounter breaks out,” Kumar said. “There is also the factor of getting discovered easily whilst moving in and out of a populated area and then there locals who do not offer their homes to the militants to stay in.”
Nearly 260 militants were killed in 2018, the highest since 2009 when the toll stood at 244 according to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. The fatalities include Tallah Rashid, the nephew of Jaish e’ Mohammad Chief Masood Azhar; Altaf Dar, considered second in command to the Hizbul Mujahideen’s operational commander Riyaz Naikoo, Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Mehraj Bangroo and PhD scholar turned militant Mannan Wani.
Many of the deaths, security forces say, are a consequence of a massive expansion of informer networks.
“There is no doubt that the flow of human intelligence has increased in the past last two years and the most evident proof is the increase in operations against the militants,” said Zulfikar Hassan, Inspector General in the Central Reserve Police Force.
The rise in informants has also resulted in the arrest of over 500 civilians, termed over-ground workers or OGWs by the police, on suspicions of working for various militant groups, an intelligence officer said.
“We can’t put a concrete number on it but for one militant to operate in the Valley, access logistics and move around in his area, support of 4-5 OGW’s is required,” Hasan from the CRPF added. “It was a massive network and the security grid had managed to hit them hard.”
Yet the militants have been quick to strike back.
On August 31 last year, 11 family members of six policemen were kidnapped by militants in four districts of south Kashmir. S.P. Vaid, the then DGP was removed from his post. In September militants uploaded pictures of over a dozen special police officers (SPO) on social media and asked them to quit their jobs.
A source in the police said some of the policemen, whose pictures, names, designations and addresses were splashed across Facebook, were part of electronic surveillance units responsible for monitoring militant and separatist activities on the internet and mobile networks.
In October, a special police officer (SPO) decamped with seven rifles and a pistol from the residence of a People’s Democratic Party MLA in the Jawahar Nagar area of Srinagar.
In November, videos of civilians being executed by armed men were uploaded on social media. These civilians, from South Kashmir, were charged with being informers. In distant North, several “suspected informers” were killed by militants, some were even beheaded.
These tit-for-tat killings, as the December 15 encounter reveals, have played a vital role in keeping the conflict alive — as each side seeks to avenge the killing of their comrades in arms.
On December 15 2018, the Indian army received a tip-off of a militant hideout in Sirnoo village. A team of troopers was dispatched and arrived at the hideout in the early hours of morning at about 4 am. The hideout looked to be in use, but was empty at the time.
“Ideally the operation should have been called off but the army decided to move on and search the entire locality,” a well-placed source said. The army troopers, eye witnessed told HuffPost India, decided to forcibly enlist civilians to help them find the militants who had, presumably been using the hideout.
Mohammad Khaliq, a retired school teacher and a resident of the area said he was woken up between 5 and 6 am that morning by loud knocking on his door. The security forces, he alleged, beat up his two sons and took them along to search for the militants. Khaliq and the rest of his family followed them and watched from a distance before asked to leave.
At 8 am, the troopers and Khaliq’s sons came across a second trench dug along the edge of an apple orchard.
“They told one of my sons to climb down into the trench and see if there was anyone inside it,” Khaliq said. “My son couldn’t see anything, because it was dark inside. Few seconds after he pulled himself out, the militants opened fire, injuring an army man. The army retaliated. My sons threw themselves to the ground while the two sides exchanged bullets.”
Locals said government forces went on a shooting spree, killing seven civilians while media channels reported that the civilians killed were shot during the encounter when they tried to interfere with the operation against the militants by throwing stones.
The army has refused to answer questions on whether Khaliq’s sons were used as human shields by the army.
One of the militants killed in the operation was Zahoor Thoker, the former soldier from the 173 territorial army.
Till recently, the graveyard in Monghama —the village where Thoker grew up — had only one grave that testified to a violent death: Mohammed Ramzan, a villager killed by a government-backed militia in the mid 1990s. That apart, the Monghama’s residents had somehow escaped Kashmir 30 year conflict.
On June 21 2017, three suspected Lashkar-e-Toiba militants were killed in Kakpora, not far from Monghama. The house the suspected militants were staying in was razed to the ground, and their bodies were charred beyond recognition. One of those killed was just 17. Their deaths lead to an upheaval in South Kashmir.
“The situation got bad, especially in our neighbouring Karimabad area,”said Thoker’s friend and neighbour. “Zahoor had been witness to all of it but the final blow came in June last year after the Kakpora encounter. He just couldn’t accept it.”
Thoker was part of 173 Territorial Army before becoming the Hizbul Mujahideen commander in south Kashmir. The following month, in July 2017, he went missing along with his service rifle and ammunition from north Kashmir’s Baramulla region. His family had no history of militancy and his brother of Thoker continues to serve in the army.
Yet, with his death, the villagers said, Thoker had become the second “martyr”, and the first militant to be buried in Monghama’s graveyard.
“People who have visited the village since the encounter made sure they visited Zahoor Sahab’s grave,” said Mohammad Yosuf, a resident and a cloth merchant by profession. “We have decided to call it Shaheed Park.”