In south Kashmir’s Pulwama, a semi-urban district that borders Srinagar’s south-west edge, a new generation of militants backed by sympathetic locals is quickly eroding the long-held influence of the ruling party and engaging security forces in a gruelling fight.
The district has emerged as the epicentre of Kashmir’s new war which is spearheaded by groups of young militants, who have overshadowed the traditional separatists and are backed by the never-ending crowds of stone-throwing protesters.
The new generation of militants has flourished in this district mainly because of the unprecedented support offered by the local population, which has provided them sympathy with thousands turning up at their funerals and also throwing a shield around them in times of need: when militants are trapped by security forces.
The district has witnessed the highest number of clashes between civilians and security forces whenever the latter attempted to cordon off a village or neighbourhood in search of militants. The topography of the district, with its vast orchards and fields ringed by dense forests, also provide a perfect operating space for the militants.
Pulwama, the milk belt of Kashmir, emerged as the ground zero of the new militancy from the shadows of obscurity in recent years. The district was home to Burhan Wani, a symbol of the new militant generation of Kashmir and whose killing in a gunfight last year sparked a deadly wave of protests and unrest.
It is also the base of Abu Dujana, commander of Lashkar-e-Toiba militants in the Kashmir valley and the mastermind of some of the deadly attacks on security forces. The district is also home to nearly 40 militants, most of them locals, who know the geography, the sensibilities and the population.
At least in the electoral arithmetic, Pulwama district’s four Assembly segments were the stronghold of the Peoples Democratic Party, which rode to power on a semi-separatist agenda and painted itself as a moderator between the anti-Delhi and the pro-Delhi politics.
The three out of the four Assembly constituencies are represented by PDP candidates since 2002 and the remaining one – Tral — is represented by the PDP since 2008. In the last Assembly election, all four constituencies of Pulwama were won by the PDP, which had contested the poll with a promise to stop the BJP from coming into power.
A police official in Pulwama said people of Pulwama felt betrayed when the PDP allied with the BJP. “People suddenly felt that they had been wronged when the PDP formed the government with the BJP. It created an absolute vacuum and there was no political alternative around,” a police official said, requesting anonymity.
The militants, treated as local heroes and glorified as martyrs after their killing in gunfights, fitted into the vacuum in the political landscape of Pulwama as locals gradually risked their own lives and rushed to save them during gunfights.
Sajid Ahmad, a resident of Pulwama town, has a simplistic understanding of the growing support for militants in Pulwama that is echoed by many others in the district who see Kashmir’s conflict as an increasingly religious affair. “They are our heroes and people want freedom,” the 22-year-old with a postgraduate degree said.
The unprecedented psychological space and reverence gained by militants — which reached a pinnacle in the past two years — has made it difficult for mainstream politics to survive in Pulwama as hundreds of political workers made an exodus from the district during the past fortnight after the most senior district official of the ruling party was shot dead in a brazen day-time attack by militants.
Abdul Gani Dar, PDP district president in Pulwama was shot dead last month. He was the most high-profile politician to be killed in recent years, making the mainstream politics retreat in the district. “There is no security at the ground level … this is going back to the early years of militancy,” said Omar Jan, Congress leader in Pulwama.
The police said the militants had been able to create fear in the district by capturing their actions on video and sharing it on social media sites. “Not only political workers, even we are feeling the pressure. By the use of social media and videos, they are creating a perception that everyone can be targeted, which is not true but they have succeeded in creating that perception,” the police official said.
Nursery of insurgency
Pulwama has emerged as the epicentre of Kashmir’s new war which is spearheaded by groups of young militants, who have overshadowed the traditional separatists and are backed by the never-ending crowds of stone-throwing protesters
The district was home to Burhan Wani, whose killing last year sparked a deadly wave of protests and unrest. It is also the base of Abu Dujana, LeT commander in Kashmir and the mastermind of some of the deadly attacks on security forces
Pulwama is also home to nearly 40 militants, most of them locals