An ominous marker in the progression of militancy and counter-terror operations in Jammu and Kashmir passed unnoticed on April Fool’s Day. Last week brought confirmation that it may not have been a one-off aberration.
In fact, the marker was more obvious during this second operation: At Khudwani in the heart of the highly radicalised Kulgam district. All the militants (perhaps five) for whom the Indian Army laid a cordon managed to escape amid heavy stone-pelting as large crowds interfered with the operation.
According to one report, the army fired bullets at the ground a few feet in front of the leading protesters, as a warning to prevent them from moving even closer. According to one report, the District Senior Superintendent of Police estimated that the crowd was only 300 meters from the encounter site.
The real success of these escapes pertains to the kind of militant involved. Seven of the boys killed on 1 April went underground recently. They had barely any public profile. On the other hand, those who escaped included some of the most popular leaders of militancy.
The army’s chief spokesperson confirmed that, on 1 April, two of the most prominent Kashmiri militants, Saddam Paddar and Zeenat-ul Islam, were among five militants who escaped from the back of a house in Shopian district which the army approached from the front.
It seems that they were warned by a man whom the army had sent to ask the non-combatant residents of the house to leave before the gunfight. According to one version, the army shot the man who gave the warning.
This escape was generally ignored, as the focus remained on the fact that 13 militants were among the 20 who died during three operations that day.
The trend of people emerging from neighbouring houses and villages during an operation against militants is not new. It has been happening since the beginning of 2015. Surging crowds engage the armed forces with stones, slogans, and mob pressure, to relieve pressure on the militants, and perhaps allow them to escape.
Crowds pelting stones dominated the landscape for about four months after militant commander Burhan Wani was killed on 8 July, 2016. Militants remained quiet in the background for most of that time. Decision-makers fooled themselves during the winter of 2016 that they had regained the upper hand. But after the violence during polling for the Srinagar by-election in April 2017, the trend of 2015 returned. Stone-pelting again became a diversionary tactic during armed operations.
Until the first quarter of this year, however, the forces generally managed to kill at least some of their quarry during operations. The mob rarely succeeded in allowing militants to escape: Although it happened on some occasions.
A finely-honed tactic
What is new about the escapes this month is that there is no mistaking or underestimating the role of the stone-pelting mobs to allow the escapes. Clearly, the tactic has been honed, no doubt through careful study of videos of earlier encounters. It is possible that professionals have participated in honing the tactics.
It is important for policymakers to understand that the current militancy is a far cry from the militancy of the 90s. These are not amateur boys engaged in hit-and-run tactics. Stone-pelters too are often highly motivated.
The forces tend to focus on the latest successes or failures to set objectives and targets. They do not seem to extrapolate likely scenarios from battle trends.
Indeed, they do not even seem to focus on where and how today’s local militants get trained, leave alone how those who help them to escape learn the ropes. It seems likely that the internet is being used for remote training, and perhaps for debriefings, discussions and briefings on how to improve tactics.
One must hope that these recent successes do not push the army to re-orient its tactics in response, taking operations to a higher level. While it is probably true that Kashmir is the most overtly militarised place on the planet, the army’s argument that it employs minimal force also holds water. The vast numbers of troops deployed in Kashmir generally engage in direct man-to-man battles. Helicopter gunships and even machine guns have rarely been used, except in remote areas, often mountainous or jungle. Mortars and tanks have never been used.