Kashmir has been witnessing a new low in its abyss of brutalisation. The ISIS-style execution of two teenagers earlier this month was accompanied by videos of the savagery being circulated on social media.
To brazen it out even further, a top commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen justified the murders. He released a "confession'' video of 17-year-old Nadeem Manzoor of being an army informer which allowed the killings of two militants in Shopian district. In his audio message, the commander dubbed as Indian agents all those who criticized the executions as innocent killings.
Hours after this, the militants released video recordings of other executions - another youth, 19-year-old Huzaif Ashraf, was abducted and slaughtered in an orchard. The execution was filmed and circulated on social media. Masked men brandishing a blood-soaked knife and an AK-47 threatened more such executions.
Killings of helpless civilians are not new in Kashmir, nor is the barbarity with which Huzaif and Nadeem were executed. Thousands of civilians have been killed by militants and security forces during the last three decades of turmoil. For the last one year, militant groups have been increasingly following the ISIS playbook, and have killed at least half a dozen people by slitting their throats. But they never owned up to this savagery and blamed Indian agencies for these acts. Until now.
Militants and their ideologues had always projected the separatist rebellion in Kashmir as a story of victimhood and oppression which allowed them to survive. The state's military might and unprecedented resources deployed to root out militancy could not succeed in the last three decades just because power and might cannot offset the idea of victimhood and dispossession. A demonstrative muscular policy has deepened the crisis further.
Civilian killings by militants are often attributed to unknown gunmen and they get away with it with the help of conspiracy theories. Since their own hands are tainted with civilian killings, even a simple fact or truth told by the police is often suspect. The police also have a dismal prosecution record. Of thousands of innocent killings, there are barely 10 cases where the conviction of the killers was ensured.
Against this backdrop, militants have tried to maintain their image as rebels fighting for the cause of liberation. But quite apart from this rhetoric, in their hearts, people have known the truth for some time. As the graph of their misdeeds went up, the social stock of militants dropped. At one point, about 10-12 years ago, it looked like as if militancy was a thing of past. For many years, very few or no local youth joined militancy. It was exclusively rented out to foreigners (Pakistanis) to keep the pot boiling.
Burhan Wani, the poster boy of new age militancy in Kashmir, reversed the trend. He reinvented the sense of victimhood and oppressed. In his five-year-long rendezvous with the gun, Burhan never harmed any civilian or targetted pro-India politicians or security forces. With his online militant activism, he built a new image of militancy: young and educated boys from well-to-do families challenging the might of state. Without crossing the border for arms training and baptized by the ISIS, they achieved a groundswell which took everybody by shock.
Shot by security forces in 2016, at the age of 22, Burhan became even more dangerous, his grave a symbol of resistance and inspiration for other young men to join militant groups. Over 100 people were killed in the post-Burhan agitation, thousands were injured in clashes between mobs and security forces using pellet guns.
People started rushing to encounter sites to save trapped militants. Dozens were killed while trying to disrupt security operations. Funerals of dead militants saw massive pro-Azadi crowds. Policemen were asked to resign; many off-duty policemen and security forces personnel were murdered. Some were killed in front of their families even on Eid day.
Two months ago, militants, now greatly emboldens, abducted three off-duty policemen and killed them because they had not followed the diktat to resign. This led to the cancellation of the proposed meeting between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. Senior police officials say it was after these brutal executions that scholar-turned-militant Mannan Wani also out with Reyaz Naikoo, Hizbul operational commander. He shifted his base from south to north Kashmir where he was killed during a security operation. In his writings, Mannan, a PhD in Applied Geology, forcefully tried to articulate the sense of victimhood and oppression which had driven him into militancy but also strongly wrote against targeting policemen just because they are doing their job.
The videos of slaughtering young men like sheep and making a public display of it on social media is bound to adversely impact militant groups. Police records reveal that in the last few months, recruitment into militant ranks has shown a drastic decline. The incidents of stone pelting and crowds trying to break security cordons during encounters have also come down significantly.
Crass and savage tactics are backfiring. Kashmir knows when things have gone too far.
(Nazir Masoodi is NDTV's Srinagar Bureau Chief)
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