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Soaked in Blood: The Militant Commander Who Loved Painting Roses

Soaked in Blood: The Militant Commander Who Loved Painting Roses

In Kashmir, the path to militancy is no more constrained. It is no more the undertaking for selective people, as it seemed otherwise in the distant past, where the recruits came from relatively low-income family backgrounds with unlikely possibilities of higher educations. The association with the militant outfits was also largely assumed by adult people. However, in past few years, the paradigm has become inclusive and diversified; people from different age groups, essentially teenagers, are joining the militant ranks. The militant-dissent is not largely and exclusively for unprivileged, as many joining the outfits come from middle-class families with sufficient financial support. In the past few years, highly educated people, including research scholars, professors, master’s degree holders, graduates have joined militancy; furthering the entire narrative, unlike the preceding careful constrictions.

The rise in militancy in recent years, in such a heterogeneity, wherein a research scholar namely Manan Wani, who took his higher secondary education from Sainik School in Manasbal and later pursued his M.Phil and PhD from Aligarh Muslim University, joined militancy and was killed in an encounter on October 11, 2018. Similarly, Mohammad Rafi Bhat, a professor at Kashmir University joined the militant ranks and was gunned down only after 40 hours of his joining. An MBA degree holder met a similar fate.

In the month of Ramadhan, many militants come down from the higher reaches of dense forests, where they usually take shelter, after the religious rituals like Iftaar (breaking of daylong fast) and especially Suhoor (predawn meal) becomes difficult to manage in the higher reaches. In the last few years, when militants executed many civilians over the suspicions of being informers, a story of a militant circulated through internet saying that ‘people are terrified of letting militants into their houses for Suhoor despite militants knocking at various doors for the meals’. The story further carried that ‘after this, the militants observed their fasts by waiting for the villagers to throw the left-overs for dogs, which is usual in Kashmir. These militants would, then, grab the leftovers and observe their fasts on it.’

In a recent encounter at Beighpora village of Pulwama, a mathematics teacher before joining Hizbul Mujahideen was killed. It had rained heavily the previous day, and the weather was still cloudy the next day. Riyaz Naikoo, also known as Mohammad bin Qasim or Zubair ul Islam, and top Hizbul Mujahideen operational commander, had come out of his hideout to meet his family and relatives at his native village of Beighpora, Pulwama. He had come to meet his ailing mother, as suggested by sources, while his movements were closely monitored by the security establishments. Naikoo had managed to escape at various occasions in the past.

In the close monitoring of the movements of Naikoo, and a tip-off, the joint party of Indian Army’s 55 Rashtriya Rifles, Paramilitary forces, and the Jammu-Kashmir police’s counter-insurgency group, Special Operations Group, laid a Cordon and Search Operation (CASO) in the Naikoo’s native village of Beighpora, Pulwama on late Tuesday evening. Being the most favourable opportunity, the forces heavily cordoned off the village and holed the oblivious militant to close. The forces also used earth-diggers overnight to dig up possible hideouts, and trenches to prevent civilians from coming to the militant’s rescue.

While Naikoo didn’t know that the meeting with his family members and relatives would be his last meeting and the eternal separation, in what ensued in the early hours of Wednesday, the joint party of forces began house-to-house searches in the heavily cordoned-off area. It was during this exercise that the government forces came under the heavy fire from the militants and the contact was established. Subsequently, an encounter erupted and the 35-year-old commander was killed along with his associate, Adil Bhat.

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Riyaz Naikoo was born to a family of farmers in the same village where he was killed in the encounter— Beighpora, Pulwama. He pursued his primary and secondary education from the government school and later pursued his graduation in Mathematics and became a Math teacher in a private school. Naikoo provided education to poor students and had aspired to become an engineer. ‘He was a calm, silent person’, his family said on many occasions.

Riyaz Naikoo, the calm child with empathetic nature to educate poor children was now top operational commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. ‘Before joining militancy, he used to paint a lot, especially roses’, his family recalls. But now, his love for painting— painting beautiful roses turned blood-red or blood itself.

He was first arrested in 2010 for partaking in the protests that had erupted after the death of the 17-year-old student, Tufail Mattoo. The boy was hit by a tear-gas shell in the head fired by the security forces in a school playground, where he was reportedly playing cricket. After his arrest, Naikoo was released from jail in 2012. Around the same time, he is believed to have come into contact with local Hizb militants and became an Over Ground Worker (OGW) for them. In the same year, Naikoo joined the militant outfit on 21 May 2012.

In the outfit, he was known to be a good tactician, a good strategist, among his associates. His image as the ‘respectable teacher’ in the ranks of Hizbul had earned him reverence and significance in the organization.

A few weeks ahead of completing his 8 long years in the outfit, on Wednesday, Naikoo was laid slain. Around the same time, a separate encounter had erupted in the Khrew area of the same district, killing two unidentified militants till last reports.

After the news of the gunning down of Riyaz Naikoo broke out in the valley, a wave of violent protests followed; injuring at least 14 people in the protest area from live ammunition. According to a report, 11 persons were hit with pellets while 3 were hit with bullets. Later, one civilian succumbed to his injuries from pellet injuries.

In the immediate heightening tensions, authorities snubbed the communication lines across the Kashmir region with the suspension of mobile internet and cellular services, barring the government-run BSNL. Earlier, authorities in August 2019 imposed complete communication blockade in the Valley after it unilaterally stripped the Jammu & Kashmir of its autonomy. The latest communication blockade on Wednesday was put in place after the mobile internet speed was still restricted to 2g.  

Among other aspects, Naikoo had an appeal to the masses, especially the youth. He had a hold on technology and often recruited through audios and videos, using social media. He was also known for his public appearances at the funerals of his fellow associates which attracted thousands of people. It was during his command that the ‘flag salute’ of slain militants became a common spectacle. This spectacle also ensured the readiness of young men willing to fight the Indian state; joining militant outfits at the same pace as the already active militants were gunned down by the police forces.

In a recent policy decision of the Indian government citing concern over the large funeral processions and the flashpoint of their anti-India nature, the bodies of the slain militants were not handed over to their families. The body of the slain commander was buried in Sonamarg with no roses or Shireen (toffees) showered upon him.

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Indian authorities, amidst the Global Pandemic and nationwide lockdown, have upped the ‘counter-insurgency’ ante. This comes in the backdrop of multiple cease-fire violations on the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan.

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Only two days before Riyaz Naikoo was killed, Indian Armed Forces suffered heavy causalities in north Kashmir’s Handwara in which an Army Colonel, 2 corporals and a sub-inspector of Jammu-Kashmir Police were killed while also two militants being gunned down in the encounter.

After the departure of Zakir Musa from the outfit for creating his own organization of Ansar ul Ghazwat ul Hind with a Pan-Islamic agenda, Naikoo took the command of the Hizbul. He kept together with the disturbed and splitting outfit of Hizbul cadres by closely maintaining contact with all of his associates and convincing them to toe the line of Hizbul ideology.

The elimination of Naikoo; a top brass Commander of the Hizbul Mujahedeen ‘is expected to dent the terror activities of the organization, especially in south Kashmir, where his footprint was the most significant’, say security officials. However, the new narrative of ‘gun solution’ where a Sainik school student and a research scholar, a professor, a business administration student, and even the security personnel turning to militant ranks is not sufficiently reassuring to subvert the insurgency at large.


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