Two months ago in the February chill, when most people usually stay warm inside with their kangris, a group of Kalashnikov wielding militants on motor bicycles stomped through a massive funeral for a Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist in a village graveyard of Pulwama in south Kashmir. They fired several rounds in the air and left the venue immediately, leaving many in the funeral enthralled and chattering about it for several days. Just like their predecessors in 1990, the new generation militants have come to be seen as heroes with a cult following in Kashmir.
"A girl, who seemed to be enamoured by the militants at the funeral, looked at my camera and had the gall to ask me if I were a mukhbir (informer) working for the government agencies," a photographer who works for Kashmiri newspapers told the TOI last week. He didn't take any pictures of the militants following the sly threat.
Two weeks later, defying police restrictions, thousands swarmed to another funeral of a Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist in Kulgam, another district of south Kashmir. There was such outpour of attendants that the funeral prayers were held six times. Next day, during an encounter, a top Lashkar-e-Taiba commander along with four other militants managed to flee because local residents started pelting stones on the security forces from the other side. Such incidents are rapidly becoming a norm in Kashmir.
Although there are only 200 active militants, most of them concentrated in south Kashmir, security agencies acknowledge that for the last one year, they are confronting a new face of militancy that has an appearance of being benign but poses a more dangerous challenge than it was earlier. "If there is a militant holed up in congested parts of the city today, I will think several times before taking any action against him. Most likely, I will just let it go. That is because I know that the scene today is different from a few years ago. Today, I have to deal not only with the militant in a hideout but local residents who will come out cheering for him or pelting stones on my men," a senior police officer in Srinagar said.
Highly demoralized by media's constant criticism over human rights violations, the Army finds itself in a precarious situation too. "We are now in a phase where we end up being in both a counter-insurgency operation and a law and order scene as well. The line between the two is disappearing," an Army officer told the TOI in Srinagar.