On November 15, 17-year-old Nadeem Ahmad, a high school student, was abducted by suspected insurgents in the district of Shopianin south Kashmir, a hotbed of insurgency in the Himalayan valley. The next day, the teenager’s bullet-ridden body was found in an orchard in a village close to where he lived.
Hours after the body was discovered, a video surfaced on social media showing gunmen firing a volley of bullets into the victim. Another post showed Nadeem shortly before his death, confessing that he had shared information about two insurgents with the Indian army.
A similar video showing a militant slitting the throat of another young man sent shock waves across the region. The pictures showed the blood-soaked face of the victim, identified as 19-year-old Huzaif Ashraf Kuttay, also a resident of southern Kashmir.
Another recording showed Huzaif saying he was promised 10,000 Indian rupees (approximately €125 euros, $142) for sharing information about the insurgents. “I am very poor. That’s why I became an informer. I thought the money would help me to pay back my loans. They [the army] forced me to give information,” Huzaif said.
Families look for answers
At his two-story home in Safangari village in Shopian, Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, 50, is devastated. Bhat’s son Nadeem was the first whose execution was posted on social media. Hours before his son’s kidnapping, Bhat says, four armed men had come looking for him. “My son was a drug addict for the last two years. He used cannabis. When the gunmen came looking for him, I was certain they were going to teach him a lesson to stop taking drugs. I thought he might stop taking drugs, but little did I know what was going to happen to us,” said Bhat, who runs a bakery in his village.
“When he came home, we asked him if he was involved in any controversy, but he acted normal. He assured us that he would go to meet the militants and was not involved in anything except drugs,” the family said. After watching the video of Nadeem’s confession, the family said they did not know anything about it.
“We don’t know if he was truthful or he made that statement under pressure. If he shared any information about militants, then he deserved this,” the family said, echoing the opinion of several locals, who support the insurgents. “If he was innocent, then it is between god and those who killed him,” his father said.
In another village in the nearby district Kulgam, the family of 19-year-old Huzaif Ashraf — the other victim — is in shock. Huzaif, a baker by profession, was abducted on November 16 when armed men kidnapped him along with his two cousins. The cousins were later released but Huzaif was killed.
“We do not know why he was killed, we want to know the truth,” Huzaif’s uncle Muhammad Amin Ganai told DW. “We saw a video of my son’s dead body on the internet,” Huzaif’s father Mohammed Ashraf said, adding, “Those who killed my son, I want to ask them, why was he killed. We deserve an answer at least.”
A ‘media blitzkrieg’ by militants
Kashmir’s largest armed group, Hizbul Mujahideen, which claimed responsibility for the murders, justified its stance shortly after the incidents took place. “From today, we’ll only be exposing videos of death. And whoever betrays our movement will face the same consequences,” Riyaz Naikoo, the outfit’s commander said in a clear warning to the “informers,” adding that the group’s “do or die” squad had executed the men.
According to the police, the execution videos released by the insurgents were new in India-administered Kashmir’s two-decade-long insurgency and made with the aim of frightening local people. “I think this is part of a media blitzkrieg strategy to instil terror. Also, they [the militants] are trying to copy Islamic State’s strategy of beheading and other means of brutal killings,” a senior police official told DW on condition of anonymity.
Kashmir police chief Swayam Prakash Pani said they were trying to identify those behind uploading these videos on social media. “These crimes are… gruesome crimes,” he said, adding that propaganda related to the same was also a criminal activity.
“The cases have already been registered. There are some [social media] handles from where such content is propagating. I am sure that with the help of service providers, we will be able to nail them,” Pani told reporters.
Pressure on the locals
This month alone, insurgents abducted 12 people, killing four of them, including a former police officer. The rest were set free. Similar incidents occurred in August, when armed gunmen abducted several policemen, threatening to kill them if they didn’t quit their jobs.
Ajai Sahni, an expert on counterinsurgency and the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, said that the number of such killings has increased over the past two years. “They (insurgents) have always targeted people sympathetic to state agencies, from the beginning of the militancy. The difference this time is that they have put the videos on social media,” he told DW.
“When insurgents come under a lot of security force pressure in narrowly targeted operations, they turn to people. The narrowly targeted operations are always intelligence based,” he added.
“This is to spread fear in a totally chaotic situation. The government and authorities are unable to handle it,” Delhi-based security analyst Rahul Bedi told DW. “I think, in these cases, social media is being used negatively. During the current government’s rule in India, videos of the lynching of Muslims were being circulated on social media and that was just to create fear among the Muslim population in a similar way,” he explained.
“The fear is increasing. The killing of civilians, police, and their families, shows that they can kill anyone suspected of being an informer,” Bedi added.
The legacy of violence
Shopian has been riddled with tension since 2016, when Burhan Wani, a 21-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed by Indian armed forces, prompting several months of civil unrest and an increase in armed combat between Indian troops and militant groups.
According to a recent report by local human rights group Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), 520 people have been killed in the region in 2018, the highest in the last nine years. The number included 144 civilians, 234 insurgents and 142 security personnel. Earlier this year, Indian armed forces launched a major counterinsurgency operation to quell separatists in the region.
Kashmir is a pending dispute between India and Pakistan. The two countries have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over the region, which they both claim in full but rule in part.
India-administered Kashmir has witnessed heavy unrest since 1989, with some separatist groups demanding a sovereign nation and others calling for a merger with Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan of training and arming the rebels in the portion it controls and sending them to Indian territory, a claim denied by Islamabad. The protracted unrest in the region has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the last three decades.