Killing of Militant by Indian Forces Sets Off Protests in Kashmir
TRAL, Kashmir — Protests erupted across southern Kashmir on Saturday after Indian forces killed a militant who led an insurgent network and commanded a loyal following among local youths.
Early on Saturday, after Indian troops had surrounded the two-story house where the militant, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, was hiding, several hundred villagers charged the site, apparently hoping that Mr. Bhat would escape amid the confusion, but they were repelled by tear gas and sprays of birdshot, witnesses said.
“We will always try to stop the Indian forces from killing our brothers who are fighting for us,” said Irshad Malik, 29, who was being treated for a wound sustained in the clash.
One other militant was also killed in the fighting, and a civilian who was wounded in the crossfire died at a hospital, the Kashmiri police said in a statement.
The killing of Mr. Bhat, 26, the leader of Hizbul Mujahedeen, was a “great achievement” for Indian forces, said Manoj Pandit, a spokesman for the Kashmiri police.
“We were waiting for this for a long time,” Mr. Pandit said. “He was not a normal militant.”
A violent secession movement arose in the late 1980s, with many guerrilla fighters crossing the border from Pakistan, and India built up a heavy military presence in the Kashmir Valley in an effort to quell the uprising.
In recent years, Kashmir’s militant leaders have begun to publicize their activities over social media, pulling more and more young people into their orbit.
Mr. Bhat, a burly man with a thick beard, had made his name among other young fighters by once snatching a rifle from an Indian soldier during a protest.
The police say he played a role in persuading his friend and predecessor, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, to publish his own image and name on social media sites, departing from a long tradition among insurgents of maintaining their anonymity.
After Mr. Wani, 22, was killed in a raid by security forces last July, Mr. Bhat filled the leadership vacuum within Hizbul Mujahedeen.
His father, Ghulam Hassan Bhat, said he had no hope of dissuading his son and his friends, who he said were “fighting the state because they believe in it, and want India to get out of Kashmir.”
“He was a not a child I could have kept inside the house,” Mr. Bhat said. “This is the end of his life as he chose it.”
He added, “He died for it, and I have no regret.”
Mr. Wani’s killing last year set off months of violence between the police and young people in Kashmir, including protests that swelled into the tens of thousands, bombings, shootouts and nightly attacks by stone-throwing demonstrators.
On Saturday, as word spread that Mr. Bhat had been killed, protests erupted in most districts in Kashmir, and members of the security forces were pelted with stones. Indian troops were deployed along the national highway in an effort to keep it open.
The police estimate that Hizbul Mujahedeen has a network of about 200 guerrilla fighters, half of them young men from local villages. In an interview last year, Shridhar Patil, who commands the regional police in the Kulgam district, said the militants were “adored” by young Kashmiris in search of a “good role model.”
Early in his tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India made overtures to Pakistan, stirring hopes for negotiations on Kashmir. But cease-fire violations along the Line of Control have occurred frequently, and a chill has settled in between the neighbors, dampening expectations for the resumption of talks any time soon.