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29 May 2017

Head cut, another sprouts - Burhan squad eliminated one by one, timber trader's son set to command militant group

A picture of Saddam Padder, tipped to be the next Hizbul commander, from his family album
Sankarshan Thakur, TT, Srinagar, May 28: One's shot dead, another swiftly moves to assume charge of the trigger - the Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir's indigenous militancy regime, seems never short of commanders willing to put their lives on the line.
A day after Sabzar Bhat, the latest to hold the command chain, was gunned down in an encounter, Saddam Padder is set to embrace the blood-ridden mantle.
Padder, 32, is a timber trader's son from the militancy mill of Shopian in south Kashmir, and began his apprenticeship as a stone-pelter a decade or so ago. On the record, he is charged with crimes no more serious than causing street disruption. But having taken up arms against the state, Padder has signed up on a career that could fetch far grimmer consequences.
He is one among only three survivors of the core group of militants Burhan Wani built around him. The other two are Zakir Musa, who recently forsook Hizbul's helmsmanship, switching manifestos from political liberation to larger Islamist objectives, and Tariq Pandit, who surrendered under entreaty from his girlfriend and is in custody.
"Padder is hardened and committed to purpose," a senior officer of Jammu and Kashmir police told The Telegraph. "He is among the new young lot who took to the gun like Burhan Wani, Musa and Sabzar. They aren't a very well-trained set, or even ideologically indoctrinated; they see themselves in the image of guerrilla heroes. The key thing common to them is that they are prepared to kill and die."
When Burhan Wani was killed last July near Kokernag, also in south Kashmir, Sabzar was nudged into leadership. But he preferred that Musa, a more "schooled" militant, become leader. It was only when Musa cleaved away recently on sharpened differences with the Hizbul elders that Sabzar moved in. His career at the top lasted but a few weeks.
The legend that was beginning to build around him - "a man so burly and strong he could lift motorbikes and fling them a good distance" - became a heap in yesterday's Tral gun battle. Moments before he was killed, Sabzar is believed to have made a lachrymose last call to family members wailing he had been hopelessly trapped.
Out of the 11 militants in this picture, only two are alive now. The militants have been identified by sources in Jammu and Kashmir police
Sabzar's killing has made it two trophies in successive summers for the security forces but the worry remains that the ranks of militants lack neither for men nor metalware. Most of all, they don't lack for motivation.
"Every such killing spawns new seed, almost as if it were an unending chain of blood brothers," a senior police officer with his ear to the ground said as the Valley lay taken by a fresh bout of shuttered unease on the first day of Ramazan.
"We have reports every day of youngsters switching over to Hizbul or other militant ranks - Burhan, Musa, Sabzar and their like are public heroes - youngsters, especially in rural south Kashmir, aspire to imitate their ways and objectives."
South Kashmir's slide into popular chaos and disorder has been stunning over the last couple of years.
Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, whose home patch it is, has lost grip on public mood and sensibility; the civilian administration has had to decamp station in the interiors and where it has a presence it is barely able to step out; security forces are compelled to constantly play violent cat and mouse with militants over area domination.
Loathing of the state and mainstream institutions is such that when the PDP's Pulwama district chief, Abdul Ghani Dar, was shot dead last month, his condolence had to be moved to faraway Jammu.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that south Kashmir currently exists beyond our command and orders as they should be understood," the police officer conceded. "And the signs are this drift towards anger and militancy isn't ending anytime soon."
As first revealed in an interview to The Telegraph by BJP general secretary and Kashmir point man, Ram Madhav, security forces have been handed open licence in the pursuit of militants - "utmost harshness" is the phrase Madhav had used to describe the strategy on militancy.
They have twice conducted multi-formation security cordon and sweep operations in south Kashmir in recent weeks, and aided suspected hideouts with palpable menace.
Along the way, they have even committed - and been rewarded for - showcased atrocities such as the conversion of handicraftsman Farooq Ahmed Dar into a human shield strapped to the bonnet of a military jeep.
A military court later found nothing wrong in what Major Leetul Gogoi had ordered done to young Dar; while the inquiry was on, in fact, Gogoi was bestowed a commendation by the army chief. Nobody in uniform is pulling punches.
But if hard boots on the ground are seen by the government and security forces as a "necessary dose of bitter pills", they have also a counterproductive spin-off - they have not induced so much awe and fear of authority as anger and indignation with it.
Increasingly, youngsters, even girls, are unafraid to violently confront police and paramilitary cordons, in some cases even army troops. Kashmir might be staring at another summer of widespread strife and disruption; and many eyes could be turning to how Saddam Padder might announce his arrival as Hizbul top gun.

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