Reacting to the revocation of the land transfer decision for the Amarnath shrine, Hindu groups in Jammu, seething with anger, mounted their own protests by imposing an economically crippling bandh that continued for more than six weeks and imposed a blockade on the JammuSrinagar Highway. Although that was cleared by the Army, protests against it continued in Kashmir. Not since the early 1950s had Jammu seen such prolonged political protests that led to two ethnically and geographically distinct regions virtually on the edge of war.
In Kashmir, on 11 August 2008, security forces opened fire on protestors who were marching towards the LoC on the call of separatist forces that left five demonstrators dead, including a moderate Hurriyat leader Abdul Aziz, and several others injured. This triggered further violence in the Valley, and in the Muslim-dominated Kistwar district in Jammu. By the end of August, however, the SASB suspended their agitation after an agreement was reached with a governor-appointed panel under which the former would receive 40 acres of land for temporary shelters and other facilities for Hindu pilgrims.
An emotive religious issue soon turned into a political movement in Jammu reflecting the region’s feeling of discrimination arising out of Kashmir’s dominance in matters of powersharing, delimitation of Assembly constituencies and development. Matters were made worse by the Centre’s inefficient handling of the crisis that only heightened tensions in both regions, and the irresponsible behaviour of some political parties, both at the Centre and in the State, to exploit the situation for partisan interests. Secondly, it showed how easily anti-India frenzy could be whipped up in the Valley.
Taking advantage of the popular discontent over the land transfer issue, the separatists, who were divided and in disarray, got a new lease of life as the moderate and hardline factions of the Hurriyat joined hands in organising violent protests. Despite these, the elections to the Assembly were held peacefully indicating the mood of the average Kashmiri who longed for peace which was also reflected in the decline in militancy. According to the Annual Report 2012-13 of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), between 2008 and 2012, incidents of violence declined from 708 to 220; and tourist inflow into the State also increased.
The recruitment of local youth into militancy declined too, from 54 in 2010 to 21 in 2012. But this situation did not last long, due to the failure of the elite ~ both political and administrative ~ to meet the expectations of the people as they were more interested in clinging on to power. Matters were made worse by the skewed development policies pursued by successive governments which led to the devastating floods of 2014 and failure of governments ~ both at the Centre and in the State ~ to take appropriate steps to ameliorate peoples’ woes which led to popular discontent.
The situation was thus ripe for another bout of militancy and the spark was provided by the killing of Burhan Wani, the young militant leader of the HM. The new militancy is different from the type that had developed in the early 1990s and, according to Khalid Shah, would be harder to defeat, because of its geographical spread, recruitment of youths and mobilisation of people through the increasing use of social media, the hardcore pan-Islamist ideological drift and synergy between foreign and local terrorists, thanks to the role of Burhan Wani.
(Khalid Shah; ‘Why Kashmir’s new militancy is harder to defeat than the one in the 1990s’, The Print, 11 January 2020.) Militancy in Kashmir, as discussed earlier, had two components: local, home-grown militants and foreign elements, mostly Pakistani citizens , belonging to the JeM, the LeT and sundry other antiIndia terrorist outfits such as the HuA and the HuM, nurtured and trained in Pakistan. One significant aspect of the new militancy is the sudden spurt in the recruitment of local militants in the aftermath of the killing of Burhan Wani, and the number increased from 66 in 2015 to 218 in 2018, the highest in recent years, and for the first time in 18 years more local militants were killed that year.
The indigenous militant groups ~ such as the HM or the JKLF ~ have always recruited local youths; but in the first phase of militancy many active militants came from Pakistan, Afghanistan and even from central Asia. This is no longer the case as many of the foreign militant groups active in the 1990s have ceased to exist while in recent years, the principal Pakistan-based terrorist groups active in Kashmir started recruiting local youths who could easily garner local support. Consequently, there is a great deal of synergy between the HM, the LeT and the JeM. Adil Ahmed Dar, the 20-year old suicide bomber who had attacked the CRPF convoy in February 2019 was a local of resident of Pulwama, and had joined the JeM a year earlier, and his handler was a Pakistani, Ismail Alvi, a kin of Masood Azhar and a top commander of the JeM in South Kashmir, who was killed in an encounter with the police on 31 July.
There were several reasons behind the resurgence of militancy: lack of employment opportunities and corruption and lack of good governance created a sense of disenchantment reminiscent of the 1980s. The central government’s policy of treating Kashmir as a rebellious province complicated matters. This security-oriented approach gave the security forces a virtual carte blanche in dealing with situations that were deemed as constituting threats to national security. Cordon and search operations by the security forces often resulted in harassment of innocent citizens; these and occasional fake encounter killings led to the alienation of the people.
New militancy in Kashmir, therefore, has been thriving because of a change in the mind-set of the people who glorify the militants and their ‘martyrdom’. It all started with Burhan Wani, who joined the HM in 2010 and became a cult figure only after his Facebook appearance; in his penultimate video released before his death he called for jihad and urged the youth to disrupt the security cordons during encounters which has now become an almost regular feature during operations by the security forces. Hundreds of men and women try to help the ‘trapped’ militant(s) to escape by pelting stones at the security forces, many have even died during such cordon-breaking operations.
Burhan Wani was perhaps one of the first tech-savvy militants of Kashmir but there is no doubt that the spread of militancy in Kashmir in recent years has been immensely helped by the use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. On Wani’s first death anniversary, the HM had launched a propaganda drive for recruiting new militants and such drives and exhortations continued in the following years. Most of the new militants are drawn from low-income families and are either school drop-outs, or have studied up to class X or Xll; they are lured into militancy by their recruiters who make false promises.
In exceptional cases, one may find a highly qualified person such as a PhD scholar or an MBA joining the ranks of militants. There has also been a geographical shift in the epicentre of militancy from the northern part of Kashmir to the south ~ to such areas as Pulwama, Anantnag, Kulgam or Shopian. Since local support is essential for survival and success of their missions, their activities are limited to a 12-20 km radius of their village where their ‘heroism’ is recognised. When a local militant is killed by the security forces, his funeral is attended by thousands of the local population who are informed by WhatsApp groups or by word of mouth; inflammatory speeches are delivered at the funeral by kin of the deceased who urge the youths to emulate the actions of the fallen ‘martyr’.
According to security officials, every funeral of a local militant spawned at least two other militants; as an army officer explained, it could be the growing influence of pan-Islamisation and religious indoctrination ‘in which unemployment emerges as a catalytic agent for a quick reaction to pick up a gun’ (The Statesman, 4 May,2018). In April 2017, the JuD issued multiple digital advertisements seeking volunteers to join social media workshops for a training programme for hybrid warfare, to destabilise Kashmir.
Such social media workshops were conducted in multiple cities in Pakistan and after that hundreds of workshop groups emerged with members predominantly from the local population; and web links to join these groups were put out on the JuD website, Twitter and other social media. This pan-Islamic cyber jihad is not easy to control. After the ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the clampdown on the internet, in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370 and the Covid-19 induced lockdown in March 2020, there was a dip in the number of recruits to the ranks of militancy and a temporary lull in militant activities; but militancy reemerged with vengeance after the restoration of internet.
According to the IGP (Kashmir) during the first seven months of this year, security forces killed 90 terrorists, including several top Pakistani terrorists ( The Statesman, 5 August 2021). Pakistan-backed terrorism thus still remains a major challenge in Jammu and Kashmir, the latest example of which is the use of drones for attacks and smuggling of arms and ammunition. De-radicalisation of the youth, restoration of the democratic political process and addressing the basic causes for discontent among the alienated population by removing the trust-deficit may go a long way in controlling militancy in Kashmir.
(The writer is Professor (Retd.) of International Relations and a former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Jadavpur University)