For the first time in more than two decades, public support for militants fighting the Indian state is rising and being articulated in the open in the Kashmir Valley. Militants are hero-worshipped and massive crowds are participating in their funerals.
At a recent local cricket tournament at Tral in south Kashmir, three of the 16 teams – the Burhan Lions, Aabid Khan Qalandars and Khalid Aryans – bore the names of suspected Hizbul Mujahideen militants. The Burhan Lions for instance draw their name from 21-year-old Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the hugely popular poster boy of the militancy in Kashmir today.
Youth like Burhan are part of the new generation of militants operating in the Valley. Unlike their predecessors, they are educated, well-to-do, not averse to revealing their identity and adept at using social media. Photographs and videos of their speeches calling on Kashmiri youth to pick up arms against India are immensely popular.
A month ago, two of Burhan’s associates, Waseem Malla and Naseer Ahmad Pandit, were gunned down by security forces at Shopian in south Kashmir. Tens of thousands of local Kashmiris converged at their burial site. They shouted anti-India, pro-Islam and pro-Pakistan slogans, and sang eulogies about their “martyrdom.” So large was the crowd assembled at the burial ground that the funeral rites had to be performed six times to enable mourners to participate and pay their respects.
“This is not an isolated incident but a growing trend in Kashmir over the past year,” a senior officer in the Indian Army’s Northern Command told The Diplomat.
The public outpouring of grief and support for militants is worrying as it is evoking memories of the early 1990s when anti-India militancy was at its peak in Kashmir. In its early years, militants and militancy enjoyed enormous mass support. Militants were looked upon as heroes. Civilians braved batons, bullets and harassment – even torture by security forces – to protect their “boys.”
However, as Pakistan’s stranglehold over the militancy tightened, it not only became more Islamist and pro-Pakistan but the easy access to money and weapons resulted in the “cause” receding to the background while criminal activities took center-stage. Kashmiri support for the militants and the militancy waned and Pakistan was blamed for their woes.
By the mid 1990s, militancy was clearly in decline. Bitter internecine fighting among the militant groups and India’s counterinsurgency operations weakened the militants. But also, with public support evaporating the militancy lost its justification. The people in whose name the militants had picked up arms had deserted them.
Violence-weary Kashmiris turned their backs on the militancy. Some turned to the democratic process, others to mass protests in the hope of addressing their grievances. Even during the 2010 protests that saw many Kashmiri youngsters shot dead or grievously injured, militancy was not seen to be an option; calls for a return to arms evoked little public response.
But things appear to have been changing in the Valley over the past year. As the crowds at funerals indicate, militants are emerging heroes again and worryingly for India’s security establishment, Pakistani militants operating in the Valley are gaining popularity too.
In late October, when Abu Qasim, a Pakistani who was the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s divisional commander in the Valley, was shot dead, three districts in south Kashmir shut down to protest his killing. More than 30,000 people marched in his funeral procession and residents of Kakapora, Khandaypora and Bugam villages even fought for the honor of burying his body in their soil.
Public support for militants has also been on display during armed encounters between the militants and security forces. Civilians converge at sites where search operations or gun battles are in progress and engage in slogan shouting and stone pelting to divert the troops’ attention so that militants can escape. So “serious” is this problem that the government has issued advisories calling on civilians to stay away from encounter sites.
While reports on the militancy are figuring frequently in the Indian media, security analysts insist that the situation is not as grave as it was in the early 1990s. Neither the number of militants, attacks by militants nor fatalities is as high as it was even a few years ago. The number of active militants, for instance, has fallen from several thousand in the 1990s to some 200 today. As for “terrorism-related fatalities” in J&K, which “were sustained at over 2,000 per year for a full decade between 1993 and 2003,” these were only 117 in 2012, 181 in 2013, 193 in 2014 and 174 in 2015, with civilians accounting for a small fraction only.
Importantly, the security forces continue to hold the advantage. Military officials point out that “militancy suffered an unprecedented setback in the January-March period [this year], with 27 terrorists being eliminated, the highest number for the period in the last six years.”
What should be of concern, however, is the rising mass support for militants, which, according to the army officer who spoke to The Diplomat, is acting as a “force multiplier.” Additionally, “anti-India forces are drawing benefit from the use of social media, which the older generation of militants lacked,” he said, pointing out that within minutes of the security forces launching a cordon-and-search operation in an area, the news “circulated aggressively” on Whatsapp or Facebook and thousands are mobilized to converge at the site.
Unlike their “heavy presence” in the virtual world, the new recruits to militancy in Kashmir are less active on the ground, the army officer said. Drawing attention to the changing demographic composition of the militants – 60 percent of them are local youth, in contrast to the past when foreign militants dominated – he also pointed out that the militancy is more active in south Kashmir, which is further away from popular infiltration routes from Pakistan. Access to weapons, in the circumstances may be more “problematic” for the new militants, he said.
Still, it may be too early to dismiss the capacity of the new militants especially since they have an expanding pool of disgruntled Kashmiri youth to recruit from in the coming years.
Public disillusionment with India’s democratic institutions and judicial mechanisms is soaring as is anger with discrimination. Thousands of young Kashmiris study, work and live in cities outside J&K. They are deeply conscious of the prejudice that colors the way other Indians and Indian institutions perceive and treat them. As a Kashmiri student in an engineering college in Bengaluru pointed out to The Diplomat, while protests in Srinagar, even peaceful ones, result in the deployment of soldiers who shoot to kill, violent demonstrations in other parts of India are dealt with by police who use batons or water cannons.
A string of events and developments over the last couple of years has deepened Kashmiri anger with the Indian state. In 2013, Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri, was hanged after a flawed judicial process for his alleged role in the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament. Following the victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general elections, violence targeting Muslims has grown significantly and communal polarization is serious. These issues are discussed in every home in Kashmir.
The decision of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to join hands with the BJP to form a coalition government in J&K is unpopular and is widely seen by Kashmiris, including PDP supporters as a “betrayal” given the BJP’s anti-Muslim outlook and its commitment to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which confers special status on J&K.
During the election campaign to the J&K state assembly in late 2014, the PDP campaigned against the BJP and even positioned itself as the only Kashmiri party that can halt the BJP’s “invasion” of the state. Yet the lure of political power prompted it to join hands with the very party it had so bitterly criticized earlier. Those who are most disillusioned with the PDP-BJP unholy alliance are the soft separatists who constitute the PDP’s core support base. It is they who are now tilting against democratic politics. Some of those who joined the militant ranks over the past year are PDP activists, who worked for the party in the elections.
Democratic politics and politicians are once again the target of public derision in the Valley. It is militancy that will gain from this sentiment.
Clearly, Kashmir is at an important turning point. Its youth are drawn to the militants but not as yet to the path of militancy. The flow to the militant ranks is still a trickle. Preventing it from becoming a flood will require India to address the political issues underlying the conflict.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected].