The Kashmir valley is once again witness to a cycle of violence that has evoked a familiar reaction from the usual array of quarters. As protests continue, the death toll has reached over 70 and the number of injured runs in the thousands for both civilians as well as security forces. However, the current protests reveal that the nature of violence is characteristically different from what Kashmir has seen in the past.
The latest bout of unrest in Kashmir began after the killing of Burhan Wani, a well-known terrorist from the Hizbul Mujahideen. Burhan’s ascendency to the center stage of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir represented a new phase in this conflict. Security forces began taking note of his presence when he and his group started posting photos and videos on social media, posing in military outfits with weapons, and urging other Kashmiris to join the ranks of militants. Wani and his group were not afraid of showing their faces and identifying themselves as terrorists, which would invite the obvious attention of the forces; instead, they tried to valorize and legitimize their terrorism.
The use of the internet by terrorist outfits to radicalize and recruit has been used very effectively by the Islamic State (ISIS) to get recruits even from places where they have no physical presence, such as Scandinavian countries. Wani was also able to use social media to win recruits and revive militancy, which had been fast declining in J&K. However, the new wave of violence in Kashmir is also characteristically different – it is a move towards extremist Pan-Islamism.
In June 2016, Wani uploaded his last video on social media. In the video he declared that the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) would “act against every man in uniform who stands for the Indian Constitution.” The bulk of the message was against the police; he also asked the youth to keep track of their movements. His videos used to contain verses from the Quran, but this time he also declared his intention to establish the Caliphate “not only in Kashmir, but in the entire world.” It is safe to assume that those who were inspired by Wani to join the ranks of militants were also influenced by his pan-Islamist agenda.
In addition, the protests that erupted on the streets of Kashmir after Wani’s death were in their own way more extreme and more violent. While such protests have often resulted in stone throwing at government buildings, police stations, and other establishments of the security forces, these protests saw targeted attacks on police officials and their families. In Sangam, a mob pushed a police vehicle into the river, which led to the death of its driver, Feroz Ahmed. A few days later, in Chandigram, a mob stormed the house of Sub Inspector Mohammad Ashraf Pal and attacked his wife and daughter. In Kulgam, while a mob was throwing stones at a police station, suspected terrorists from within the mob lobbed a grenade at the police, resulting in the death of a constable. Along with such attacks, often militants are seen joining the protesters, and in one incident the commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Abu Dujana, was seen in a gathering in Pulwama.
Violence is not only restricted to the security forces and other symbols of the government, but is also directed against civilians seen as “collaborators.” A mob threw stones at a Higher Secondary School at Nadihal and attacked its principal, Abdul Rashid Malik, who had to be hospitalized. Journalists from national and international media houses have also been attacked and threatened. Even when physical violence is not visible, there is an attempt to coerce people into joining the protests. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, in a speech in Baramulla, said that mosques were being used to coerce women and children to join the protests. The separatist leadership, also in an attempt to coerce people, had declared that those who defy their programs will be treated as “traitors.” Furthermore, LeT had issued a statement asking for people to join the separatist program, and a similar statement was also issued by Syed Salahuddin, the head of the HM. While the statements might seem suggestive in nature, the fact that they are issued by infamous terrorist organizations means that people are likely to interpret these as threats and warnings.
The most numerous silent victims of this violence have been religious minorities. Sikh organizations have complained and demanded that the government take steps to protect Sikhs and other minorities. The SGPC had also stated in a letter that Sikhs “are being forced to come out of their homes and professional establishments to participate in the protest against India and raise pro-Pakistan slogans. Sikhs have become prisoners in their own homes in Kashmir.” Kashmiri Pandits have also faced violence. Mobs attacked transit camps where Kashmiri Pandits lived, such as in Haal, Mattan, and Vessu. Around 600 Kashmiri Pandit families left the valley in the wake of the violence, while many others organized protests demanding the government evacuate them to safer places.
Such attacks on minorities are a symptom of a larger political change in the valley. It is one of the many signs that the Hurriyat, which has long been the face of the anti-India protests in the valley, are now losing their grip over the separatist constituency. While the Hurriyat has condemned violence, especially against minorities in Kashmir, such attacks show that the protestors are not following their writ. Even the protest calendar issued by the Hurriyat is routinely violated — in some areas shops are open during the shutdown, in others violent mobs openly flout the Hurriyat’s calls for peaceful protest. This phenomenon is underlined by the change in the symbols of the protests – the flag of Pakistan is slowly being replaced by the flag of ISIS.
Despite statements, like those made by Hurriyat (G) leader Syed Geelani, that ISIS is “un-Islamic,” the possibility of the Islamic States’ entrance into Kashmir is increasing. As the Hurriyat loses its hold over the people, the militant outfits are in many ways emulating ISIS to get recruits. Wani successfully recruited militants over social media, using ISIS-like propaganda tools and imagery, including the rhetoric of a worldwide caliphate.
Another striking example is that of Abdul Qayoom Najar and his terrorist outfit called Lashkar-e-Islam. Najar became one of the top commanders of the Hizbul Mujahideen, but later split from the outfit over differences with Syed Salahuddin. The differences that emerged were over the leadership and strategy of the militancy in Kashmir. Najar is said to have advocated more extreme measures like openly targeting Hurriyat leaders, blaming them for weakening the separatist cause. This subsequently led to his expulsion from the HM in 2015, after which he created the Lashkar-e-Islam in Kashmir. Najar’s split with the HM and formation of a Lashkar-e-Islam has striking similarities with the way Abu Bakr al Baghdadi split with al-Qaeda to create ISIS.
While ISIS is yet to establish a foothold in Kashmir, the situation of instability and religious extremism has the potential to provide a base for the Islamic States’ entry in Kashmir. There is a need to recognize this reality. It poses crucial questions about the nature of separatism, what it stands for, and how it should be dealt with.
Dhananjay Sahai is a graduate in history from Delhi University. He is a student of law and takes a keen interest in politics, security, and conflict resolution.