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Kashmir: Killing Militants Won’t Kill Militancy

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Kashmir: Killing Militants Won’t Kill Militancy

Despite the Indian Army-led, take-no-prisoners Operation All-Out, militancy is surging.

Kashmir: Killing Militants Won’t Kill Militancy
Credit: Flickr / Kashmir Global

The announcement of a unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on May 15, 2018 came four years after the Indian central government’s iron-fist strategy to finish off militancy in the state by killing as many militants as possible — and placing negotiations, clemency, and a social approach on the backburner.

Since then, while more militants have been killed in each successive year — 110 in 2014, 113 in 2015, 165 in 2016, 218 in 2017, and 81 in 2018 (as of May 27) — militancy has, paradoxically, increased. The anti-militant triumphalism of the Indian government and a pliant media notwithstanding, the militants’ ranks are being replenished through local recruitment and militants from across the India-Pakistan International Border and the Line of Control (LoC).

In 2014, when the BJP government led by the hawkish Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, there were 222 infiltration attempts from Pakistan. After a dip in 2015, when 121 attempts were made to push in 33 militants, 371 attempts in 2016 infiltrated 119 militants. In 2017, 123 militants crossed over in 406 infiltration events.

This is nowhere close to the 2,417 infiltrations in 2000 — the year that then-BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced the first-ever governmental unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir — but it does indicate that the present BJP government’s no-prisoners policy is not working.

In fact, this spike in infiltration attempts comes a decade-and-a-half after the India-Pakistan ceasefire in 2003 along the LoC, which had led to a diminishing of militancy. The border fencing that immediately followed nearly killed off infiltration — and militancy, which dropped from a peak of 2,850 militants killed in 2001 to a low of 84 in 2012.

Between 2012 and 2017, however, militant fatalities shot up by more than 250 percent. During the same period, security personnel fatalities went up by almost 500 percent.

The critical aspect of these seemingly bald statistics lies in what they tell us via the ratio of foreign/unidentified militants (the latter mostly foreign nationals with no documents) to local militants.

There were 72 foreign/unidentified militants to 29 local militants killed in 2014, 58/36 in 2015, 104/32 in 2016, and 121/88 in 2017. In effect, almost twice as many foreign/unidentified militants were killed as local ones. The security forces in Kashmir view these figures as reflecting the ratio of foreign-to-homegrown active militants.

No amount of hermetic planning has helped lock the India-Pakistan border. In 2015, plans were drawn up to tighten security on the border with five layers of thermal imaging, surveillance radar, laser traps, and subsurface motion-sensors. Cost inefficiencies forced this plan to be suspended in 2017.

In 2016, the Indian government ordered what it called “surgical strikes” across the LoC, promptly leading to an upsurge in cross-border firings from Pakistan — and an upswing in infiltration, which it reportedly did not anticipate.

The Burhan Wani Legacy

The ongoing spike in infiltrations and recruitments follows the July 2016 killing by the security forces of the charismatic, youthful Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

Wani was a magnet for the youth of Kashmir, primarily in the south, which has been the crucible of militancy since its onset in 1998 (when one militant and one soldier were killed, both in South Kashmir). More than 100 local youth joined the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba in the months after Wani took to social media, starting in 2011.

Just as important as the fatality figures of militants are the shadowy statistics of the number of infield active militants. Those who gather these data — the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) Police, the Indian Army, the state government, the central government, the insurgent and secessionist groups, and human rights watchers — differ with regard to methodology, sourcing, and finally even the numbers. But they all agree on one thing: that while the security forces (SF) are hitting infiltrative militancy more than the local militancy, local recruitment is on the rise.

According to an estimate by the J&K Police, of the 142 active militants in the Kashmir Valley in 2015, 88 were locals and the rest from Pakistan. Burhan Wani’s death marked a history-making uptick. Former Director General of Police K. Rajendra Kumar (whose term ended in December 2016) says that the number of active militants by the end of 2016 had crossed 300, with about 180 of them locals and 119 foreigners.

In 2017, 119 local youth  were recruited, despite the ambitious Operation All-Out (OAO) launched by the security forces in January that year. OAO began with the relocation of 2,000 more army troops to South Kashmir. Six new army camps were set up and 1990s-style Cordon and Search Operations (CASO) revived. J&K Police were issued new fighting gear and equipment, including armored vehicles and bulletproof vests (which even the Indian Army has been struggling to get as standard equipment for nine years now).

The year ended with 218 militants killed, the highest since 2011. But, despite OAO’s sweeping mobilization, 45 local youth took up arms in January-April 2018. Union Minister of State for Home Hansraj Gangaram Ahir told Parliament on March 13 this year that 60 militant actions had taken place in 2018 (up to March 4), against 39 such incidents over the same period in 2017.

The balance of security forces vs. militants fatalities also seems to be tilting. As against 10 security personnel and 26 militants killed in January-March 2017 (a 61.5 percent success rate), there were 15 security personnel and 17 militants killed over the same period this year (an 11.76 percent success rate).

The political context that framed this resurgence of militancy is the absolutist one discarded by most governments and militaries. Modi’s government was quick to jettison the earlier nuanced handling of a turbulent trifecta involving India, Pakistan, and Kashmir. It has opted for a boots-on-the-ground strategy that evidently does not seriously discriminate between civilian and combatant casualties.

Civilians are killed mostly in the crossfire in densely populated localities. In 2014, 32 civilians lost their lives, 20 in 2015, 14 in 2016, a whopping 57 in 2017, and 36 in the first five months of 2018.

Revisiting Militias

The government has considered revisiting the concept of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, a pro-government counterinsurgency group, created in early 1994, drawn from among 3,000 surrendered and lapsed militants, referred to by the security forces as “friendlies.” Some of them, along with state armed police, were later formalized into the army-led Special Operations Group (SOG). The Ikhwanis initially succeeded in subduing militancy, especially in some rural pockets, but their methods were brutal and extralegal, and collateral damage was steep. Some Ikhwanis, armed to the teeth, went rogue. Eventually, the group lost the trust of the Kashmiris as well as militancy headquarters in Pakistan. Both local and foreign militants retaliated, killing Ikhwanis ruthlessly. By 1996, the government had tired of the indiscipline of the Ikhwanis and officially disbanded them.

But pro-government militias in India never entirely disappear. Ikhwanis were active in 2003 (sporadically, until 2005), although at a tenth of their peak strength of 3,500 and severely demoralized. In 2002, the government first disengaged the services of Ikhwanis from the SOG and then, unexpectedly, officially dissolved the SOG. Nevertheless, they remained active. A 2004 U.S. Institute of Peace report said that the SOG “is still part of the Jammu and Kashmir police force and continues with its predations.”

A decade-and-a-half later, while it might not be easy for the government to restart a militia program, its attraction is inescapable. The Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon’s savagery toward militants — and civilians alike — resulted in relatively uneventful Parliamentary elections in April-May 1996 and state assembly elections in September-October 1996.

After all the grief it has earned for itself in Kashmir, the central government is looking at any and every outré strategy to help it regain its slipping foothold in the state.

This is what led the government to declare a ceasefire on Ramadan this year.

Ramadan Ceasefire: Gains And Losses

On May 9, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti pressed Modi for a ceasefire in the Valley in the month of Ramadan, which began on May 17 and will end on June 15.

On May 16, Modi announced a unilateral but conditional ceasefire. It is considered significant enough to have earned an acronym: NICO (Non-Initiation of Combat Operations). The security forces have been told to stand back, but also to retaliate if attacked. However, arrests of militants, stone-throwers, and “overground workers of militants” are ongoing, as are operations along the LoC and uninhabited areas, and what the army refers to as “small area domination exercises.”

The ceasefire might be unravelling, and not just because the major militant groups have dismissed it as gimmickry. On May 22, the army opened fire in South Kashmir, injuring four girls, two critically. On May 25, the J&K Police and paramilitary forces fired pellets and seriously injured 70 people — permanently blinding at least 10 — in Srinagar, the state capital, after Friday prayers. On May 28, militants attacked a security forces camp in South Kashmir, killing a soldier. The army retaliated, killing a civilian bystander.

The BJP made its discontent with the ceasefire apparent soon after it was announced. BJP national president Amit Shah said three days after the ceasefire announcement (which came after the worst spring in Kashmir in a decade), “This ceasefire is not for terrorists. This ceasefire is for people to discharge their religious rituals in a peaceful manner.” Shah commands the majority opinion in the central government.

His words devastated the ground sentiment. Although the damages in the current ceasefire are as yet nothing compared to those in the Ramadan 2000 ceasefire — during which 59 militants, 56 security personnel and 96 civilians died — with half this year’s Ramadan still to go, tempers in Kashmir are fraying across the board.

Riyaz Wani writes for StoriesAsia.