In the deadliest ever attack on Indian forces in Kashmir, at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed after a suicide bomber targeted a convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir’s militant stronghold of Pulwama district.
The 14 February attack brought India and Pakistan to the verge of war after Delhi pinned the blame for the attack on the United States-designated foreign terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and accused Islamabad of backing the group’s action.
Pakistan’s government denied any involvement and asked India to share actionable evidence of the attack. Subsequently, the air forces of these two nuclear neighbours struck each other’s territories, engaging in a dogfight during which Islamabad captured an Indian pilot.
The impending crisis prompted world powers to urge restraint amid fears of a possible nuclear exchange between the two nations in the wake of an escalation. Seeking de-escalation, Islamabad released the pilot as a gesture of goodwill and cracked down on militant groups including JeM. Tensions, however, remain as skirmishes continue along the de facto border in the disputed Kashmir region.
Although the face-off between India and Pakistan has bought a fresh spotlight on the seething Kashmir conflict, the 14 February strike also signals a seismic shift in the resurging insurgency in the restive Himalayan hamlet.
Kashmir has been at the heart of a territorial dispute between the two neighbours following the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, and these nuclear-armed countries have fought several wars to reclaim the area – the latest in Kargil heights in July 1999.
India’s efforts to manipulate elections in Kashmir and suppress dissent have marked Kashmir’s history. But it was not until 1987, when Delhi rigged an election, that locals started an armed rebellion against Indian rule. What followed was a protracted conflict that continues to simmer.
Given the current political and security situation in the Kashmir valley, there were ominous indications such a strike would happen. The intelligence failure on the part of the Indian security grid within the valley to detect an attack of this magnitude remains a key enquiry in the aftermath of the February attack.
What is worrying policymakers in India is that the Pulwama incident may inspire more youth to become militant and use a similar tactic of suicide bombing, which is a serious cause of concern, especially for security agencies.
However, the primary cause of concern is the capability of local militants to plan and execute an attack with such military precision to inflict massive casualties.
“The Pulwama attack seriously dents the claims of counterinsurgency successes,” said Ibrahim Wani, an assistant professor at the Institute of Kashmir Studies, University of Kashmir.
“Associated to this is a serious challenge to the languages of military triumphalism through this attack; this is particularly visible in the unprecedented tolls for paramilitary troops, the optics, and the precision as well as the planning which may have gone into it.”
The attack in Pulwama is not the first suicide attack carried out by JeM, but it comes 18 years after an assailant first used an explosive-laden car for an attack in Kashmir. In 2000, 19-year-old local resident Afaq Shah carried out the first car suicide attack when he rammed his vehicle into the army’s 15 Corps headquarters in the state capital of Srinagar.
JeM militants also carried out a suicide attack on a CRPF camp in December 2017, at Lethpora in Pulwama district, killing five personnel.
In February 2018, heavily armed militants launched a suicide assault on a Sunjuwan military base in the neighbouring city of Jammu that left at least 12 Indian army personnel dead.
Unlike the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) by militant groups in Kashmir is quite rare. Hizbul Mujahideen – the largest and indigenous pro-Pakistan militant group in the region – doesn’t use IEDs or suicide bombings.
The founding leader of the JeM is Masood Azhar, a jihadi ideologue released from jail in the state in exchange for passengers from the IC-814 Indian Airlines plane, which had been hijacked and ended up in Kandahar.
JeM is regarded as having a more aggressive strategy than other militant groups in the valley and it maintains close relations with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The militant outfit is the third-largest group after Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen, according to police data.
At the heart of the resurgent insurgency lies Kashmir’s internal division. The simmering hostility between government forces and the Kashmiri population in recent years has reached an all-time high. This has resulted in a massive surge in anti-India protests and the escalation of militancy-related violence, especially following the killing of popular rebel commander Burhan Wani in July 2016.
The valley is increasingly witnessing public participation in the funerals of fallen militants, with many people flocking to encounter sites to engage the military and help encircled militants escape.
The radicalisation of the Kashmiri population is attributed to the absence of any political dialogue between stakeholders on resolving the political dispute. The absence of political space and a status quo environment was making militancy attractive again. Excessive militarisation of the public space and repeated human rights violations by the state security apparatus are fuelling anti-India sentiments.
A glance through the militancy-related data provides a clearer indication of this seething tension and escalation of violence.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, fatalities in terrorism-related violence in Jammu and Kashmir states have risen from 174 in 2015 to 451 in 2018. Likewise, the ceasefire agreement (CFA) violations along the International border between India and Pakistan, and on the Line of Control dividing two parts of Kashmir, have also seen a sharp increase in recent years. A total of 449, 971 and 633 such incidents were recorded in 2016, 2017 and 2018, respectively, while just 1, 3 and 23 CFA violations were reported in 2005, 2006 and 2007, respectively.
Even as Indian forces killed at least 255 militants during counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir in 2018, more than 200 local youth joined insurgent groups during that year – the highest recruitment numbers in more than a decade. In 2017, 213 militants were killed but as many as 126 youth joined up during this time.
Although the increasing number of locals joining militant ranks is further altering the Kashmir insurgency landscape, the latest resurgence of militant outfits such as Al Badr, Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TuM) and JeM only indicates a renewed acceptance of pro-Pakistan militancy among the people in the valley.
Significant question marks hang over Delhi’s Kashmir policy to address the political dispute, its attempts to use a militaristic approach to suppress discontent among the population and, primarily, its perception of the Kashmir problem through the Pakistan prism.
Amid all this, there is especially no forward movement on the political front. “This is an obvious policy failure,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, an international law professor at the Central University of Kashmir. “Delhi kept the Kashmir issue in cold storage, and mistook a latency in violence as peace. What we are witnessing is an eruption of violence from its dormant state.”
The “muscular” policy pushed further by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime since coming into power in 2014 has come under intense criticism following the Pulwama attack for fuelling militancy, antagonising the Kashmiri population and polarising the valley state on communal lines.
“Pulwama is also a reflection of BJP government’s policy failure. Its political approach to Kashmir has backfired; its internal security policy in JK has been a failure; and its Pakistan policy has been a string of unimaginative acts,” tweeted Happymon Jacob, an associate professor of disarmament studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The Kashmir conundrum’s other major facet, in addition to the internal local low-scale insurgency, is the dominant international dimension that has Pakistan supporting militant groups like JeM, and separatist groups contesting India’s claim in the region at political, diplomatic and military levels. The tussle between Delhi and Islamabad over gaining a strategic depth within Afghanistan is also an extension of that factor.
Now, with South Asia poised at another significant geopolitical shift following the likely drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan, there is a strong perception that insurgency in Kashmir will intensify further. A possible “spillover” is anticipated in the region that is expected to break the ongoing military status quo in the valley.
“As the Americans withdraw from its Afghan quagmire, India will face the brunt,” wrote Anil A Athale, a retired colonel and military historian, adding: “With Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the unemployed jihadis will certainly turn their gaze to India and Kashmir.”
The emerging scenario in Afghanistan is being keenly charted in Kashmir as the US and other regional countries, including Pakistan, engage in a series of talk with the Taliban to end America’s longest war.
According to Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat – a major separatist group that challenges India’s sovereignty over Kashmir – has said any outcome in Afghanistan will have a “direct impact” on Kashmir, as it will have a major impact on the state of Pakistan. “The end of the Afghanistan war will ease pressure of Pakistan on the Western borders.”
As India goes to elections in coming months, a drawn-out struggle for stability in Kashmir will be a major challenge for the new government.
The probability of militant groups upping the ante and a spike in violence will be expected.
To make Kashmir the next battlefield, the militant organisations need local support, a willingness by at least some of the people to carry out the designs of the global players at a larger level.
Having gained a strong foothold in the local population in Kashmir, militancy will have massive ramifications for India’s internal security and will present a greater challenge internationally, especially with shifting geopolitics.
The enduring stifling of political dissent and human rights injustices heaped on the Kashmiri population by Delhi will continue to create fertile ground for the hardening of stances. If the people continue to feel that they are being denied justice, any attempt to draw them into the mainstream fold within India will not yield any result.
“When you push people to the wall, violence is an obvious reaction. Delhi is now not just fighting militancy but the whole population,” said Hussain.
India, for now, has lost the mind war in the Kashmir valley.