Kashmiri militancy and the ‘dirty war’

A report from the late Shujaat Bukhari on the conflict in Kashmir focusing on the impact of Burhan Wani’s death.

Shujaat Bukhari (1968-2018) was a journalist based in Srinagar (Jammu and Kashmir). He survived three assassination attempts before he was gunned down outside his office on June 14, 2018. This is an edited extract from ‘The Dirty War in Kashmir’, a new collection of his recent reporting on Kashmir.

In 2015, a picture showing 11 Kashmiri youths posing with AK-47 rifles went viral on social media. Standing in the centre of the group was their inspiration, Burhan Wani, who changed the complexion of the militancy in Kashmir and reignited the anti-India movement even at the people’s level. When he was killed in 2016, Kashmir erupted in unprecedented unrest that locked down normal life in the Kashmir Valley for about six months. Nearly 100 people, mostly young, were killed, thousands were injured, and scores were blinded with pellets. It was a new Kashmir: this time people did not hide their emotions and rallied behind the militants.

On the face of it, Burhan Wani’s death did not faze the Hizbul Mujahideen, the indigenous militant organisation that had made a comeback after more than a decade. The group that rallied around Burhan Wani had been hit by the loss of their cadre and affected by the preference Pakistan gave to organisations dominated by foreigners. Getting local people to join the ranks of the organisation apparently led to ‘popular’ support for militancy in general. Security managers in the valley were taken aback in October 2015 when more than 30 000 people turned up for the funeral of Abu Qasim, a Pakistani who led the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the “army of the righteous”, in Kashmir.

Of the 11 young faces in that photograph who gave impetus to militancy in south Kashmir and attracted more young people into their organisation, nine have been killed. Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, who was a close confidant of Burhan Wani in the dirty war in Kashmir, was the last to lose his life. He was motivated to join the Hizbul Mujahideen after Burhan Wani’s brother, Khalid Wani, was killed by the army in the forests of Tral in 2015. Khalid Wani was not a militant, but had, presumably, gone to see his brother. Though Sabzar Ahmad Bhat was picked to succeed Burhan Wani, he refused, paving the way for Zakir Musa to become the head of the organisation. Musa recently stirred up controversy when he announced his organisation would hang Hurriyat leaders for talking about a solution to the Kashmir problem that was not based on religion. As the outrage against his statement from the average Kashmiri became palpable, he modified his words.

Another member of the group, Tariq Pandit, has surrendered, and only Saddam Paddar is still free. Like most new recruits, Paddar, 32, had never crossed over to Pakistan for arms training and had been charged with stone-pelting before he joined the organisation. He hails from the highly volatile Shopian district and is now seen as a possible candidate to head the Hizbul Mujahideen in the valley as Zakir Musa’s fate is not known. The organisation, which operates under supreme commander Salahuddin in Pakistan, has also distanced itself from his views.

Insurgents within the ranks

Notwithstanding the fact that the Hizbul Mujahideen suffered two successive major losses in 2016 and 2017, it still has the highest number of militants in its ranks. In south Kashmir alone, according to official sources, there are 112 militants, 99 of them locals.

The biggest cover the militants have is the people, who give them shelter and food, and even help them escape from the security forces. More than a decade ago, local support for militants had waned, which was why their numbers dropped dramatically.

Today, the people of the valley support the militants openly, and it is obvious when people throw stones at the security forces during operations and come out in large numbers for funerals. The practice of holding a shutdown when militants are killed is also back, and the Joint Hurriyat is finding it difficult to avoid it lest its leaders invite the wrath of the people.

Going by official figures, 282 militants are active in Kashmir today. Compare this with how deep-rooted militancy was in the mid-1990s, and one wonders what makes today’s armed resistance so powerful that it gets the full attention of New Delhi’s security establishment. A hysteria has been built up around new-age militancy by both the security establishment and the national media (mostly TV channels), and their provocative approach is pushing more people to militancy. Take, for example, Indian army general Bipin Rawat’s defence of the use of a Kashmiri man as a human shield, and his description of the situation in Kashmir as a “dirty war” that needs an innovative approach. 

This raises questions about the state’s ability to deal with a situation when similar situations were handled without such fanfare in the 1990s. No doubt, the dynamic of public support has changed. Arun Jaitley, the country’ minister of defence, recently said that there was a “warlike” situation in Kashmir, and Rawat talked about treating stone-pelters in the same way as militants.

From stone throwers to organised militancy

Even as it appears that Kashmir is lost to militancy and the hardline approach is to crush it, the scene is very different from what it was in 1996. Looking at what the government of India told politician Mehbooba Mufti in reply to her question in Parliament in 2014, a comparison with the situation in 1996 seems both out of place and ridiculous. On 8 August 2014, she asked “whether the number of militants operating in the state of Jammu and Kashmir has decreased since 1995, and whether the government has any proposal for the withdrawal of security forces for the civilian areas of the state”. In response, the home ministry said that the number of militants operating in the state of Jammu and Kashmir had considerably decreased since 1995. “There were approximately 6 800 militants of different tanzeems [organisations] active during 1996 in the state, which was reduced to 240 in 2013 and 199 in 2014.” However, a former commander of a militant group says that the number of militants operating in the mid-1990s might have been between 8 000 and 10 000.

According to official data, in 1995, about 4 390 militants were arrested and 1 332 were killed. In 1996, about 3 453 militants were arrested and 1 332 were killed. The highest number of militants killed was in 2001: 2 421. After that, militancy started declining. As 9/11 changed the world’s view about the Kashmir insurgency and Pakistan became engaged on the Afghanistan front, the number of infiltrations decreased so much that the army reported no infiltrations in 2015.

Apart from the support they seem to be getting from the general public, today’s militants seem more committed than those in 1990, when all roads led to Rawalpindi. In most cases, a militant today has actually graduated from first being a stone-pelter. The space for stone-pelters opened up because of the vacuum created by the absence of political engagement to address the larger issue. The way the police have gone after them has also ushered them towards militancy. 

With a bigger symbolic loss, the Hizbul Mujahideen could find it difficult to move on, though it has the numbers. But as long as people rally behind it, it will continue to make the state uncomfortable – two attempts by the army to corner its members in Shopian backfired because the army feared collateral damage. South Kashmir becoming the capital of militancy is the result of many complex realities, and pushing people against the wall politically is one of them.

But south Kashmir is also in the news because the militants themselves choose to be seen in public through social media. Burhan Wani became a poster boy for the militants through social media, although, as a senior police officer wrote soon after his killing, “he had not fired a single shot”. Compared with the south, the situation is grimmer in the north, where there are, according to the police, 141 active militants, of whom 118 are foreigners and 23 locals. But they stay away from social media and do not draw attention to their presence. That is the stark difference between militancy in the north and in the south.

Whether the government can afford to use the stick alone to end the current phase is difficult to say, but more than any action of the government, it is the ‘war’, as it is portrayed by the media, that is causing the most damage on the ground.

‘The Dirty War in Kashmir’ is published by LeftWord Books.

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