Militancy in Indian-administered Kashmir remains the same, by and large, but countering India’s demographic plans appears to be its primary focus now, experts say.
On Aug. 5, 2019, Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrapped two pieces of legislation that guaranteed Kashmir an autonomous political status besides barring people outside Jammu and Kashmir from buying land or applying for government jobs in the disputed region.
Recently, amid the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, New Delhi introduced domicile laws that made an unspecified number of its citizens eligible for jobs and residency in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s government and pro-freedom leaders in the Indian-administered Kashmir said the laws were aimed at reducing Muslims, who account for 68% of the population, to a minority by settling Hindus (currently 28%) in large numbers.
“Independence and merger with Pakistan were hitherto the two goals of the armed insurgency. By unilaterally changing the status of an internationally recognized dispute, India has changed the goalpost and handed militants a more urgent cause -- a cause concerning the very existence of Kashmiris,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a retired professor of law, author and political analyst.
- New player
That the militancy would not be the same became evident when a new militant outfit, the Resistance Front, appeared on the scene in October 2019. Indian army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane told the media on May 14 that the group is “another terrorist organization supported by its proxies across the border.”
The Resistance Front has carried out several attacks on Indian forces, killing five elite Indian commandos in hand-to-hand combat near the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan, in April this year. In May, its militants militants killed a colonel, a major and three other personnel during a gunfight in northern Kashmir, according to Indian army spokesman Col. Rajesh Kalia.
A high-ranking counterinsurgency police officer who has served in both volatile southern and relatively calmer northern parts of the Valley, said the Resistance Front is the only outfit that has inflicted more casualties than it has suffered itself.
“They are obviously more well-trained than local militants. My worry is that they are capable of carrying out spectacular attacks like the 2019 Pulwama suicide bombing. It is Pakistan’s answer to Aug. 5 for now. It remains to be seen how far they will go,” he said.
The officer gave as an example the recent seizure of an explosives-laden car by the roadside in southern Kashmir. According to a police statement then, the car bomber escaped after a brief shootout.
Months before India scrapped the law that barred Indians from buying property in Kashmir, Riyaz Naikoo -- then operational commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest Kashmiri militant organization -- issued a warning in an audio clip circulated on social media.
“...if Article 35A is tampered with, you’ll become a problem for Kashmir,” it said.
Anadolu Agency was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the audio clip.
Militants usually do not own up to the killing of political workers or civilians suspected to be working as informers for government forces. But the TRF openly claimed responsibility for the killing of a Kashmiri Hindu sarpanch, an elected village head, on June 8.
Several Indian nationals, some of them laborers and mostly Muslims, were killed in Kashmir after the abrogation of special laws last year.
An army officer, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the TRF would be a “tough nut to crack” because its cadres are concentrated in northern Kashmir, where the sympathetic local population is not as fatigued as in the south, the theatre of a resurgent militancy for the past decade now.
“I think they are well stocked weapons-wise and more secretive and battle-hardened than those in south Kashmir districts,” he told Anadolu Agency.
- Waning force
Another counterinsurgency police officer who spoke to Anadolu Agency on condition of anonymity said the Indian state had factored in the repercussions of its Aug. 5 decision.
“That is why counterinsurgency operations have been relentless. Militants have done nothing alarming. They are not being allowed to gain strength,” he said, adding Hizbul Mujahideen has lost an estimated 70% of its cadres since Aug. 5.
The officer said his analysis of militancy during the past decade shows that Hizbul Mujahideen has always been a more formidable force than “fearsome” Pakistani militants because of its familiarity with the local terrain and society.
“But its tactics have become predictable. A young recruit goes missing from home, and within no time, security forces catch up with him. They lack weapons and training. The government’s policy is to kill whoever resorts to the gun,” he said.
The majority of the 90-odd militants killed so far this year belonged to Hizbul Mujahideen, and many of them were found to have no weapons on them after being killed in firefights with government forces, according to regional police chief Dilbag Singh. A few had joined the militancy only weeks or days before they were killed. Some were armed only with a pistol. All had refused offers of surrender by government forces when cornered.
According to reports on gunfight in recent months compiled by Anadolu Agency, nearly all Hizbul Mujahideen’s men have been killed in a similar fashion. Houses in which groups of two to five militants were hiding were blown up with explosives by scores of forces that come armed with machine guns, armored vehicles and bunker-busting mortar guns.
“Gunfights are a misnomer for these encounters. It is sheer defiance on the part of these young boys, nothing else. What chance does a militant who is not trained stand against a professional army?” said a journalist who has covered the insurgency in southern Kashmir for the past 12 years.
“After Aug. 5, desperation among the youngsters is running high because the fears of demographic changes became real after India brought in domicile laws. This is probably why boys are joining the militancy even when they have no weapons,” he said.
-‘Efforts on to wipe out militancy’
Inspector general of police in Kashmir Vijay Kumar told reporters on Sunday that a total of 106 militants have been killed so far this year and another 100-200 are active. However Singh on June 8 told reporters that the government’s three-pronged strategy was to prevent the entry of militants, as he accused, from Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir into Jammu and Kashmir, deal with militants active in the hinterland, and stop local youths from joining the militancy.
However, Lt. Gen. BS Raju told reporters on Friday that high militant casualties had not prevented fresh recruitment. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 271 militants were killed in 2018. But in 2019, another 163 fatalities were recorded despite the curtailment of counterinsurgency operations for a few months post Aug. 5.