The region’s first summer after its loss of autonomy sees violence return with a vengeance
In September 2019, a month after New Delhi revoked Article 370 of India’s Constitution that granted Jammu and Kashmir its autonomy, the Pakistani daily Dawn published an op-ed. It read, “Confronted by (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s attempt to eliminate Kashmir’s identity and autonomy, the people of occupied Jammu & Kashmir have no choice but to resist … Militant organisations, especially indigenous groups like Hizbul Mujahideen, rather than the Hurriyat’s political leadership, will lead the new struggle.”
It was written by Munir Akram, who is now Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations.
In the op-ed, Akram also called on Pakistan government to “distance itself from proscribed terrorist organisations that may enter the anticipated fray in occupied Jammu & Kashmir.”
Nine months later, as the militancy hurtles to the centre stage in Kashmir, it is more or less organised along the lines predicted by Akram.
New Delhi has crushed Hurriyat, the Valley’s separatist political grouping advocating a political struggle for resolution of the Kashmir dispute. All its leaders have either been hauled off to jail or imprisoned in their houses. There’s little space even for the establishment political parties to carry out their activities. No one within the democratic political structure is in a position to raise a voice against withdrawal of J&K’s autonomy. The new militancy is rearing its head against this backdrop.
It staged its first major strike on April 6 when five militants and five para-commandos were killed in a hand-to-hand combat in Operation Randori Behak in Keran sector near the Line of Control. Ever since, 14 more security personnel, including a colonel and a major, have been killed in ambushes and encounters in North Kashmir. And all this violence has taken place in the midst of a pandemic.
The militants who carried out these attacks or were engaged in encounters were mostly Kashmiris who were believed to have crossed over from the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, where they were supposedly trained in the use of arms. Some of them had travelled to Pakistan on valid visas through the Wagah border.
Kashmiris had not been going to Pakistan for arms training for about one and a half decades. The youth would join militancy and train locally. This remains the practice even now. Often, the local training involves little more than possession of a Kalashnikov or sometimes a mere pistol. This renders local militants inherently incapable of mounting a major attack on security forces. Their presence has largely had a symbolic value. In shootouts, they hardly put up a fight and are killed shortly after being tracked down. The violence in South Kashmir bears this out. No soldier has lost his life in the firefights that killed around 70 militants since January.
The militancy in South Kashmir is thus different from the one in North.
In North, as recent shootouts have validated, the militants are trained and battle-hardened. They also comprise of a significant proportion of non-local fighters. This has made North Kashmir a bigger challenge for security agencies than in South.
This is the shift that has taken place in the recent past and it could become more pronounced if more infiltration takes place now, as the passes along the LoC have cleared up of the snow, making the border permeable.
“We could very well see the ground zero of the militancy in Kashmir relocating from South Kashmir to North,” said a police officer. “And with South Kashmir staying as it is, we could see a considerable enlargement of the area under militancy. But this is along anticipated lines. And we are up for the challenge.”
Kashmir, according to the Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh, has around 200-250 militants, a majority of whom are concentrated in South Kashmir. The figure has remained more or less the same over the past five years, with killings of militants being constantly replenished by new recruits, local and non-local. This maintains a degree of steady militancy throughout the year. Any revision of this number upwards and downwards thus has a direct bearing on the ground situation in the region.
Going forward, the number of militants and the ratio of local versus non-local militants will determine the level of violence in Kashmir. And going by the recent trends, the militancy seems set for a major resurgence – the growing number of militant killings, notwithstanding. It has a compelling dynamic at its root: the post-August 2019 political reality. It has become a do or die alternative to carry forward the three-decades-long separatist struggle, more so with New Delhi closing off the option for a political resistance or mass mobilization.
Also, the new constitutional regime governing Kashmir has wiped out the space for any understanding between Kashmir and New Delhi. The choice now is between surrendering to the new political reality, which has forcibly subsumed Kashmir within the larger Indian identity, or resistance to it.
And then there is the Pakistan factor. New Delhi’s withdrawal of Kashmir’s special status has stunned Islamabad, which seemed to have war-gamed for everything in relation to India other than this move. By unilaterally integrating Kashmir, New Delhi has displayed a contemptuous rejection of Islamabad’s claim over the region which basically stems from 1948 United Nations resolutions calling for a referendum to allow people in J&K to choose to join either of the two countries.
Also, with Kashmir now becoming a fair game for demographic change and India also not ruling it out, this nullifies the basic condition for a possible future plebiscite which presupposes no material change in the ground situation in the divided parts of Kashmir on Indian and Pakistan sides, controlled by New Delhi and Islamabad respectively.
If Pakistan chooses not to acquiesce to India’s new aggressive stance on Kashmir and lay off as New Delhi sets about changing the facts on its side of the region, it might do something radical to prevent or resist it. It might either escalate through a direct military action or send in militants to scale up the level of ongoing violence in the region. The recent infiltration of militants and the consequent violence in Handwara town in Kupwara shows that Pakistan may have for now settled on the latter option – although the militants who have been killed in the Handwara violence were almost all Kashmiris.
It may take a long time for Pakistan, and for that matter even Kashmiris, to get used to the new status quo, and they are likely to make attempts to reverse it.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of StoriesAsia and StoriesAsia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
Riyaz Wani is an independent journalist with StoriesAsia, a collective of freelance journalists in South and Southeast Asia.