Kashmir Awaits a Long, Bloody Summer
Updated: May 22
More than nine months since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Indian government announced the abrogation of Article 370, hopes of a "return to normalcy in the valley" stand challenged. Data accessed from the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) indicate that Jammu & Kashmir has witnessed at least 116 militancy-related casualties, including Indian security personnel, militants and civilians since the start of the year. This figure would have been similar to the trend observed during the corresponding period in 2019, had it not been for the single Pulwama militant attack which claimed the lives of 40 CRPF personnel in February. The recent elimination of Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) leaders Riyaz Naikoo, and Junaid Sehrai by Indian security forces, and the claiming of responsibility for the Handwara encounter by the The Resistance Front (TRF) point to the raising of stakes by both sides.
The Decline of Hizbul Mujahideen
The Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) militant group has been dealt a blow with the death of Naikoo and his close aides within a span of two weeks. Naikoo's killing was only a matter of time and largely anticipated following the January 11 arrest of his close aide and HM commander Naveen Babu who was caught accompanied by deputy superintendent of police Davinder Singh in Kashmir. This is corroborated by inputs that Naikoo was being monitored by Indian agencies for approximately six months now. As of writing, the latest reported arrest of a key HM member is that of Rustam Ali on May 19, accused of being involved in the killing of BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members in Kishtwar. This holds the potential for security forces to close in on the wanted HM militant Jehangir Saroori in the upcoming weeks, who is believed to have conspired the attacks against the BJP and RSS functionaries. Jehangir Saroori is allegedly the HM commander operating in Kishtwar and has long been on the radar of security forces.
In spite of statements by The Resistance Front (TRF) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) denying a turf war in the valley, the plausibility of a rift indeed existing between the groups cannot be entirely discounted. Overt displays of bonhomie are in keeping with militant groups' attempts to project unity, for a failure to do so could trigger schisms within the local populace and weaken grassroots mobilization against Indian forces. The ability of security forces to have cornered in on the elusive Naikoo in his home village of Pulwama, where he commands a strong network of support, raises suspicions of a tip-off by an insider or rival and may heighten distrust within militant networks. A continuation of the offensive against HM could soon render the group relegated to the sidelines.
The Resistance Front: Another Pakistan Proxy?
The space ceded by Hizbul Mujahideen is quickly being taken up by the newly formed militant group, The Resistance Front (TRF), believed to be an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or at least largely backed by it. Unverified intelligence inputs suggest that the TRF will be looking to expand its zone of operations to North Kashmir, a region which has been relatively dormant until recently and also happens to be the home turf of the LeT. These inputs, coupled with the recent Handwara and Keran encounters lend credence to the threat of a potential increase in militancy related incidents in North Kashmir in the coming months.
While the TRF has refuted claims of affiliation with other militant groups and asserted an indigenous genesis, many security analysts believe the role of Pakistan's ISI in the formation of the TRF is undeniable. The group first made its appearance on social media platforms in October 2019, post the abrogation of Article 370, and gained prominence after security forces discovered a TRF module in Sopore on March 22, resulting in the arrest of six of its operatives and recovery of a large cache of arms. The alleged formation of TRF by the Pakistan ISI through its proxy LeT force, is likely an attempt to shed blame for abetting Kashmir militancy and projecting it as a largely homegrown movement stemming from local anti-India hostilities. This is particularly so as Pakistan faces the increasing threat of sanctions by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) if it fails to check terror financing before the next review scheduled this year. TRF's reported objectives of expanding the base of militancy in the valley, would also be in tandem with Pakistan's inclination to project a wider anti-India support base and dispute India's narrative that separatist sentiments are largely restricted to south Kashmir. The naming of the newly formed group "The Resistance Front" gives the impression of a more secular front, thereby dissociating it from militant groups with overt Islamist nomenclature and allowing it to garner more legitimacy at international forums in the process.
The sudden surge in ceasefire violations along the LoC by Pakistan in the preceding months can be most likely interpreted as an increase in attempts to provide cover to militants readying to infiltrate into India. The long duration of the recent encounters and casualties on the Indian side, including the loss of Indian para commandos in the Keran encounter where three of the five militants were local Kashmiris, reveal that some of the militants are well-trained to challenge Indian forces. This also points to the prospect of local Kashmiris increasingly crossing over to Pakistan for training before returning to Kashmir to launch attacks. While there have been previously reported incidents of a few local Kashmiris crossing to Pakistan for training, a more organized and concerted effort by Islamabad to impart such training to local Kashmiris may have begun post-August last year. With the setting in of summer and the accessibility of infiltration routes due to the melting of snow, Pakistan is likely raising the pitch and facilitating maximum infiltration of militants, including trained local Kashmiri militants, in the weeks and months ahead.
The Indian government's abrogation of Article 370 may have been lauded as a mark of political will and decisiveness in the rest of India, but its actions on ground have failed to win Indian forces any sympathies or support from the local Kashmiris. Suspension of internet and months of curfew have led to increasing unemployment in the region. The closure of schools have left a large part of the youth restless, disengaged from constructive activities and hence easy prey to radicalization efforts by militant groups. Moreover the approval of the new domicile rules in Kashmir allowing eligible non-locals to apply for domicile certificates, has raised distrust among the locals who view it as a bid to change the Muslim dominated demography of Kashmir. This, coupled with reports of collateral damage following encounters, provides more ammunition for militant groups like the TRF seeking to lure new recruits into its fold.
When seen in its entirety, all of these factors reveal the strong posturing adopted by all stakeholders in the region, each side hopeful of gaining leverage over the other in the coming months. With no compromise in sight and all forces raising the ante, Kashmir likely faces a long, and bloody summer.