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Kashmiri jihad has disappeared. Its only hope now is for New Delhi to make big mistakes

Since 2001, jihad in Kashmir has often been perched on the edge of the abyss—only to claw its way back because of the failure to build a democratic political order.

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Fed by streams of people emerging from the lanes of old-city Srinagar, the tide of rage wound its way along the bends of the Jhelum, past Lal Chowk and Khanqah-e-Maula to the new ‘martyr’s graveyard’ at the Eidgah.

Ashfaq Majeed Wani was an unlikely hero. The kidnapper of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s sister, Rubaiya Sayeed, and executioner of Kashmiri Pandits, Wani had accidentally blown himself up with a grenade during his only known attack on Indian forces in 1990, a botched ambush outside the Firdous Cinema in the city.

Even lesser ‘martyrs’ were entitled to glory through that first spring of the long jihad, in March 1990. “Mothers would put mehendi on their sons going to Pakistan,” the scholar Navnita Behera has recorded. “Children carried placards saying ‘Indian dogs go home’.”

Late last month, Aqib Mushtaq Bhat was buried at a small graveyard in southern Kashmir. He was killed by police just days after he allegedly shot Sanjay Sharma four times outside the home the Kashmiri Pandit bank guard had refused to leave through years of carnage. This time, there were no mourners for Aqib. 

Faced with vanishing support from a crisis-mired Pakistan, and the loss of legitimacy among young people, Kashmir’s jihadist movement is disintegrating. The number of ethnic Kashmiris active in jihadist groups, intelligence officials have told ThePrint, is down to 28, the lowest in a decade. The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen—once the numerically largest jihadist group in Kashmir, with thousands of cadres—has all but disappeared.

This isn’t the first time Kashmiri jihadism has faced such a crisis. And on each of those occasions, it was rescued by missteps and misjudgements by New Delhi.

Also read: Top Kashmir jihad commander who led Indian suicide bombers in Afghan IS attacks believed killed

The greying jihad

Emerging from his home in Rawalpindi on 20 February, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen chief Muhammad Yusuf Shah delivered a funeral oration for his lieutenant Bashir Ahmad Pir—one of the earliest members of the organisation, and among the latest of a string of jihadists to be killed in what some suspect to be Indian intelligence operations. “Till we have a drop of blood remaining,” Shah vowed, “we will not sell out Kashmir.”

Even as the Hizb patriarchs in Pakistan have been exhorting their followers to violence, their children long ago made their peace with the state. Leading up to the Islamist-led youth uprisings that began in 2010, it would make the leadership’s call for sacrifice seem hollow.

Two of Shah’s five sons—Syed Shakeel Ahmad and Shahid Yusuf—are now in prison, facing trial on terror-financing charges. Till last year, though, both men were government employees. Shakeel served as a nursing assistant at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), and Yusuf was in the agriculture department.

Another son, Wahid Yusuf, works as a surgeon at the (SKIMS). He was alleged by former Research and Analysis Wing Chief AS Dulat to have obtained his seat at the prestigious Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Government Medical College in a back-door deal between his father and the Intelligence Bureau.

The fourth son, Syed Mueed, worked until his termination of service last year with the government-run Entrepreneurship Development Institute. The fifth son, Syed Javed, works as a computer technician at Soibugh’s zonal education office.

The oldest surviving son of Hizb, second-in-command Ghulam Nabi Khan, runs a labour-contracting business serving Indian Army units stationed around Pahalgam. Naseer Ahmad Khan and his younger siblings, Irfan and Illyas, are not believed to have ever been involved with jihadism, police officials say. Hameen Bhat, the only son of Hizb third-in-command Zafar Bhat, is a farmer.

Even as Islamist-led youth protests began to build up in Kashmir after 2010, the greying jihadist leadership in Rawalpindi appeared compromised and out-of-touch. A new generation of Kashmir-based leaders, like Ashiq Hussain Faktoo and Asiya Andrabi, became icons for this new generation of young Islamists—together with organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed.

Also read: Fauji or LeT, Hizbul worker? A Kashmir man’s identity comes under cloud after being shot dead

The battle within

Ever since August 2000, the Hizb had battled internal divisions led by commanders seeking dialogue with India. “Don’t shoot,” Hizb second-in-command Ghulam Rasool Dar famously shouted out to photographers ahead of a meeting with government officials, “my life is in danger.” The divisions did not end even after commander Abdul Majid Dar was assassinated on Shah’s orders. Even the Jama’at-e-Islami, the political party from which the Hizb had emerged, became increasingly fractious.

For pro-dialogue Hizb commanders, the bourgeois lives of the children and grandchildren of Jama’at patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani discredited his calls for jihad-without-end.

In 1997, the head of the Jama’at-e-Islami, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, had called for an end to “gun culture.” To many in the Hizb, the time had come to make a political deal that would extricate them from a grim, pointless cul-de-sac.

To make things worse, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence scaled back support for the Hizb and shut down training camps after the Mumbai attacks in 2008. It was a decision Shah bitterly complained about at a rally held in Muzaffarabad in 2010.

The Hizb found itself ill-placed to capitalise as youth Islamism rose. The organisation haemorrhaged top commanders dispatched from Pakistan to lead operations inside Kashmir, including Ghulam Rasool Khan, Ghulam Rasool Dar and Suhail Faisal. Yasin Itoo, a younger commander radicalised in the course of multiple prison terms who the Hizb hoped would revive its fortunes in southern Kashmir, was killed in 2017.

The most visible Hizb commander to emerge in the period leading up to the 2016 uprising was Riyaz Naikoo, the 1985-born son of a tailor in Beighpora village of south Kashmir’s Pulwama region. Though he proved adroit in his use of social media to draw recruits, the organisation continued to be militarily ineffectual.

Fed up with the Hizb, Naikoo’s two top recruits—social media icon Burhan Wani and Zakir Rashid Bhat—drifted away to other jihadist organisations, with deeper ties to global jihadism. Though Burhan’s killing would unleash massive street violence across southern Kashmir, the Hizb failed to turn this into on-ground revival.

Two years before he was killed in 2020, Naikoo publicly complained of lack of support from Pakistan, which had led to shortages of weapons and training.

Also read: NIA attaches property of Hizbul Mujahideen militant in J-K’s Kupwara

Last men standing

Educated at the local government school in Malangpora near Pulwama, Aqib was among a few young people drawn to the Hizb after 2019.  Recruited through a courier by Saifullah Mir, an Industrial Training Institute-educated pharmacologist who succeeded Naikoo, Aqib dropped out of college to join the Hizb in 2021. Kashmir police investigators believe he was responsible for shooting two migrant workers in Bihar, Patleshwar Kumar and his father Jako Chowdhary, last year.

Local Hizb commander Zubair Wani was, however, choked of funds and weapons—and Aqib soon became frustrated at the group’s inability to train and equip its recruits.  Earlier generations of Hizb cadre had received extensive military training at camps in Pakistan; Aqib learned only to fire a pistol into unarmed civilians at point-blank range.

Early this year, he joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba—only to end up dead after Sharma’s killing, together with fellow recruit Aijaz Bhat.

Following the war of 1971, Pakistan cut support to jihadist groups in Kashmir such as al-Fatah and the National Liberation Front. It seemed to end the prospects of armed struggle against the Indian state. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi secured a deal with former Kashmir Prime Minister Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, which guaranteed New Delhi’s status as the hegemon.

The choke-hold New Delhi obtained on politics in Kashmir, though, came at the cost of all opposition space to Islamists. The political despotism built by the National Conference, with Congress support, pushed many young people to take up arms. Islamist-led youth protests had begun breaking out in southern Kashmir from as early as 2003—with fateful consequences.

“The crossing of the Line of Control was as mystical for a Kashmiri youth as the Eve St. Agnes to a virgin,” Nazir Gilani wryly recalled. Kashmiri youth, Gilani noted, “seemed mesmerised by a belief that a solution to all their ills on the Indian side of Kashmir lay on the Pakistani side of Kashmir.”

From 2001 on, the jihad in Kashmir has often been perched on the edge of the abyss—only to claw its way back because of the failure to build a durable and democratic political order. Today, as New Delhi seems to hunt down the Hizb’s last men standing, it must be aware about not making the same mistakes.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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