Srinagar: Union minister and Udhampur MP Dr Jitendra Singh had said in late May that the militancy in Jammu and Kashmir was in its “last phase”. The data for 2020 could be interpreted in that way — according to Vijay Kumar, the inspector general of police for the Kashmir division, 118 militants were killed in the first six months of this year, and that there had been a 48 per cent decline in recruitment over the same period last year.
But when it comes to the militancy in Kashmir, things are never so straightforward. The last decade or so is a case in point — the militancy was seen to be on the decline in 2007-08, then again from 2010-14, and yet again after the scrapping of Article 370 on 5 August last year. But these troughs have been interspersed with peaks too, such as 2017-18, which saw the recruitment of 330 local youth into the militant ranks.
According to one central government official, the Pakistan-backed campaign of violence requires the number of active militants in J&K to be between 200 and 300, and this has been managed despite the security forces killing nearly 900 militants in the last five years (Ministry of Home Affairs) data. Government sources say the Centre has devised a security policy to significantly decrease these numbers, intensifying counter-insurgency operations, especially in the lockdowns imposed after the abrogation of Article 370 and then to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But even now, there are about 200 militants active, and people in the security establishment warn that the mistakes of 2008-10 must not be repeated — back then, the declining number of attacks and recruitment had created a perception that the militancy was coming to an end, which proved to be a false dawn. The next decade was marked by a new wave of insurgency that Kashmir and the counter-insurgency grid in the Valley hadn’t witnessed before.
Decline at the turn of the last decade
According to a senior J&K Police officer, 2008 was the year when the security grid began to see a clear decline in insurgency. The number of violent incidents had remained in four digits since 1989, but in 2008, the number of incidents came down to 708, home ministry data shows.
Over the next two years, the numbers of attacks, security forces personnel and civilian killings all declined — in 2010, Kashmir saw 488 militancy-related incidents, with 69 security forces personnel and over 230 militants killed.
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By 2012, there had been a massive decline in the numbers — 15 security personnel and 72 militants were killed that year. In 2013 and 2014 combined, around 100 security personnel lost their lives, while the number of militants killed was 177.
Among the reasons for the dip in numbers was the fall in recruitment of local militants — a pattern that continued till 2014-15. In 2010, 54 Kashmiri youth joined militant ranks, followed by a steep decline in 2011-2013 when the figures stood at 23, 21 and six respectively, according to police data. The number of active militants remained below 400-500.
The senior police officer told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity: “Obviously, it was a sustained counter-insurgency plan that was yielding good results. But there was also another factor — 2008 onwards, Kashmir saw this trend of public agitations and stone pelting.
“Youth who were joining militant ranks saw street battles with police as a much safer alternative to carry out the separatist agenda. And this continued till 2014-15. But things started to change.”
Two significant developments took place in south Kashmir nearly six months apart in 2010, that changed the face of the militancy from what it had been for the last 20 years.
First, on 21 March, security forces killed a Hizbul Mujahideen militant named Parvaiz Dar, also known as ‘Parvaiz Musharraf’. Dar, 33, had been active for around 10 years.
That was the day a 25-year-old man from Pulwama’s Beighpora village decided he would take up arms. Dar had got in touch with the young man and shaped his ideology, and convinced him to abandon teaching maths at a local school. The young man joined the Hizb two years later. His name was Riyaz Naikoo.
Then, in October 2010, a 15-year-old youngster from south Kashmir’s Tral would leave home to join the same outfit. His name? Burhan Wani.
Naikoo and Wani ushered in what experts have termed the ‘new age’ of militancy in Kashmir.
In addition, the police officer quoted above pointed to another trend that reversed in the middle of the decade — between 2010 and 2015, the militancy had shifted base to north Kashmir, with Pakistani insurgents running the show. But after killing of a Pakistani militant commander Abdullah Unni, fissures appeared in the ranks, complicated by the emergence of new militant outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Islam, led by Kashmiri militant Qayoom Najar.
“A spate of mysterious killings of militants as well as political activists began. Najar advocated killing of civilians whom he perceived as traitors and working at the behest of Indian government, a proposition rejected by his Pakistan-based handlers who feared a public backlash,” the officer said.
“Eventually, prominent faces of the militancy were eliminated in north Kashmir, where a faceless insurgency began. Till date, there are no prominent poster boys of militancy in the north, unlike the south. Even Najar and Unni were not known faces. In the south, something different happened,” he added.
Rise of Wani, spike in militancy
By 2015, Burhan Wani had grown up into a leader of the militancy, and a second senior police officer explained just what was so different about the Hizbul commander.
“Wani broke the cardinal rule of Kashmir militancy — militants would remain hidden from public glare. A killed militant did not conjure an image, but Wani changed that using social media. He and his group lifted the veil on militancy in a bid to attract more youth, and that is exactly what happened,” the second officer said.
“We suddenly saw a surge in militant recruitment and gravitation towards Hizbul Mujahideen. They were all home-grown militants who had no arms training, unlike their predecessors who went to Pakistan to get trained,” he added.
The officer said operationally, the Wani group did not pose as much of a threat as groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed which, after the hanging of Afzal Guru, had escalated the violence through their newly launched hit-squad, called the ‘Afzal Guru Squad’.
“However Wani’s pictures posing with AK-47s made youth gravitate towards Hizbul Mujahideen and towards the militancy at large,” said the officer.
In 2015, the number of militancy-related incidents in J&K was 208; the next year, there was a 55 per cent surge to 322 incidents. The number of security personnel killed in 2015 was 39; the numbers for the next three years were 82, 81 and 91. In the same period, 2015-18, around 730 militants were killed, making it obvious that more and more militants joined the ranks.
Prof. Rajesh Rajagopalan of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who specialises in national and international security, told ThePrint: “The traditional Indian view in any insurgency situation is that when it spikes, you need to bring in the military and cut that off as quickly as possible, and get back to politics. You find this replicated in Assam, Punjab and even in Sri Lanka.”
He added, “There is a clear perception of this within the military. It’s like a putting blanket on a fire —you clamp down on violence and start a political process. That, within the military, is called restoring normalcy. If you see in Mizoram or in Punjab, we gave political power to the militants and brought them on board.”
In Kashmir’s case, however, Rajagopalan said, the road to normalcy was marked with repeated upheavals. “The military says we will reduce the violence to an extent where political activities can be restarted, but if something goes bad, we go back to square one,” he said, adding that in Kashmir’s case, there are many things that went bad.
Elections in the mid-1990, for example, were followed by the arrival of fidayeen squads of the LeT. Other elections were also followed by incidents that led to law and order situations — be it the Amarnath land row, the alleged gangrape and murder of two Shopian women, the Pathribal fake encounter, the hanging of Afzal Guru, the killing of Wani, and now the scrapping of Article 370.
Aftermath of Wani’s killing
Wani’s encounter in July 2016 led to a massive six-month agitation in which more than 100 people were killed and thousands injured with pellet guns.
“Many in the intelligence department were caught unaware of the fallout of Wani’s killing. We should have been more alarmed than we were when three villages fought amongst each other to bury a Pakistani militant by the name of Abu Qasim, who was killed in an encounter late in 2015,” an intelligence officer had told this correspondent in late 2016.
A counter-insurgency official in Kashmir said just like the civilian deaths, arrests and clampdown between 2008 and 2010 preceded the ‘new wave’ of militancy, Wani’s killing and the subsequent protests were followed by a spike in militant recruitment. In 2017, a total of 126 youth joined insurgent groups, and the next year, the number rose to 200, which was the highest in over a decade.
Another particularly disturbing trend, an Army officer said, began when locals started to break through into encounter sites in a bid to help militants escape. Dozens of such incidents took place, which often ended in violent clashes and civilian deaths.
Zulfikar Hassan, Special Director General of the Central Reserve Police Force, said the involvement of locals in resisting security forces’ operations was a very disturbing trend.
“With time, we managed to resolve this issue. We did so not only by strengthening our standard operating procedures but by reaching out to people. That is why most encounters these days do not witness stone-pelting,” said Hassan.
But Riyaz Naikoo’s encounter this year showed otherwise — massive violence broke out after he was killed in a gun battle. Srinagar also witnessed violence after the killing of Junaid Sehrai, son of Hurriyat Conference leader Ashraf Sehrai.
Another change that occurred after Wani’s encounter was the emergence of militants who went beyond Pakistan-backed groups and swore allegiance to global jihadists — such as Ansar Gazwat-ul-Hind (which is aligned to al Qaeda) and Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir. However, the number of active militants in both groups was just about 10 or 12, so they were not a threat compared to Hizbul Mujahideen, LeT or JeM, said the counter-insurgency officer quoted above.
“HM had reached its saturation point of taking in new local recruits, so they were directed to join Jaish, which kept growing under the four-foot tall commander Noor Trali. As more Kashmiris filled in the ranks of Jaish, Naikoo took over from Wani and quickly became a very effective strategist,” this officer said.
“Jaish continued carrying out attacks and Hizb yielded power despite ‘Operation All Out’. There was coordinated abduction of policemen and their families, and execution of civilians, which put them at-par with the better-trained foreign terrorists,” he said.
Before and after 5 August 2019
The Pulwama attack in February last year, carried out by a local youth named Adil Dar working for the JeM, was a major jolt to the security grid in Kashmir. He was one of the many young men to have joined the militancy after Wani’s killing. Many in the security establishment saw this as the beginning of asymmetrical warfare and expected major attacks, but that did not happen.
India’s subsequent airstrikes on JeM camps in Balakot on the Pakistani ‘mainland’ resulted in a dogfight between the air forces at the Line of Control. But in the Valley, the Pulwama attack resulted in an increase in counter-insurgency operations, ban on separatist groups and crackdown on the ‘OGW’ or over-ground worker network began.
“With Wani’s killing, we understood the need to eliminate popular faces of militancy, be it Zakir Musa, Naikoo or Sabzar Ahmed. We understood that top commanders had to be killed instead of chipping at lower-level cadres. So, for the last four years you have seen killing of some big names, no matter what the cost. The Pulwama attack was an aberration and we ensured that does not become a trend,” said the counter-insurgency officer.
Militants have failed to conduct IED attacks on several occasions. IGP Vijay Kumar said even now, a Pakistani militant named Gazi Rashid, believed to be a former Pakistan armyman, is at large.
The scrapping of Article 370 on 5 August 2019 was followed by a lockdown and communication blackout in Jammu and Kashmir. This slowed down counter-insurgency operations, which only resumed with the lifting of curbs on communication.
Now, with all known faces of militants killed, the question is if Kashmir is heading towards normalcy, or to a place where it has been before — the faceless militancy of the early 2010s.
Strategic analyst and retired Army officer Col. Ali Ahmed is of the opinion that the violence could increase, a view echoed by many in the security establishment.
“The security policy was to basically kill off everybody, so the government missed a great opportunity and instead ended up escalating things and alienating people in Kashmir by moves such as last year’s (abrogation of Article 370),” Ahmed said.
“I believe the only thing that stopped Pakistan from escalating things in Kashmir was Covid-19, as many expected an upheaval this year. But while militancy or Pakistani activities in Kashmir are yet to show up, China made itself a key player this year,” he said.
Another Kashmir-based security expert who wished not to be named said: “We are at the same place where we were in 2010, except for two major changes: J&K becoming a union territory and the arrival of China.”
The expert added: “A hot summer in Kashmir, a hot LoC and a standoff at the LAC. Most people in Kashmir know where we are headed. The question is, does Delhi know that?”
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