In 2015, a picture showing 11 handsome and sturdy Kashmiri youth posing with AK-47 rifles went viral on social media. In the middle of the group was their inspiration, Burhan Wani, who changed the complexion of militancy in Kashmir and re-ignited the anti-India movement even at the people’s level. When Burhan was killed in 2016, Kashmir erupted into an unprecedented unrest that locked down life for about six months. Nearly 100 people, mostly young people were killed, thousands were injured and scores were blinded with pellets. It was a new Kashmir, albeit with a difference. This time people did not hide their emotions and rallied behind the militants.
On the face of it, Burhan’s killing did not faze Hizbul Mujahideen, the indigenous militant organization that had made a comeback after over a decade. The group that rallied around Burhan rediscovered a Hizb that had been hit by a loss of cadre and was affected by the preference Pakistan gave to organisations dominated by foreigners. Getting locals to join the ranks apparently created “popular” support from the people. Security managers were taken aback in October 2015, when over 30,000 people turned up for the funeral of Abu Qasim, a Pakistani who led the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir.
Out of these 11 young faces who gave impetus to militancy, essentially in South Kashmir and attracted more youth into their fold, ten have been killed. Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, who was a close confidant of Burhan was the ninth in the group to be killed. Sabzar’s journey was also one that owed much to atrocities by security forces. He was motivated to join after Burhan’s brother Khalid was killed by the Army in the forests of Tral in 2015. Khalid was not a militant but had presumably gone to see his brother. Though picked to succeed Burhan, Sabzar refused, paving the way for Zakir Musa, who recently stirred a controversy by announcing they would hang Hurriyat leaders for talking about a solution to Kashmir that was not based on religion. As the outrage against his statement from the average Kashmiri became palpable, he modified his words, sparing Syed Ali Geelani.
One member of the group, Tariq Pandit, has surrendered since, and only Saddam Paddar is left alive. The 32-year-old Paddar is the only survivor of Burhan’s core group of three. Like most of the new recruits he had not crossed over to Pakistan for arms training and had been charged with stone pelting before joining militancy. He hails from the highly volatile Shopian district and is now seen as the new possible head of Hizb in the Valley since Zakir’s “fate” is not known given that Hizbul Mujahideen which operates under supreme commander Salahuddin in Pakistan has also distanced itself from his views.
Notwithstanding the fact that Hizb suffered two successive major losses in 2016 and 2017, it still has the highest number of militants. In South Kashmir alone, according to official sources there are 112 militants and of them 99 are locals. However, the biggest cover the militants have is the people who give them shelter, food and even help them escape. Over a decade ago, the local support to militants had waned and that is why their numbers had dramatically gone down. Today there is not only covert support for them but overt as well and that becomes visible when people throw stones at security forces during operations and come out in large numbers for their funerals. The practice of holding a shutdown against militant killings is also back and the Joint Hurriyat is finding it difficult to avoid it lest they invite the wrath of the people.
Going by the official figures, 282 militants are active in Kashmir today. Compare this with how deep-rooted militancy was in the mid-1990s, and one wonders what makes today’s armed resistance so powerful that it occupies the entire attention of New Delhi’s security establishment. A hysteria has been wound up around the new age militancy in which both the security establishment and the national media (mostly TV channels) are pushing more people into its ranks with their provocative approach. Take, for example, Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat’s defence of the use of a Kashmiri man as a human shield and description of the situation in Kashmir as a “dirty war” that needs an innovative approach. This raises questions about the state’s ability to deal with a situation when it was handled without such fanfare in the mid-90s. No doubt, the dynamic of public support has changed but it is a “war” that is being waged in Kashmir. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley recently said it was a “war-like” situation in Kashmir and General Rawat talked about treating stone pelters at par with militants.
Even as it appears that Kashmir is lost to militancy and the hard-line approach is to “crush” it, the scene is a far cry from what it was in 1996. Looking at what the Government of India told Mehbooba Mufti in reply to her question in parliament in 2014, the comparison seems to be not only out of place but also ridiculous. Mufti was then a member of parliament. On August 8, 2014 she asked, “whether the number of militants operating in the State of Jammu & Kashmir have decreased since 1995 and whether the Government has any proposal for the withdrawal of security forces for the civilian areas of the State?” In its response, the Home Ministry said that the number of militants operating in the state of Jammu & Kashmir has considerably decreased since 1995. “There were 6,800 (approx) militants of different tanzeems active during the year 1996 in the State which has, however, reduced to 240 and 199 in the years 2013 and 2014 (January), respectively.” However, a former militant commander says that the number of militants operating in 1995-1996 might have been around 8,000 to 10,000.
According to official data, in 1995, around 4,390 militants were arrested and 1,332 were killed. In 1996, about 3,453 militants were arrested and 1,332 were killed. In 2001, the highest number of militants, 2,421, were killed and with it militancy started declining. As 9/11 changed the world view about the Kashmir insurgency and Pakistan grew engaged on the Afghanistan front, the number of infiltrations also decreased so much so that the Army described 2015 a zero-infiltration year.
Apart from the support they have garnered at the public level, today’s militant seems to be more committed than those who joined in 1990 when all roads were leading to Rawalpindi. In most cases, the militant has actually graduated from being a stone pelter first. To begin with, the space for stone pelters opened up because of a political vacuum created by the absence of political engagement to address the larger issue. And the way the police have gone after them has consequently herded them into the ranks of the militants.
With a bigger symbolic loss, the Hizb may find it difficult to move on, though it has numbers. The fact is that as long as people rally behind it, it will continue to make the state uncomfortable and two attempts by the Army to corner them in Shopian have backfired since they feared collateral damage. Making South Kashmir the capital of militancy is the outcome of many complex realities and pushing people to the wall on the political front is one of them. But South Kashmir is also in news because the militants themselves chose to be seen in public through social media. Burhan became a poster boy as he repeatedly used social media otherwise a senior police officer wrote soon after his killing that “he had not fired a single shot”. As compared to South, situation is grimmer in North were there are, according to police 141 active militants and 118 are foreigners and 23 locals. They, however, stay away from social media and do not give hype to their presence. That is the stark difference two militancies have.
Whether the government can afford to use the stick alone to end the current phase is difficult to say but more than any action it is the war on the TV channels that is causing more damage on the ground.