Is Kashmir’s Militancy Dead?

  • A year after ending the disputed region’s semiautonomous status overnight, New Delhi appears to be winning the battle against militants.
  • Indian security forces have killed more militants this year than in any comparable period over the past decade.
  • The grievances that underpin the secessionist movement and the geopolitics surrounding Kashmir remain intact.

At the end of a 20-hour operation in Chewa Ullar village in south Kashmir on June 26, three militants lay dead. Among them was Muhammad Qasim Shah, the last known militant from Tral, a township that had given birth in 2015 to a fresh wave of armed rebels against India following years of steady decline in the number of militants. 

The surge was spearheaded by a popular militant commander, Burhan Wani, a resident of Tral who glamorized militancy by deftly using social media to post photos and videos of himself posing in military fatigues, a Kalashnikov casually slung over one shoulder. Scores joined him, and the tally of militants in Kashmir doubled from 150 to 300. Wani’s death in July 2016 and the months of protests that followed increased the number of youths taking up arms.

Now, that phase of militancy appears to be petering out, a year after the Narendra Modi government scrapped Kashmir’s semiautonomous status overnight on Aug. 5, 2019. Since January, Indian armed forces have killed 155 militants in Kashmir, the most in a comparable period in the past decade. In June alone, 48 militants were killed — another decadal record — in 17 gunfights.

Militancy will end when recruitment and infiltration [from Pakistan] stops.

Naeem Akhtar, former minister, Jammu and Kashmir

The regional police have declared Tral free of militants for the first time since the start of the armed insurgency in Kashmir three decades ago. Soon after the killing of the Tral militants, authorities also declared Srinagar — the region’s capital — and another district, Doda, as militant-free.  

But experts caution against concluding that the increasing killing of militants will in itself end the region’s armed movement.

“Militancy will end when recruitment and infiltration [from Pakistan] stops,” says Naeem Akhtar, a minister of the Jammu and Kashmir government when the region was a state (it was turned into a federally governed territory following last year’s changes). “This is easier said than done.”

History indeed offers examples of past periods when Kashmir appeared poised to wipe out militancy. In 1993, the government-backed militia Ikhwanul Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood) killed most local separatists. But in 1996, Pakistani militants who crossed over came to the aid of the depleted local movement and in turn eliminated the Muslimeen fighters, a veteran police official who has been involved in counterinsurgency operations says, speaking on condition of anonymity. Then, in 2012, security forces managed to kill most militants. But again, the movement revived, especially after Wani became a magnet for disenchanted youth. “On both occasions militancy not only survived but later also thrived,” says the official.  

Yet some things are different. With Indian forces stepping up security along the border over the past year, it has been harder for Pakistan — which is battling both an economic crisis and the pandemic — to send across militants in recent months. And getting across the border has been even harder for youth from Indian-controlled Kashmir, unlike previous generations who received training in Pakistan.

Left Parties Protest After Union Government Announced Scrapping Of Article 370 In Jammu And Kashmir

Members of various Left parties and their supporters protest against the scrapping of Article 370 of the Constitution and the proposed bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, at Jantar Mantar on August 5, 2019 in New Delhi, India.

Source Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty

That has meant an increasing number of cases where frustrated, untrained local youth have picked up arms, only to effectively become sitting ducks for the army. In June, Jammu and Kashmir top cop Dilbag Singh confidently said that the “security forces will ensure [the] return of complete normalcy in Kashmir in [the] next few months.”

Still, infiltration of militants from Pakistan has not stopped completely, and experts point out it’s too early to write the epitaph of Kashmir’s militancy — at least 26 armed fighters have entered Kashmir this year. With mainstream politicians in Kashmir remaining under arrest or barred from political activity, extremist groups have little competition in recruiting local youth — even if they’re untrained and unlikely to survive for long.

And amid tensions between India and China over the neighboring Ladakh region, there’s now a third player with “its foot in the door,” says Akhtar. “Kashmir is a geopolitical conflict,” he says, speaking of India, Pakistan and China. “This doesn’t augur well.”

OZYThe New + the Next

Cutting-edge trends, rising stars and big ideas.