While militancy in Indian-controlled Kashmir has declined in recent years, developments in Iraq and Syria have the potential to bring new transnational overtones to the struggle, writes Bibhu Prasad Routray.
Adil Fayyaz Waida's is an unusual case in India's Jammu & Kashmir state. In 2013, this 26 year-old, with an MBA degree from Australia, travelled to Syria to join a jihadi training camp. Hailing from an affluent family, Fayyaz is the only Kashmiri to date to have joined ISIS, from a state that continues to remain a theatre of jihadist activity, centred around the goal of seeking independence from India. Why a young man would make common cause with a distant war when the conflict at home is not yet over is an important question. Fayyaz's decision to be part of an 'established' caliphate, however, can be contextualised within an externally sponsored jihad that is seeking a transnational status, after years of restricting itself to the Kashmir theatre.
In the past decade and a half, militancy in Jammu & Kashmir has subsided to a large extent. In 2001, by far the worst year of militancy in the state, 4,507 people (including civilians, security forces and militants) were killed in the state. In 2014 there were 193 deaths. Although there was a marginal rise of 10 per cent in fatalities compared to 2013, militancy remained at a comparatively low ebb, with official estimates of the numbers of active militants in the state remaining below 150. In 2014, elections to the parliament and state legislative assembly witnessed high voter turnout, whilst months before, as the worst floods in decades ravaged Srinagar and other townships in the valley, tourists flocked to the state, helping revive its economy. Many of these gains are officially attributed to the ongoing counter-insurgency operation in the state.
Resurgent global jihadism could gravely impact militancy in Kashmir.
At the same time, these developments are considered to be fragile and reversible, and the militancy prone to escalation, with developments like the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, and the propensity of the Pakistani military to support cross border militancy further disrupts prospects of peace between India and Pakistan. However, a third source of destabilisation is equally relevant. The trans-nationalisation of the capacities of many prominent militant outfits operating in Kashmir, and the impact of the developments in Iraq and Syria on the young people in the state have the potential to gravely impact the course of this militancy.
In the past several years, outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have made conscious attempts to augment their international profile. Allied with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, the LeT is present in several countries, recruiting fighters and raising funds. Undaunted by international condemnation, it has pursued a strategy seeking to use its affiliation with larger extremist networks to rebuild a more lethal wave of militancy in Kashmir and India's urban centres.
While al-Qaeda's recent operational weakness may have curbed LeT's growth and scope for further expansion, the calls for jihad emanating from Iraq and Syria might be attracting the disenfranchised youth of Kashmir in a different way. Over the past year, both al-Qaeda and ISIS have appealed to the youth of Kashmir to wage jihad against India, following the "brothers in Syria and Iraq." New Delhi, as well as separatist leaders in Kashmir like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, have asserted that these appeals would be largely ignored and Kashmiris would reject the violent ideologies of these 'external' groups. Geelani has criticised ISIS as 'un-Islamic.' However, the deep sense of alienation felt by many young people, with memories of protests in the summer of 2010 in which more than 100 people were killed by police gunfire, could spur them to favourably respond to the calls of ISIS. While the Pakistan-sponsored jihad might be weakening, ISIS may be able to galvanise a dormant militancy in the region.
Separatist leaders have criticised ISIS as 'un-Islamic.'
Public demonstrations of sympathy for the ISIS message in Kashmir is the most ardent manifestation of this trend. Since June 2014, ISIS flags and graffiti have regularly appeared alongside Pakistani flags during anti-India protests organised by separatist organisations, indicating a coalescing in the minds of some of the demand for independence and the urge to become a part of the so-called 'caliphate.' The religious overtone of separatists modelling Kashmir as a utopian Islamic state, and the jihadi movement, which juxtaposes the 'Muslim' Kashmir and the 'Hindu' India, may have contributed to catalysing this new development in the region. Meanwhile, ISIS' use of social media is also enthusing young Kashmiri militants. In July 2015, a group of fighters from the group Hizb-ul-Mujahideen posted videos and pictures in army uniform and with weapons on Facebook, making no attempt to conceal their identity.
The jihadi landscape in South Asia is undergoing significant transformation. Pakistan continues to witness a rapid growth of ISIS influence, with the number of militant outfits declaring their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi increasing steadily. The extent to which Jammu & Kashmir becomes a part of this process of destabilising force will remain linked to New Delhi's capacity to address the growing unrest in this state.