Containing militancy in Kashmir Valley is going to be a tough challenge for India’s federal government in the months ahead as many local youths may join the anti-India jihad following the recent killing of 21-year-old Hizbul leader Burhan Wani, a rebel icon of the Valley. While controlling the ongoing violent unrest should be the immediate task before the security forces, the unprecedented crowd at Wani’s funeral indicate that his death may spur rather than weaken militancy.
The killing of 21-year-old Burhan Wani in a gun battle with Indian security forces on July 8 has triggered a tidal wave of angry and violent protests in the Kashmir Valley.
While security forces described Wani’s elimination as the “biggest success” in their fight against militancy in recent years, this could turn out to be a pyrrhic victory.
Wani dead could emerge a more powerful foe than when he was alive.
A commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen in south Kashmir, Wani was a rebel icon in the Valley. He represented a new generation of militants who were tech-savvy, educated and not averse to revealing their identity or flaunting their weapons for all to see.
Videos and photographs of him with his comrades were available online. Indeed, his slick propaganda videos and smart use of social media is said to have drawn dozens of young Kashmiris to the militant ranks in recent years.
His death can be expected to prompt Kashmiri youth to pick up arms against the Indian state. Indeed it could spur rather than weaken militancy.
Over the past year, funerals of slain militants have drawn hundreds of Kashmiris from surrounding villages. The crowds that showed up for Wani’s funeral on Saturday were unprecedented; over a hundred thousand people are said to have converged at the burial site in Tral not only to catch a glimpse of their slain hero but also to air their anger with the Indian state.
Anti-India sentiment was on full display at the burial; slogans calling for an “end to Indian occupation of Kashmir” and “freedom from Indian repression” rent the air. It also exploded in violence across the Valley. Violent mobs attacked police and paramilitary installations and set ablaze several buildings. At least 21 people have been killed so far with another 200, including a large number of policemen, injured.
State authorities took recourse to the usual measures to deal with the unrest; curfew has been imposed in various parts of the Valley, Kashmiri separatists have been taken into preventive custody and cell phone networks and internet services were switched off. An annual pilgrimage to the Hindu temple at Amarnath in which tens of thousands of Hindus participate was suspended to protect pilgrims from being targeted in retaliatory strikes.
While controlling the violent unrest is the immediate task before the security forces, grappling with militancy in the Valley in the coming months is likely to prove more challenging. Intelligence agencies are expecting a rise in new militant recruits, most of them Kashmiri locals.
The anti-India protest that erupted in 1989-90 had its roots in domestic grievances but was fueled and militarized by arms and training from Pakistan. The mass movement against the Indian state was soon replaced by a number of Pakistan-controlled militant/terrorist outfits.
Popular support for the militants dwindled as the latter were seen to be insensitive to Kashmiri lives or grievances. Local youth stayed away from militant groups resulting in Pakistanis, not Kashmiris, dominating the militancy from the mid-1990s onwards.
That began changing a few years ago; the number of locals among the new recruits has more than doubled over the past couple of years. According to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) police statistics cited in the English daily Rising Kashmir, 31 local youths joined the militants in 2013 but between January and September 2015, 66 locals had done so. The ratio of local to foreign militants also changed from 40:60 in 2013 to 60:40 last year.
While lack of progress on a political solution to the conflict and rising communal violence across India are among the reasons for growing frustration of local youth with democracy and dialogue, Wani’s role in drawing locals to the path of militancy was significant.
Noted Kashmiri journalist Shukaat Bukhari observes in a report in Hindustan Times that Wani “was a driving force for the youth to join militancy” and “essentially represented the face of the indigenous Kashmiri militant, who had disappeared for close to 10 to 15 years” from the Valley.
He is credited with having recruited around 80 locals to the militant ranks in the last two years and influenced many more in the Valley. Will he continue to wield that influence in death? It does seem so.
J&K’s former chief minister Omar Abdullah warned on Twitter that “Burhan’s ability to recruit in to militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media.”
“If that prognosis is not to come true,” India’s federal government would have “to recognize that Kashmir today needs big political steps,” an editorial in Indian Express said.
India’s security forces eliminated Wani to weaken the militancy. They may have just fueled it.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at email@example.com
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