Special police officers in training in Kashmir. In the first eight months of 2021 alone, 102 militants, 17 civilians and 22 security force personnel have been killed. (Image: AP)
Srinagar: A little more than two years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government nullified Constitutional provisions that guaranteed special status to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and went on to bifurcate the state into two Union territories—J&K and Ladakh.
Home minister Amit Shah then claimed that the effective revocation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution would bring peace to the powderkeg region.
Article 370, which conferred the special status, had only strengthened the “separatist narrative”, which its nullification would reverse, he had said, justifying the move. Article 35 A had preserved privileges such as land ownership and government jobs for people deemed to be permanent residents of the erstwhile state.
Two years hence, the situation hasn’t quite panned out the way the Centre may have hoped, and concern has deepened over the situation following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last month.
Since August 5, 2019, when Parliament pushed through the Constitutional changes, 524 people have died in violence linked to the separatist campaign in J&K—70 civilians, 82 security force personnel and 372 militants.
In the first eight months of this year alone, 102 militants have been killed, J&K’s inspector general of police Vijay Kumar said in August; 17 civilians and 22 security force personnel have also died violently.
In all of 2020, 227 militants were killed by security forces, an increase of 45 percent from 2019 when 152 militants were slain. Thirty-three civilians and 56 security personnel were also killed in the violence.
The top militant commanders killed in J&K last year included Hizbul operational commander Riyaz Naikoo and Junaid Sehrai, a Hizbul Mujahideen commander and son of a senior separatist leader—both were killed in May last year. In November, another top Hizbul commander, Saif-ul-Islam Mir alias Dr Saifullah, was killed.
In July last year, BJP leader Wasim Bari, his father, and brother were shot dead by militants in north Kashmir's Bandipora.
The numbers belie the Central government’s claim that reading down Article 370 had been effective in containing militancy. They show that militancy is still a fact of life in the Union territory.
“The uptick in the number of dead militants points to an overall spurt in militant recruitment. If the current pace of gunfights continues, the toll can break all previous records till December this year,” said a senior police officer who requested anonymity.
‘Violence far from over’
The regular killings of suspected militants in shootouts with security forces lay bare the ground reality of J&K and puncture the administration’s claims to have restored peace, said Sartaj Ahmad, a university student from Pulwama.
“With uncertainty about the future of the situation in Kashmir only growing by the day, the violence which has gripped Kashmir for the past three decades appears far from over,” he added.
The insurgency in J&K, supported by Pakistan, began in 1989 and has ebbed and flowed in the intervening years.
This year, India and Pakistan decided to honour a ceasefire in place along the Line of Control that divides parts of Kashmir after the directors general of military operations (DGMOs) of the two countries met and issued a joint statement on February 25.
The move was seen as a significant thaw in relations between the two countries, and had been expected to translate into a drop in infiltration and militant activity in Kashmir.
Contrary to what had been expected, deadly encounters between the armed forces and militants did not stop even after the February 15 agreement. At the same time, only 10 percent of the militants killed this year have been foreigners, pointing to a slight decline in infiltration. The proportion was 15 percent last year and 19 percent in 2019.
Although much of the militant recruitment and encounters with security forces take place in south Kashmir, in the past two years there has been an increase in recruitment in the capital Srinagar, where the frequency of militant attacks has spurted this year.
Last year, the police chief declared that militancy had been almost wiped out from south Kashmir and that the security forces would now shift their focus to north Kashmir. Until July 15 this year, 69 young men had joined the ranks of militancy compared with 85 in the corresponding period last year, according to official figures.
According to a report in The Indian Express, much of the recruitment has taken place in south Kashmir districts, countering claims by the police that militancy has been wiped out from the region.
The five police districts of south Kashmir—Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama, Awantipora and Shopian—which have been the epicentre of violence after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016, were witness to a massive crackdown on militants.
The Taliban factor
Security agencies and journalists covering the region say that the situation is unpredictable. The last decade or so is a case in point—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 August 5, 2019. But these troughs have been interspersed with peaks too, such as in 2017-18, when as many as 330 young Kashmiris joined the militant ranks.
Two years after revocation of Article 370, militancy remains a challenge to the security apparatus amid growing fears that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is likely to boost the striking capability of anti-India groups.
With the Taliban taking over almost all of Afghanistan and staking a claim for global legitimacy, concern is rife that their rule in Afghanistan may have negative implications for J&K.
J&K director general of police Dilbagh Singh said the police will adopt a hard line against militants and their supporters to preserve the “peaceful atmosphere” in the Union territory.
“Police and the other security forces won’t allow the prevailing situation to deteriorate in the wake of Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. During the past few weeks, many top commanders of various militant outfits were killed in encounters, and especially the killing of Lashkar-e-Toiba/TRF chief Abbas Sheikh and his associate Saqib Manzoor in Srinagar encounter,” the officer added. TRF is short for The Resistance Front.
Since the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, the BJP alone has lost 23 of its leaders and activists in the region.
BJP spokesman Altaf Thakur said the militants had killed 12 party politicians and workers in the Kashmir Valley and 11 in Jammu during the past two years.
Political scientist Noor Ahmad Baba says the reason why militants were targeting BJP politicians and workers could be because of the party’s policies including the revocation of J&K’s special status.
“The local youths picking up arms and carrying out attacks on political leaders could be (a sign of) the anger against BJP,” said Baba, a former head of the political science department at Kashmir University.
Police blame TRF, a new militant outfit that emerged in J&K after the revocation of Article 370, for carrying out deadly militant strikes in the region.
Yet, security forces are confident that they have the upper hand.
A top Central Reserve Police Force officer handling anti-militancy operations in Srinagar said the killing of top militant commanders had broken the spine of the anti-India insurgency.
“If you check the previous data, the figures are coming down sharply. For the past two years we have managed to kill the big guns, which has dented the militancy to a large extent,” this officer said, on condition of anonymity.
“For instance the militant recruitment came down sharply after the killing of Hizbul commander Riyaz Naikoo (on May 6, 2o20). Though local militant recruitment cannot be ignored, this year more are surrendering, which is a positive step,” said the officer.