Are we witnessing the last gasp of Terrorism in Kashmir?
The increase in violence levels on the streets of Kashmir and participation of the local population became a cause for worry in 2016. The peace dividend achieved at great cost only a couple of years earlier seemed to be losing out to the mindlessness of violent mobs. This was accompanied by enhanced local recruitment, especially within the ranks of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen (HM). A larger proportion of the new recruits came from South Kashmir, unlike in the past when North Kashmir was the hub of violence and terrorism. The situation seemed to be going downhill from the perspective of an average peace loving Kashmiri who in the past had seen schools being burnt by terrorists. The security forces were routinely the target of stone pelting mobs. And finally, children and women had been pushed into the line of pellets and bullets due to relentless propaganda, coercion and the resultant cycle of violence.
In the midst of these incidents, a series of events seems to indicate the arrival of a watershed moment in Kashmir, which could result in Pakistan-sponsored terrorism becoming a victim of its own machinations. On June 22, Deputy Superintendent of Police Mohammed Ayub Pandit was lynched by a mob at Nowhatta, near Srinagar. Just about a week before that, Feroz Ahmad Dar and five of his J&K police compatriots were killed in Anantnag by terrorists belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). And a little over a month earlier, Lieutenant Ummer Fayyaz, an unarmed young officer of the Rajputana Rifles, an illustrious infantry regiment of the army, was kidnapped and shot dead by terrorists in Shopian district. Fayyaz was on leave to attend a family wedding. The latest in this series of violent incidents was the July 10 targeting by terrorists of a bus ferrying pilgrims to Amarnath, resulting in the death of seven innocent people, including five women. This was the first attack against Amarnath yatris after the year 2000.
All this should normally indicate an upswing in the levels of violence and a hardening of approach by Pakistan, which controls and coordinates major terrorist groups like the LeT and HM. It should further suggest the increased effectiveness and lethality of the terrorist groups themselves. Contrary to this seemingly obvious conclusion, however, the reality could be the very opposite. In fact, we may well witness a shift in the ground situation in Kashmir.
This is best illustrated by the experience in Punjab, which had suffered painful years of terrorist violence in the eighties and the first few years of the nineties. Even as terrorism was at its peak in the state, the criminalisation of terrorist groups had led to senseless violence, with humiliation and atrocities being unleashed against policemen and their families as well as common citizens. This led to a fight for survival between the people and the local police on one side and the terrorists on the other. Given the nature of violent acts perpetrated by the terrorists, the struggle also became personal. There were incidents of women picking up weapons to protect themselves and their families against mindless terrorist violence. The alienation of the population and victimisation of the local police turned the tide in favour of the State. The gradual rise in terrorism in Punjab stood in contrast to its sudden elimination. Terrorists were hunted down without pity or remorse. Even as some of their leaders continued to nurse their hurt pride and wounded sentiment sitting in Pakistan, terrorism was defeated decisively on the ground in Punjab.
The series of events cited above in relation to Kashmir appears to be following a similar course. The misdirected angst of terrorists against policemen, their families, a defenceless Kashmiri army officer on leave and innocent pilgrims all appear to represent a sign of disarray in their ranks. It is a reflection of the frustration that has surfaced against Kashmiris employed in the police and in the security forces as well as against the syncretic culture of tolerance prevalent in the state. The various incidents of violence are possibly aimed at breaking the will of the security forces and the population at large through the tool of sensational terrorist attacks. But, as the debacle of terrorism in Punjab suggests, all this could push the common people who came for the funerals of terrorists to shift their loyalties. They will also contribute to the hardening of the resolve of the Kashmir police to not only protect themselves but also take the fight to the terrorists. Finally, the return of violence also sets back any possibility of bringing different groups to the negotiating table in the near future.
The turning of the tide through a series of counter terrorism operations seems to suggest that the shift is already underway. June 2017 witnessed a series of successful strikes by security forces against terrorists and especially their leaders. To a casual observer, this may seem to be a coincidence. But the reality is that these strikes were enabled by accurate intelligence provided by angry locals who may not be able to voice their dissent in public, given their fear of being targeted by terrorists, but have helped punish them for their wanton acts of violence. For anyone who has operated in J&K, the elimination of terrorist leaders, who are normally shielded by layers of security, is an indication of excellent human intelligence. It further reflects the effectiveness of the local police network, which has clearly decided to work overtime and pay back the terrorists in the language they best understand.
For the common Kashmiri people, the Amarnath pilgrimage is an important event in the annual calendar that contributes significantly to their income. The attempt to disrupt it suggests a disconnect with the local economics of the region.
The distancing of every segment of Kashmiri politics, population and even separatists from the Amarnath pilgrim attack is a clear indication of anger and frustration that seems to be building up against senseless acts of terrorism. It is also a reality check for Kashmiri leaders, both mainstream and separatist. Seeds of violence once sown have almost always unleashed unrestrained and uncontrolled destruction. Be it the fabric of a society or its very soul, such violence can hold it captive or worse extinguish the spirit that guides its civilizational destiny. The breakup of HM and the allegiance extended by some of its cadres to the Daesh is a reflection of this shift. The decision of some within terrorist ranks to reject Kashmiriyat and secularism is likely to propagate a radical ideology that the present leadership in the state will be unable to reconcile with their own objectives.
If this reality does not lead to a rejection of senseless violence, it is a matter of time before the people and their police in Kashmir turn the tide of violence and defeat terrorism in conjunction with other security forces, as happened in Punjab.