Why Killing Militants May Not End Militancy in Kashmir

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Indian Army personnel at a cordon and search operation in Kashmir hinterland – KO File Photo

Despite the increase in deaths of militants in battles with security forces, the militancy has continued. In fact, their deaths have fanned rather than deterred the militancy

RIYAZ WANI

OVER forty militants have been killed in Kashmir over the past month alone, highest such loss in such a short period of time over the last decade. Since January 129 militants have been killed. With total number of militants estimated at around 250, the killings have created a real prospect of the end of militancy in the next few months. That’s unless no replenishment takes place through local recruitment or infiltration from across the border. So, coming few months are a do or die battle for Kashmir militancy

As against this, 128 militants were killed in the corresponding period of 2019.

The steep rise in killings over the last month reflects the growing success of security forces in tracking down militants, a turn of events that is seen as the direct result of the easier availability of human and tech intelligence. It also underlines troop concentration in South Kashmir, more so, in Pulwama and Shopian.

Top police officers believe that at this rate, the next few months will see a substantial decrease in the militant number which in turn will make a redeeming difference to the security situation in the state.  According to a recent interview of the Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh, the killings in May and June have been “a record of sorts in the CI (counterinsurgency) operations of the last 10 years”.

The DGP also said that, during the last few months, security forces have “decimated the top leadership of all terror outfits of Pakistan”. This, he added, includes chief commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba and the entire leadership of Hizbul Mujahideen and a Jaish-e-Mohammed commander.

The DGP said the number of new recruits for militant outfits was drastically reducing. “Also, the shelf life of a militant now was very low with some of them getting killed within days,” he said.

Similarly, a week ago, the Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar told media that the forces were close to wiping out militancy in South Kashmir and would soon be turning their attention to North Kashmir.

Is militancy really coming to an end in the Valley? Or staring at a drastic reduction in the number of militants? Unlikely. This assessment runs up against the turn of events over the past three decades. True, the number has often sharply declined but this has hardly lessened the challenge of militancy. And that too, when the Valley had no more than hundred militants (2012-13) and South Kashmir which now boasts of around 110 militants had just 15 of them.

Every year, over the past five years, security forces have killed an average of over 200 militants a year. But the  militancy has still continued, earlier replenished mostly by the foreigners, now largely by locals. The pattern of the replenishment has only strengthened since the killing of the popular Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Burhan Wani. Most of the local  recruitment as the figures testify have taken place in South Kashmir  and the trend hasn’t abated despite the increase in militants killings – albeit, it may have reduced in past several months.

One reason for this is the overwhelming public support that the militancy enjoys in the region. Ever since Burhan Wani rose on the scene around 2014-15, thousands have continued to attend funerals of militants – that is, until the administration stopped giving bodies of fallen militants to their families citing Covid-19 pandemic.

In recent years, each militant death has triggered a deep mourning: soon after a militant’s death, his body would usually be kept in the largest available ground in the area which would soon fill to standing room with a throbbing and shoving mass of mourners. Arms would go up and pro-Azadi slogans  rent the air. Women would cry, many of them losing consciousness on seeing the body. The grief and anger didn’t subside with the burial. It continued for days prompting more youth to take up arms.

As a result, despite the increased killings of the gunmen, the militancy has continued. In fact, the killings have so far fanned rather than deterred the militancy.

“What can change the game is if the recruitment versus killings ratio changes in favour of the latter.  This would progressively reduce the number of militants in a short period of time” said a police officer on the condition of anonymity. “But for now this doesn’t seem to be the case. New recruits are very motivated even if they are poorly trained. They invariably refuse offers of surrender prior to any encounter”.

But if the past is any guide, the militancy has often returned from the dead. In 2011, security forces had almost wiped out the Valley-based top Hizbul Mujahideen leadership with the killing of its senior-most commanders Mushtaq Janghi and Dawood. This prompted even the then-Home Secretary GK Pillai to pronounce an end to Hizb.

“Militancy is down in Kashmir, every day you must be reading reports that some militant leader or the other has been killed. I think the Hizbul Mujahideen has literally, almost, been wiped out, especially the Pakistan element of it has been wiped out,” Pillai said in an interview then.  “There are less than a hundred local militants (in Kashmir). Nobody would even talk to them. They don’t represent anybody.”

Then again by the beginning of 2016, security forces claimed to have killed top ten militant commanders, among them Hizb commander Ashiq Hussain Bhat and the Lashkar-i-Taiba commander Abu Hafiz. This was supposed to have dealt a severe blow to militancy. But few knew just how many more would be drawn to arms by Wani and just how much more his killing on July 8 would go on to strengthen this trend. The number of militants that was around 200 when he died suddenly rose to 300 in a few months after his death.

Many a Kashmir observer feel that the militancy can be brought down if engagement and dialogue gets going, not just with dissident forces in Kashmir but also with Pakistan. They cite the 2003-07 peace process between India and Pakistan which not only came close to resolving Kashmir but also for the first time since its beginning in 1989, militancy went through a progressive decline.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, from 2,542 militancy related fatalities in 2003, the number went down to 777 by 2007. It declined to its lowest at 117 in 2012. And ever since, the killings are on rise again. While in 2013 it was 181, in 2014 and 2015 it was 193 and 174 respectively, in 2016 it went up to 267. And ever since the number has only increased by the year, with 2019 being the exception when the post-August lockdown reduced the counter-insurgency operations and hence the militant fatalities.

Incidentally, this period has witnessed a suspension of the engagement by New Delhi, both with Pakistan and Kashmiri separatist groups. Militant recruitment has increased and the ideological discourse has hardened – albeit both to the detriment of Kashmir. A harsh security response to the situation has brought untold suffering for the common people in its wake.

What does the near future have in store for Kashmir? A lingering uncertainty. Security experts hope that by the onset of winter they would have substantially reigned the militancy in. But in past, killings have hardly been a deterrent to militancy in Kashmir. And considering public support remains at an all time high, more local youth will continue to be inspired to pick up the gun.   

“Rise in number of killings has certainly made militancy a suicidal proposition for the youth,” said another police officer. “But the true difference will only be made if public support wanes which doesn’t seem to be the case as of now”.

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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