The Islamization of Kashmir's separatist movement

Reports about a separatist leader joining al Qaeda have raised fears the Kashmiri movement is being "hijacked" by Islamists. Expert Agnieszka Kuszewska tells DW that Indian policies are partly to blame for this trend.

DW: Recently, Zakir Musa, an influential Kashmiri leader, distanced himself from the separatist movement and aligned himself with al Qaeda. Some experts fear that the decades-old anti-India movement is increasingly moving toward Islamization. Do you agree with this analysis?

Agnieszka Kuszewska: Zakir Musa is no longer associated with the Hizb-ul-Mujahedin separatist group. The organization admitted that Musa's statement about "chopping off the heads of Hurriyat leaders" is unacceptable and reflects his personal views.

Musa said he wanted to "impose Shariah in Kashmir," and that it should be done by force and not through consensus. The possibility of radicalization and the potential emergence of the so-called "Kashmiri Taliban" should not be neglected. However, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's "muscular policy" in Kashmir is aggravating the situation. Some factions of the Kashmiri movement are likely to become more radicalized if India continues with its strong-hand policy in the valley.

Experts say that Pakistan's direct involvement in the Kashmir conflict began in the late 1980s, after which the somewhat liberal Kashmiri movement took on a more religious outlook. Do we now see it becoming more radicalized in terms of its possible alliances with global terror groups?

Politics | 04.04.2017

The rise of Islamic radicalism in the region, fostered by the Afghan War in the 1980s, had a direct impact on the Kashmir conflict. The anti-India movement became more Islamized in the 1990s with the influx of militants trained in Pakistan. Based on my interpretation of the available data and analysis of facts, I would say that the Kashmiri people do not support pan-Islamic, extremist outfits, and the majority of them are against the implementation of Shariah. Transnational terror groups do not enjoy big support in Kashmir.

When I see the "Welcome Taliban" graffiti in Srinagar, two things come to my mind: 1) Some young Kashmiris and militant groups show their support to these groups merely because they want to protest against grave rights abuses in the valley; 2) It may also be framed by the security establishment, which is notorious for enforced encounters and other human rights violations.

The new Kashmiri movement, driven mostly by angry youth, appears to be against both India and Pakistan. But how is it different from the pre-1990s movement that didn't pin hopes on Pakistan?

It is different because the geostrategic dynamics have changed in the past three decades. It is also different because the younger generation has experienced years of insurgency and has different memories, traumas, and experiences than the previous generations. The Kashmiri youngsters are tired, angry, and they desperately want solutions.

With continuing rights abuses by the security forces, the resistance attracts more and more people. The youth is prepared to risk their lives. The protesters now do not hide themselves; they record all abuses and share them with the world through social media. Burhan Wani, who was killed by the security forces in July last year, had perfected this new trend.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

An unprecedented danger?

On February 27, Pakistan's military said that it had shot down two Indian fighter jets over disputed Kashmir. A Pakistani military spokesman said the jets were shot down after they'd entered Pakistani airspace. It is the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have conducted air strikes against each other.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

India drops bombs inside Pakistan

The Pakistani military has released this image to show that Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistani territory for the first time since the countries went to war in 1971. India said the air strike was in response to a recent suicide attack on Indian troops based in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan said there were no casualties and that its airforce repelled India's aircraft.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

No military solution

Some Indian civil society members believe New Delhi cannot exonerate itself from responsibility by accusing Islamabad of creating unrest in the Kashmir valley. A number of rights organizations demand that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government reduce the number of troops in Kashmir and let the people decide their fate.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

No end to the violence

On February 14, at least 41 Indian paramilitary police were killed in a suicide bombing near the capital of India-administered Kashmir. The Pakistan-based Jihadi group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, claimed responsibility. The attack, the worst on Indian troops since the insurgency in Kashmir began in 1989, spiked tensions and triggered fears of an armed confrontation between the two nuclear-armed powers.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

A bitter conflict

Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir - a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

India strikes down a militant rebellion

In October 2016, the Indian military has launched an offensive against armed rebels in Kashmir, surrounding at least 20 villages in Shopian district. New Delhi accused Islamabad of backing the militants, who cross over the Pakistani-Indian "Line of Control" and launch attacks on India's paramilitary forces.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

Death of a Kashmiri separatist

The security situation in the Indian part of Kashmir deteriorated after the killing of Burhan Wani, a young separatist leader, in July 2016. Protests against Indian rule and clashes between separatists and soldiers have claimed hundreds of lives since then.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

The Uri attack

In September 2016, Islamist militants killed at least 17 Indian soldiers and wounded 30 in India-administered Kashmir. The Indian army said the rebels had infiltrated the Indian part of Kashmir from Pakistan, with initial investigations suggesting that the militants belonged to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad group, which has been active in Kashmir for over a decade.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

Rights violations

Indian authorities banned a number of social media websites in Kashmir after video clips showing troops committing grave human rights violations went viral on the Internet. One such video that showed a Kashmiri protester tied to an Indian army jeep - apparently as a human shield - generated outrage on social media.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

Demilitarization of Kashmir

Those in favor of an independent Kashmir want Pakistan and India to step aside and let the Kashmiri people decide their future. "It is time India and Pakistan announce the timetable for withdrawal of their forces from the portions they control and hold an internationally supervised referendum," Toqeer Gilani, the president of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in Pakistani Kashmir, told DW.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

No chance for secession

But most Kashmir observers don't see it happening in the near future. They say that while the Indian strategy to deal strictly with militants and separatists in Kashmir has partly worked out, sooner or later New Delhi will have to find a political solution to the crisis. Secession, they say, does not stand a chance.

On May 23, the Indian army claimed it had targeted Pakistani military posts along the Kashmiri border to stop Pakistan from infiltrating armed militants into India-administered Kashmir. To what extent is Pakistan directly involved in providing weapons and military training to Kashmiri insurgents?

The infiltration does exist to some extent but it is not as high as it was in the 1990s. The Line of Control (LoC) is now strictly monitored, which makes it more difficult for the militants to cross over.

As I said before, the anti-India movement in Kashmir is not only militant, it is also indigenously civilian. However, there are elements in Pakistan that are still actively involved in supporting jihad in India-held Kashmir. Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the Islamist Jamatud Dawa organization, is portrayed as a hero of the Kashmiri resistance by some groups. A significant portion of Pakistani society supports Saeed and he is free to deliver speeches.

As Pakistan's international and regional isolation is growing, global powers pay more attention to India's narrative on Kashmir. Does it negatively affect the Kashmiri movement?

It is difficult to conceal what is going on in the valley. When renowned human rights activist Khurram Parvez was illegally banned from travelling to Geneva to attend the 33rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council last year, there was an international outcry against his detention. Such retaliatory measures simply do not pay off.

On the other hand, I doubt that global powers would like to engage themselves directly in the Kashmir dispute apart from urging India and Pakistan to "resolve the conflict peacefully."

To what extent has India lost or is losing grip on Kashmir?

On April 9, an unarmed Kashmiri man was tied to a military jeep and was used as a "human shield" by the security forces to protect themselves from protesters. This image was truly disturbing: he was paraded in front of the people, humiliated and traumatized. The officer behind this incident was recently commended by the Indian army for his "counter-insurgency operations." What message does it give to the Kashmiri people? I would say that by resorting to violence, the authorities are turning the civilians against them and losing the grip on Kashmir.

In democratic countries, the civilian leadership determines the security policies. For decades New Delhi has proudly claimed that this is one of the features that distinguish it from Islamabad where the military pulls the strings. Now, it seems that this difference is diminishing.

There has been unrest in Kashmir since July last year. What, in your opinion, should be done to put an end to it?

The initiatives aimed at de-escalating violence in India-administered Kashmir should be multi-faceted and long-term. The security forces should be held accountable for their human rights violations so that the Kashmiri people would regain trust in state institutions. The rise of religiously-motivated nationalism is also a worrying phenomenon, especially in religiously and ethnically diverse parts of Kashmir. It is vital to address this trend.

Agnieszka Kuszewska is an associate professor of political science at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. She is a member of the European Association for South Asian Studies and a board member of the Polish Association of International Relations.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.

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