A new wave of militancy rising in Kashmir

Why do a conflict-weary people see militants as heroes again?

A new wave of militancy rising in Kashmir
For the first time in more than 25 years of conflict, Jammu and Kashmir Police issued an advisory on February 18 asking people to stay away from scenes of gunfights involving the police.

They “need not venture out as any stray bullet can hit and cause damage. The residents are also requested not to come out of their houses or peep out of the windowpanes,” a police spokesman said. “The elders, chowkidars and village headmen are requested to advise people to stay away from encounter sites.”

Ostensibly, the statement came after two young students were killed by stray bullets in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district on February 14, during a shootout between militants and Indian security forces.

But that was not the only reason. Indian security forces are facing an extraordinary situation not seen before in more than two decades of militancy in Kashmir. In the past, people would run helter-skelter after hearing the very first gunshot. This time, many locals, most of them young people, are seen marching towards the sites of the encounter.

Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani
Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani

A handsome 21-year-old militant commander became a youth icon

What happened in the Pampore area on February 24, during a 48-hour-long battle that claimed nine lives –including those of two captains of Indian Army’s

elite para-commandos – raises a number of questions about the changing dynamics of the political situation in the restive state.

It was like the early 1990s, when the armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir with popular support. Women were seen singing traditional songs eulogizing militant actions, and the public address systems at mosques were used to make pro-freedom and pro Pakistan speeches urging the fighters to carry on with their ‘struggle for freedom’. The famous song that went ‘Wake up oh warrior, it is time for martyrdom!’ was heard again and again.

To those in the government responsible for handling it, this turnaround may seem like a temporary phase. But the phenomenon defines a change in the situation on the ground. This change has not come overnight. It emerged after a long silence, marked by the breaking down of all the means and approaches the government could use to deal with the Kashmir issue politically.

In the last two years, the complexion of militancy in Kashmir has changed. After the setback in mid-1990s, mainly because of a rebellion within the militant ranks and the birth of the pro Indian Army group Ikhwan – which the separatists dismissed as “renegades” – the militant setup went into the hands of foreigners, mostly Pakistanis. This continued for a long time, and the reconciliatory process between New Delhi and Islamabad, and in some cases between New Delhi and Srinagar, helped consolidate ‘peace’. But after the India-Pakistan talks derailed in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, a vacuum was created.

After the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013, despondency and frustration began to grow again. A new narrative being developed by a section of Indian media and propagated by the right-wing BJP government, was seen as anti-Kashmir. Swords were drawn out on a number of issues, such as the freeing of hardline separatist Masarat Alam (who had been detailed under a public safety law for about four years), a ban on beef (and the killing of a young truck driver by a mob after cow slaughter rumors), and the raising of Pakistani flags during protests in Kashmir.

Another factor, analysts say, is that the PDP – who the people had voted for in south Kashmir to keep the BJP away – joined hands with BJP to make a coalition government in the state. Some of the youth that the party had mobilized was dejected and joined the militant ranks.

With New Delhi showing no signs of intent to approach Kashmir politically, a new wave of militancy is rising.

In August last year, Buran Wani, a handsome 21-year-old militant commander from south Kashmir’s Tral area – who carries a Rs 10 million bounty – made a storm on social media with a video urging Kashmiri youth to join the fighters. He became an icon for many young people.

But official figures suggest that an increasing number of young people – many of them university graduates – did not need a nudge from Burhan.

At least 28 local Kashmiris joined the ranks of militant in 2013, 60 in 2014, 66 in 2015 and 12 in the first two months of 2016 – thus reducing the ratio of foreigners to locals in Kashmiri militant groups from 80:20 to 70:30. Hizbul Mujahideen, the indigenous militant group, is making a comeback in the scene previously said to be dominated by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad.


As the militants began striking at a faster pace, more of them were killed in encounters with the security forces. And then a significant new phenomenon surfaced – the participation of a large number of locals in their funerals.

Two months ago, when a Lashkar commander Abu Qasim was killed in Kulgam district, a crowd of more than 30,000 people gathered in a short amount of time for his funeral. Two villages fought to get his body for a “decent burial”. Abu Qasim is reported to be a Pakistani. Similar scenes were observed at other militant funerals.

After the encounter in Pampore, the police quietly removed the bodies of three alleged Pakistani militants and buried them far away, in the Uri town near the Line of Control. The people of the area had been aggressively demanding their bodies.

The number of people at the funeral of the late chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who died in office on January 7, was far less than the number of people who gathered to bury Abu Qasim.

How have the militants become heroes in Kashmir again, especially when it has been riddled with violence for so long and people have repeatedly talked about the fatigue and remorse over the loss of life and property? Because many young people are not satisfied with the status quo at the political front.

Their involvement with people at the social level has made them into heroes, and many in Kashmir believe the new brand of militants is “harmless”. Unlike the 1990s, some locals say, these new militant do not worsen the conditions of common people. They do not participate in local disputes, they do not interfere in the functions of the government, and they do not resort to extortion.

That may be a small contributing factor. The real reason is New Delhi’s continuous refusal to recognize Kashmir as a political dispute and to address it politically. This denial has left free political space for the growth of extremist tendencies, in which even common people get involved.

Recent incidents of violence in Indian Kashmir

February 24: Nine people killed in a 48-hour standoff between Indian security forces and Kashmiri fighters in Pampore.

February 14: Two killed and three dozen injured in an encounter between suspected Kashmiri militants and Indian security forces in a village in Pulwama district. Clashes break out after the encounter. Separately, Indian Army says infiltration across LoC is down to a “trickle”.

February 13: Five suspected militants and two Indian Army men killed in a clash in Kupwara.  A large quantity of weapons and ammunition seized.

February 12: Indian police clashes with stone-throwing Kashmiri youth after the Friday prayers in Srinagar.

February 7: Three injured in an explosion in Bandipora. Clashes between Kashmiri protesters and Indian police in Pulwama, after the funeral of a suspected militant killed on February 6.

February 6: A policeman turned militant killed in a gun battle in Pulwama.

February 4: Three suspected militants, including a commander, killed in a fierce gun battle in Bandipora.

February 2: Two Indian security personnel killed in a grenade attack during a search operation in Anantnag.

January 31: Two people injured in clashes between protesters and police after the funeral-in-absentia of three suspected militants in Kupwara.

January 30: Two suspected militants killed during an encounter with Indian security forces in Kupwara.

January 29: One suspected militant killed in a clash with Indian security forces in Lolab area of Kupwara.

January 26: Unidentified suspected militant killed in an encounter with Indian security forces in Anantnag. Complete shutdown in Kashmir on India’s Republic Day.

January 22: Clashes between stone-throwing protestors and Indian police outside the historic Jama Masjid in Baramulla.

January 20: One suspected militant killed in an encounter in Pulwama.

January 19: One dies as protesters clash with Indian security forces seeking two suspected militants trapped in a village in Pulwama.

The author is a veteran journalist from Srinagar and the editor-in-chief of

The Rising Kashmir