By: Shabir Hussain
With its illegal moves and draconian measures in place to control an entire population in Kashmir, New Delhi has constantly been patting itself on the back over the last year or so, with an all-out support from the mainstream media that has come to be equated with the infamous Radio Rwanda for its blatantly pro-Hindutva agenda.
Nothing that the BJP government claims, though, has any resemblance to what is actually happening on ground zero post-August 5. That includes legal machinations that continue even in the middle of a raging global pandemic.
The entire state of J&K was turned into an army garrison and all modes of communication suspended well before Articles 370 and 35-A were struck down on August 5 last year.
Unfortunately, India has convinced Kashmiris, Pakistan – and China too – that the only options left with them are the radical ones as a deterrent to what are widely being seen as the majoritarian Hindu regime’s genocidal policies aimed at altering the demography of J&K.
Within days of the revocationn of 370 and 35A, Chinese government’s media organ Global Times wrote in an editorial: “Reckless India’s unilateral decision on Kashmir is a geo-political trickery that may have actual consequences that India can’t control.”
And what we are seeing on the LAC in Ladakh over the last few weeks – as the PLA consolidates and deploys artillery and tanks – can be safely attributed to the August-5 shenanigans too. And if ever there was any doubt, it was cleared in a recent Chinese think tank article. The article published on June 4 was authored by Wang Shida, Deputy Director of the Beijing-based Institute of South Asian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). CICIR is affiliated to the Ministry of State Security, China’s top intelligence body. It said: “India’s actions of unilaterally changing the status quo of Kashmir and continuing to exacerbate regional tensions have posed a challenge to the sovereignty of China and Pakistan and made the India-Pakistan relations and China-India relations more complex.”
This is perhaps for the first time that a Chinese voice has so unequivocally mentioned joint interests of ‘iron brothers’ China and Pakistan while warning India. This, by implication, also underscores the Sino-Pak military interoperability which is a hard reality that many Indian analysts and observers aren’t able to wrap their heads around.
At LAC in Ladakh, and elsewhere, China is sending an unmistakable message not only to India but to the West as well. That China is a global giant that can’t be taken for granted or messed with and that its involvement with the Kashmir issue isn’t just rhetorical.
Avid Kashmir observers have been maintaining all along that the forced calm in Kashmir is nothing but the proverbial lull before the storm. And what we have started seeing from April this year is the first real manifestation of that.
Five elite paratroopers of the Indian Army and an equal number of militants were killed on April 6 along the Line of Control (LoC) in Keran sector of frontier district Kupwara in a fierce gunfight. There were conflicting reports initially about the number of soldiers dead, some putting the toll in double figures before Army put out a press release.
A hitherto nondescript outfit, The Resistance Front (TRF), which the Indian agencies claim to be a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) front, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Indian Army attacked Pakistani posts on the border in response to the bloody infiltration. Pakistan’s retaliation led to a heavy exchange of fire which lasted for a couple of days. Three civilians including a child were killed in Panzgam village of Kupwara which the Indian Army claimed died as a result of Pakistani shelling. The locals, however, accused the Indian Army of killing the civilians. The deceased child’s aunt said that the Indian Army fired into the village from the nearby forests killing three civilians. Earlier, residents of Rawatpora protested Indian Army’s positioning of artillery guns near their village.
Three CRPF personnel were killed and as many injured on April 18 when militants opened fire on a joint patrolling party of paramilitary CRPF and J&K Police in north Kashmir’s Sopore area. Militants managed to get away without any casualties. TRF again claimed responsibility for the attack.
TRF followed it up with a spectacular counter-attack to announce its arrival more emphatically. On May 3, an army colonel, a major, two soldiers and a sub-inspector of the Special Operations Group of J&K Police were killed in a deadly 12-hour long encounter in Handwara in which two rebel combatants were also killed. This after the five-member team closed in on the rebels, only to be overpowered by them. The militants also managed to take possession of their cell phones and responded to frantic calls as well.
The slain colonel leading the operation was the commanding officer of 21 RR, having been awarded twice for his role in counter-insurgency operations.
Two days later, a determined TRF struck again in Handwara. Three CRPF personnel were killed in ambush and many others injured. In the retaliatory fire, a 14 year old differently abled boy was killed, which generated a widespread outcry.
In barely a month’s time, starting from the Keran encounter, Army, CRPF and J&K police lost sixteen men including officers and elite commandos with many others injured as against seven rebels in four encounters in this new wave of militancy erupting from north Kashmir. An extremely alarming kill ratio for many reasons as far as forces are concerned.
The death of top army officers, commandos and paramilitary personnel triggered outrage across India with many hyper-nationalist news anchors, panelists and rightwing social media trolls demanding nothing short of carpet bombing of Kashmir and the much hyped surgical strike against Pakistan.
While the calls for revenge kept growing louder in the TV studios, forces killed top Hizb commander Riyaz Naikoo in a nocturnal operation in his native village in south Kashmir on May 6. As the protests erupted, internet and mobile communications were suspended across Kashmir.
Naikoo, 35, carried Rs. 12 lakh bounty on his head as he was eluding the forces for the last eight years. In an interview to Al-Jazeera in 2018, Naikoo had said: “We’ll never surrender.”
A couple of weeks later on May 19, another top Hizb figure Junaid Sehrai, son of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat Chairman Ashraf Sehrai, was also killed in Srinagar’s Downtown area along with another Hizb member. The encounter left fifteen houses gutted and many civilians injured, two of whom, including a child, succumbed to their injuries later. Locals accused the forces of strealing cash, gold and other valuables from their homes.
Security agencies described Naikoo’s death as a big success and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen admitted it as a setback, but there is something more to it than just that.
South Kashmir has been on a constant boil even in times of relative calm in north and central Kashmir, but the security agencies have been more wary of a potential resurgence of militancy in the north because of its proximity to LoC, which means there’s a regular influx of trained militants and a better logistic backup.
Militants active in the south in the last seven or eight years have to, by and large, manage it locally and most of the young boys who join the militant ranks are ill-trained or in many cases totally untrained. Forces have often been accused of picking up youths in order to turn them into informers and, as a result, many end up joining militant ranks instead, owing to the deep-seated anti-India sentiment. Their commitment being their sole weapon. That doesn’t bother the agencies much for whom these young men, many of them in their teens, are often sitting ducks. Most of the encounters with these ill-equipped rookies are a cakewalk for the Indian forces and an opportunity to claim kill money, medals and promotions.
The death of 24 militants in the last two weeks in south Kashmir is the latest example of such heavily lopsided encounters. The Indian news channels are celebrating and overplaying these killings to bolster BJP’s image which has taken a serious beating even inside India after New Delhi’s meek response to China on the LAC crisis.
A low intensity armed resistance suits BJP’s Hindutva narrative of eliminating ‘Muslim traitors’, which it exploits successfully for electoral gains as also to weaken whatever little political opposition is left in India after the emergence of Prime Minister Modi as a national icon.
However, anti-India protests at the encounter sites by the civilians are seen as a serious challenge by the security grid and the state doesn’t hesitate in using overwhelming force to quell such responses.
With the charismatic Naikoo gone and no major Hizb figure to succeed him at the moment, the south Kashmir turf is open for the TRF to exploit and maybe even lure Naikoo’s boys with better arms and ammunition and an opportunity to fight alongside fierce combatants. TRF, it is believed, had extended an invitation to Naikoo as well to join forces with them, offering full support and opportunity to turn militancy in the south more impactful.
With that in hindsight, serious changes in militant tactics can be expected in the south too where the militancy is likely to upgrade to another level. Something that the forces and the intelligence agencies might find too hot to handle. It won’t suit the Hindutva politics either if the forces continue to suffer regular casualties.
Alongside these changing dynamics what will remain unchanged, though, is that India will continue to rule J&K through the barrel of a gun under a stern clampdown, media gag and communication blockade.