Burhan Wani’s era ends as insurgency moves back to secrecy

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Nishaz Lone lived in the shadows after he left his home in southern Kashmir’s Tral town and joined the militancy. For the next three years, there was no imagery of him online — no audios, no pictures, no videos.

Lone had gone underground in 2018, the last year of the new militancy’s resurgence, marked with the flood of photographs and videos of young men donning fatigues and posing with assault rifles as they announced their “activation” into the militancy.

By the time the government forces confronted Lone and four other militants in Hanjan Payeen village of Pulwama district on 2 July 2021, the insurgency had made another transition. None of the five militants killed in the nightlong firefight had featured in viral videos or pictures.

The insurgency’s previous phase had begun at a time when the popularity of social media was spreading to rural Kashmir and the numbers of militants had ebbed to their lowest since its eruption in the late 1980s.

The new crop of militants emerging after the 2010 summer uprising, mostly young Kashmiris, came out of the shadows to not only announce their motives and agenda but to also give a glimpse of their life to the rest of the world.

This paved the way for a popular wave where militants gained the status of societal leaders. This era was defined by Burhan Wani, a militant commander from Tral town who allowed himself to be photographed and became the mascot of the insurgency.

When, in the summer of 2016, Wani was killed in a brief gunfight in Bamdoora village of Anantnag, he had risen to become a revered figure. His funeral attracted thousands from across Kashmir and the region instantly slid into an uprising that lasted months.

Five years later, however, the Kashmir insurgency’s days in the sun are over. The militants have again withdrawn into the shadows — abandoning a key tool in their arsenal: the social media that propelled them to the centre stage, captivating the public.

Out of the shadows

The outburst of anger, over government force’s excesses, in street protests by young Kashmiris beginning 2008 ushered youth into the vanguard of the Kashmiri resistance movement, setting the tone for the new militancy that emerged in less than a decade.

The rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in mainland India in 2014 and the subsequent dropping of masks coincided with the militancy reviving itself and abandoning the obscurity surrounding militants for the past more than a decade.

These young militants’ most lethal weapon was their smartphones. 

In the summer of 2015, a photo of ten militants flanking Burhan Wani somewhere in an orchard had stunned Kashmiris. The iconic picture turned the eleven obscure fighters into friends and family with whom the public had familial and social bonds. The idea was replicated for all later militants.

The bombardment of the public imagination with imagery that presented the militants as the underdogs unfazed before the might of the Indian state galvanised the public opinion and led to a sympathy wave that prompted young civilians to throng sites of ongoing gunfights to battle heavily armed government forces — with mere stones.

Back to secrecy

After the months-long mourning had fizzled out, the government launched a counterinsurgency campaign against the militants, dubbed “Operation All Out”, killing nearly hundreds of militants but also maiming and blinding several young civilians.

The campaign pushed the militancy back. In February 2019, the bombing of a paramilitary convoy in south Kashmir that killed at least forty troops was claimed by the Jaish-e-Muhammad. In the weeks after it, government forces decimated the outfit’s leadership in Kashmir; it also brought increased international scrutiny on Pakistan.

Simultaneously since then, no major militant attack was claimed by traditional militant groups operating in Kashmir. The militancy is once again operating under a veil of secrecy with videos showing masked militants and audio statements circulating rarely.

“With time they keep changing their strategy, it’s part of their tactics,” said  Shesh Paul Vaid, who took charge as the Director-General of the J-K Police amid the 2016 uprising and oversaw the force till 2018.

Vaid added: “It is not as visible as it used to be in 2014-15. Nowadays it’s neither that glamorous nor are they [militants] showing that we have taken up arms by uploading on social media that we have become militants.”

Even as Vaid said that there isn’t clarity on the security situation at the moment, there were “positive signs” overall. “The security forces are doing a good job [with multiple gunfights], in fact, they are offering local boys the option of surrender to save their lives,” he said. “But the concern remains that the boys are joining [the militancy]. It should not happen.”

A sustained counterinsurgency campaign may have pushed the militants back into the shows but the light isn’t out yet. In 2021 alone, government forces have confirmed the recruitment of 40 Kashmiri youth while 50 others remain missing, many of whom are suspected of having joined the militancy, according to a report in The Print. 

After remaining off the map of militancy for a few years, Srinagar also featured a comeback. Elsewhere militants have filed daring attacks on government forces but kept the identities of their fighters hidden from the public.

Restrictions on social media had helped curb the militants’ use of social media but it barely had an impact on counterinsurgency, said Vaid. “We have our own systems and I think that is working very well,” he said.

The only drawback is for the militancy’s soft power over the public, which remains unchallenged and undefeated even today but risks the emergence of a gulf between it and the public in the coming years.

Emergence of new groups, changing geopolitics

In the aftermath of the February 2019 suicide bombing, India and Pakistan came close to war after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered and publicised airstrikes in Pakistani territory.

Even as Pakistan claimed that the raids only killed a crow and damaged trees, it retaliated with similar airstrikes close to a military installation in Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch district and shot down one Indian jet during a dogfight.

India’s military assertion and its diplomatic blitzkrieg against Pakistan, defence analysts contend, tilted the scale in New Delhi’s favour. Scrutiny by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) over money laundering by militant groups operating from Pakistan also coincided with the shutting down of several outfits’ offices.

The abrogation of J-K’s limited autonomy a few months later in August led to New Delhi unilaterally altering the region’s status, opening it up for non-natives, and taking full control of the government forces operating on the ground.

The move led to a war of words between India and Pakistan but simultaneous back-channel dialogue — involving foreign nations as intermediaries — led, later reports revealed, to the brokering of the ceasefire deal announced in February this year.

In the runup to the ceasefire deal, the presence of foreign militants that formed the backbone of the militancy in Kashmir — reinforcing it with numbers and weapons and augmenting fighting capabilities — had also gone down considerably.

Infiltration of foreign militants into Kashmir is not only at an all-time low but has nearly stopped after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy and reportedly simultaneous back-channel negotiations with a Pakistan that is mired in internal political and economic instability.

The geopolitical compulsions after the agreement, Vaid said, “has actually reduced infiltration to this side but after the political dialogue initiated by the honourable Prime Minister [with J-K’s unionist leadership on 24 June], there was a spate of incidents: the killing of SPO and his family, and drone attack and this remains a matter of concern.”

On the intervening night of 26-27 June, government forces claimed that two drones, operated by militant groups, dropped explosives inside the high-security Indian Airforce Station at the Jammu airport. Inspector-General of Police in Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, called it a “new technical threat” to which the forces are responding.  

According to a report by the Hindustan Times, amid the ongoing pandemic and economic slowdown in the country, India is likely to spend big money on the purchase of Israeli SMASH 2000 Plus anti-drone systems. 

If true, the Kashmiri militancy’s feature of incurring more economic losses on India than body bags continues. The alleged drone attack was not claimed by any militant outfit.

The traditional militant outfits, with their bases in Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir, have also kept a low profile and cleared the way for new militant outfits that rely less on Islamic vocabulary. Among these are The Resistance Front (TRF), People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), Kashmir Tigers, and United Liberation Front. 

The police maintain that these groups are shadow outfits for Pakistan based groups Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish. Still, the overall bearing of the regional politics is evident in the recoveries at several gunfights in Kashmir.

Several militants killed in recent gunfights have only had pistols and a few rounds of ammunition on them, sometimes a lesser number of weapons than the militants killed — rendering the government force’s often repeated phrase “warlike stores” redundant.

After the 2 July gunfight that killed Nazish Lone and four others, two assault rifles and pistols each was recovered along with one SLR rifle that was snatched from a security post guarding a television tower in Lower Munda, the farthest end of Kashmir, in 2016. . 

Five years since the killing of Burhan Wani, the militancy has seemingly weakened but there are fears that Kashmir might once again attract foreign fighters — buoyed by the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The future remains uncertain.

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