The mass revolt against the by-election process, in which at least eight persons were killed by security forces on Sunday, gave another distressing glimpse of how far removed from the ground reality intelligence agencies are — not to speak of the political class in Kashmir. A tour through the most sensitive areas in south Kashmir last week revealed that it was common knowledge that the elections would trigger revolt and violence. Yet, politicians were building castles in the air. And former J&K chief minister and National Conference president Farooq Abdullah, who should have had a sense of the pulse, played with fire.
It is time our rulers realise that the stage is getting set in Kashmir for hostilities more intense than any since early November 1947 — when tribesmen from Pakistan were pushed back from Srinagar. The worrying fact is that current tactics are more sophisticated than those tribesmen’s. The heavy casualties that resulted last month when the army was lured into a trap with false information gave a glimpse of a multi-pronged strategy. Worse could lie ahead, for group messaging services have urged young people to use apps to inform militants about security forces’ movements.
Warnings to local policemen since 2015, to resign or at least take desk jobs, are now being followed through; some policemen’s homes were recently trashed. This trend could at some point have a major impact on the morale of the police force. The contours of a psychological war are emerging.
Grassroots political activists too have been targeted. The recent discovery of the tortured body of a former panch, who had been an enthusiastic public activist, terrified many Kashmiri officers. They fear that the arena of politics has become a death trap. Although the majority in Kashmir still do not want the new militancy to escalate, such targeting of those whom terrorists label as `collaborators’ will coerce co-option.
The most challenging current pattern is the rallying of neighbourhoods to defend militants during their encounters with soldiers - and stone-pelting to prevent army cordons. The trend was bound to push the army to fire at those crowds. That first happened on 14 February 2016, a year after this pattern emerged. Firing has now become more common.
Geographically, the most significant new pattern is a shift to the outback. Kupwara district, for instance, has become a hotbed of unrest over the past year. Apart from the Lolab area, Kupwara during the 1990s was rarely more than a route through which militants infiltrated, or Kashmiri youth crossed the Line of Control for training.
South Kashmir is the new centre of militancy. Newa, for instance, in the north of Pulwama district, was over the past few years the base for such key militants as the Pakistani Abu Qasim - whose body two villages sought for burial, and whose funeral tens of thousands of truculent youth from three districts attended in November 2015.
The unrest that followed the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani was centred in such hamlets and villages, rather than cities. In fact, as spring brings the promise of a new season of earnings and education, many residents of Srinagar are resisting calls for shutdowns. Some even abuse the `leaders’ in whose names these are called. Traditional hotbeds of militancy such as Sopore and Shopian too are relatively quiet. But, ironically, these cities now seem marginal.
During the post-Burhan uprising, a complex set of nodes was established to decentralise command and control. Local leaders of Hurriyat outfits took control of many areas. In some, activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami did. The command abilities of all these having been tested, many of them will call the shots this year too - coordinated by whichever shadowy figures are in charge overall.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq are not. They have become masks of leadership. A key part of the unfolding strategy was to force the publicly acknowledged faces of the freedom struggle to `unite.’ After prolonged and intense pressure from Pakistan, this was achieved a little before Burhan was killed. That closed the door for negotiations - as a delegation of MPs discovered last September.
Other kinds of unity were brought into place during the post-Burhan uprising. In many places, Ahle-Hadith, Jamaat-e-Islami, `Barelvi’ and other sects began to pray together. In the chief minister’s native Bijbehara, for instance, these various sects jointly took over the town’s Jamia mosque, ousting the Imam whose family had presided over that mosque for four generations with patronage from the state establishment. Some of these sects have mushroomed over the past decade. Their rivalries could have stymied the current mobilisation, but have effectively been put on hold.
Even more striking is the united functioning of militant groups, mainly the Jamaat-e-Islami-affiliated Hizb-ul Mujahideen and Hafiz Sayeed’s Lashkar-e-Toiba. Not only do they operate jointly, both now seem to have local as well as foreign militants - generally in a 2:1 ratio.
Predictably, locking up thousands of youth last September has not helped. Scores of fresh youth in south Kashmir have taken up arms since Burhan was killed. Many of them, even `commanders,’ are teenagers. Many more would join their ranks if an adequate supply of arms became available.
The die is now cast. The government seems to have frittered away the opportunity to develop effective counter-strategies during the pause this winter. Like a robot, it is shuffling into the cul de sac of having to use heavy duty tactical options. This is a dangerous turn of events.
David Devadas is a senior journalist based in Kashmir. The views expressed are personal.