By Dr. Adil Rasheed
If the COVID-19 outbreak had not roiled a return to near normalcy, Jammu and Kashmir would have been breathing a lot easier with notable improvement in the security situation a year after the abrogation of Article 370 provisions.
The recently released Ministry of Home Affairs report shows a dramatic 36 per cent decline in the number of terrorist incidents since the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status on August 5, 2019. Meanwhile, the number of terrorists killed by security forces increased to 136 from January 1 till July 15, 2020, higher than the tally of 126 in the same months last year. On the other hand, 35 security forces personnel and 22 civilians were martyred since the beginning of this year, compared to 75 uniformed personnel and 23 civilians in the first half of 2019. There has also been only one IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attack in Kashmir since January 1, compared to six IED blasts during the same period last year.
It is also noteworthy that security operations across the districts of Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam, seen as the nerve centre of the militancy, have dealt a debilitating blow to many terrorist groups, most notably the notorious Hizbul Mujahideen. Facing one of its bleakest hours, this three-decade-old terrorist group reportedly lost 51 of its militants in the first half of 2020, including its longest-serving leader Riyaz Naikoo. Close on the heels of his death came the news of the killing of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chief Junaid Sehraie on May 20, followed by the killing of Afghan war veteran and IED expert Abdul Rehman alias ‘Fouji Bhai’ of the Jaish-e-Mohammad.
In addition, the top political leadership from National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has been released in multiple batches within seven months of the scrapping of Article 370 provisions, which includes the release of NC leaders Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah in March 2020. However, PDP chief and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is among the few who remain under house arrest.
However, the upshot of these successes has been tempered by a spurt in the COVID-19 cases (over 20,000), with over 370 deaths reported by August 2, in Jammu and Kashmir. The lockdown to fight the pandemic has been extended till August 5.
Confidence sans Complacency
The impressive gains secured by the Indian security forces clearly controvert the unwarranted claims of a few radical Kashmiri leaders and academicians last year that any legislative action taken to de-operationalise Article 370 would result in a wave of unmitigated violence across the valley and beyond.
However, most high-ranking military officials remain wary of being overly sanguine in their assessment of the situation, which is often described as stable but sensitive. Noted journalist and security issues expert Praveen Swami believes that violence levels ebb and flow in the valley and it would be wrong to make summary judgments too soon. Although the counter-infiltration grid has been made more robust and effective, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 19 Infantry Division in Baramulla, Major General Virendra Vats, told a press conference recently that intelligence inputs indicate that up to 250-300 terrorists currently wait at launch pads across the border to infiltrate into India.
However, Jammu and Kashmir police sources are more concerned about local recruitment, which is said to have risen in the valley. According to the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, “In 2020 so far 79 youngsters have joined various terror tanzeems (organisations) while last year in 2019, 135 were identified who joined various terror groups”. Economic hardships in the wake of COVID-19, unemployment and opposition to the new domicile law seem to be aggravating youth resentment. Some observers even opine that the absence of political protests might be pushing more youngsters toward terrorism.
Meanwhile, terrorist groups are trying to abort any revival of the political process by targeting the emerging political leadership. On July 8, 2020, unidentified militants gunned down Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sheikh Waseem Bari, along with his brother Umar Sultan and father Bashir Ahmad Sheikh, in Bandipora District in North Kashmir. Undeterred, the Jammu and Kashmir BJP has planned a 15-day-long programme from August 5 to mark the first anniversary of the revocation of the special status provisions under Article 370. It is believed that the political process would gather steam following the completion of the ongoing delimitation exercise, which could pave the way for fresh elections.
The New ‘Non-Jihadi’ Terror Tack
Meanwhile, a more insidious game is being played from across the border. To counter the disarray and infighting within a discredited Hurriyat and the terminal retreat of old terrorist groups like Hizbul Mujahideen, new terror outfits with non-Arabic, ‘non-sectarian’ nomenclatures have come to the fore.
The Resistance Front (TRF) has risen to prominence as a supposedly homegrown movement, despite markings of Lashkar-e-Taiba smudged all over it. It seems the usual masterminds across the border now prefer English titles for their terror proxies so that such groups are more favourably received in the West than their much reviled jihadist predecessors.
On the dark web, another terror fledgeling named ‘People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF)’ recently issued a video calling on the Kashmiris to carry out attacks on the Indian forces. Perhaps, the inspiration for this name came from the Antifa (anti-fascist) movement in the United States. Thus, the hoax of pleasing Allah has given way to placating an anti-Donald Trump wave, which it is believed would sweep the US presidential elections in November.
Dashed Hopes in Joe Biden
After being “disappointed” by the poor response to his international outreach on the Kashmir issue last year, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced a new plan to rake up the issue on the August 5 anniversary. Still, expectations have been managed somewhat as the planned global outreach is limited to three countries this time – Turkey, Malaysia and China, in addition to a visit to the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) on that day.
Following recent India-China border clashes, US Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden has issued a clear statement that the India-US partnership will find “high priority” in his prospective administration, which might have dashed any Pakistani hope for a change in US policy on the Kashmir issue, with the possible coming of a new president.
In sum, the internal and external situation on the first anniversary of the historic revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir appears assuring, even as the need for safeguarding the initial gains calls for sustained efforts.