It’s becoming increasingly common to hear the militancy in Kashmir described as “new”. Taking the long-view of the conflict, Umair Gul (Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution) looks at the history of the militancy movement and what similarities the militants fighting today might have with those who fought in the past.
Many security analysts, academics and journalists have in recent years referred to the armed militant movement in Kashmir against the Indian state as a form of “New Militancy”. Borrowed from LSE academic Mary Kaldors’s seminal work New Wars, the term is becoming increasingly common when discussing the conflict in Kashmir. What is really new about the militancy that we are seeing in Kashmir?
While much has changed since the conflict began, a quick look at the family backgrounds,education, these of the media and technology, the religion and military training militants receive, as well the ideas surrounding martyrdom, it’s clear to see that the armed militant movement in Kashmir is not new.
The history of Kashmir’s militant movement
Master Cell, one of the first organisations to take up arms against the Indian state, began its violent campaign in 1960. After this initial phase of violent insurgency, Al Fatah, an undercover organisation that was quickly unravelled by Indian Intelligence officials, thrived from the late 1960s until its demise in 1971.
The task of rebuilding and improvising the Kashmiri insurgency subsequently fell to the National Liberation Front (NLF).Months after its formation however, Maqbool Butt, the NLF’s leading figure was arrested and sentenced to death.(He eventually escaped from prison.) In 1983, Ameer Maulana Saad Ud din, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir, an Islamist socio-political party, made a pilgrimage from India to Mecca returning via Pakistan. In Pakistan it was reported that he met General Muhammad Zia ul Haq who supposedly convinced him of initiating violent insurgency against India with Jamaat at the insurgency’s forefront. While Saad Ud din reportedly failed to commit to such a proposition, a tacit understanding between the two is said to have prevailed.
On his return to Kashmir, Saad Ud din is said to have shared his plan with only a few of his long-term confidants in Jamaat. By 1984, more than a dozen Jamaat members had crossed into Afghanistan to camps of Hezb-e-Islami, a Jamaat-backed, Pakistan-supported militant group then fighting the USSR’s occupation of Afghanistan. This group, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, comprised of many Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistani members. After receiving military training, these Jamaat members returned to Kashmir, waiting for approval from their leaders to wage an armed struggle.
After the much contested State Assembly elections of 1987, a full-blown armed insurgency began. From this moment, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, Al jihad, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen, Al Umar, Muslim Janbaz Force, Allah Tigers and Hizbul Mujahideen all established and grew into active insurgent groups. Hizbul Mujahideen soon took a lead among this group with its base much more grounded within local communities than the other organisations. From its inception, Hizbul Mujahideen espoused the ideas of Pan Islamism and a Muslim Brotherhood and has since continued to prevail, as other organisations have withered away.
Family backgrounds and education
Those who argue that the conflict in Kashmir is a new form of militancy often emphasise the education and family backgrounds of militants, arguing that there are “old illiterate” insurgents and “new educated militants”. This classification however is wrong.
The militants of Master Cell, Al-Fatah and all post-1987 militancy groups originated from a wide range of economic and social classes. Yousuf Shah (aka Syed Salahuddin) held a Master’s degree in Political Science. Nadeem Khateeb, who joined Al Badr in 1998, came from an economically well-off family and had trained as a pilot in the United States. Shams ul Haq, a Hizbul Mujahideen Commander, had multiple post-graduate qualifications. Ashfaq Majeed Wani, the commander of JKLF, was a drop-out from Tyndale Biscoe School and an inter-state marathon runner. FirdousKirmani, a Srinagar-based Hizbul Mujahideen Commander, came from an affluent family and had trained as an Engineer.
Use of media and technology
Many commentators have dwelt upon the use of social media by militants as a distinguishing and distinct element of recent acts of militancy. The militants of Master Cell however regularly used posters to popularise their struggle. Newspaper statements, video cassettes and video interviews were all used as propaganda by militant groups post-1987. In fact, social media has been used by militants from 2014. Thus while the type of technology as a form of communication has changed for militants, the use of the best available technology has always been a feature of militancy in Kashmir.
The institution of religious martyrdom has long been sacred to Kashmiri Muslim society. Religion has played an important role in many struggles and movements – so much so that the perceived secular political parties have also used religion to their advantage. Be it the fight for sacred spaces between political leaders Mirwaiz and Sheikh Abdullah, the use of Mosques in mobilisation as a political space post-1987, or the religious fervour of martyrdom post-2014 -again nothing in these respects has changed. Therefore those who argue that the use of religion is a novelty in Kashmir need to examine the history of all movements in Kashmir to see its historic prevalence.
Most of the militants (but not all in post-1987) were trained in Pakistan where they received preliminary arms training. Most of the militantspost-2014 have received training in the hinterland from local sources. This is a major distinction and is often used by those who argue for a “new militancy.” However not being well-trained or being trained in the local hinterlands was looked down upon in post-1987 militancy and many of these militants were labelled as “Dragud” – meaning a meadow trained militant. Romanticising local training henceforth is a subversion to justify the aura around “new militancy”.
Funerals and martyrdom
There is no doubt that the current phase of militancy has witnessed the spectacle of huge funerals for militants killed in ‘flush out’ operations. But this too has long been the case. Ashfaq Majeed’s funeral was an enormous event, and so was the case with many of his contemporaries.
The idea of martyrdom in Kashmir is therefore so common that it has become an institutionalised phenomenon. The dead body of a militant has long been used as a sacred tool to purify ill-will to mock the secular world and its institutions. Acts of martyrdom were never performed for vengeance, but guided by “sacrifice”. The militant movement in Kashmir therefore should not be seen as a fundamentally changing phenomenon but as a continuous wave with an unchanging core.
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Umair Gul is a PhD student at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution. He tweets @umademess