A Rift Opens in the Kashmir Valley

7 MINS READJun 15, 2017 | 09:15 GMT
During clashes in early June, a protester in Srinagar, Kashmir, lobs a tear gas canister back at Indian security forces.
Forecast Highlights

  • Insurgent group Hizbul Mujahideen, with support from Pakistan, will seek to subvert former commander Zakir Musa’s breakaway faction in Kashmir.
  • The factionalization of the Kashmiri insurgency could benefit India’s counterinsurgency operations.
  • Musa’s hard-line Islamist vision and disinterest in secession will constrain his appeal in the progressive Kashmir.

During a 29-year battle against Indian sovereignty, several militant groups fighting an insurgency in the disputed region of Kashmir have risen and fallen. A recent high-level defection from the region's biggest and most active militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, gave the militant separatist movement another jolt, exposing a divide along ideological — and generational — lines.

Until recently, Zakir Musa was a commander for Hizbul Mujahideen, which boasts some 200 fighters scattered throughout the districts adjacent to Kashmir's capital, Srinagar. On May 12, audio statements were released in which Musa disavowed both Pakistan and the fight for Kashmiri secession from India, which is the clarion call of the Kashmir struggle. He stated his desire to implement a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law in Kashmir, claiming that nationalism and democracy were not Islamic. Moreover, he threatened to behead the leaders of the All Parties Hurriyet Conference, the conglomeration of nonviolent separatist parties seeking Kashmiri secession through political means.

Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin, who resides in Pakistan, immediately condemned Musa's threats and called on local commanders to clear any further pronouncements directly with him. An angered Musa quit Hizbul Mujahideen on May 13 and soon after formed his own militant outfit. On May 15, he released a video announcing his new group, saying that, though it was not affiliated with al Qaeda, he was thankful to the terrorist organization for promoting Sharia.

Hard-Line Islamism Enters the Picture

Musa's statements suggest that an element of transnational jihadism is being introduced into the Kashmir conflict and lay bare an ideological divide that has been developing between the generations of insurgents. An older generation of rebels, such as the 71-year-old Salahuddin, have focused their efforts on self-determination and ridding the area of an Indian military presence. But the jihadist, anti-Pakistan movement represented by the 22-year-old Musa may be gaining traction. Musa himself was the successor to another 22-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, whose death in July 2016 triggered months of deadly protests in Srinagar and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. Like Musa, Wani also embraced the rhetoric of jihadism, though he didn't go so far as to unlink his group from Pakistan.

If Musa's new outfit gains a measure of success, it would shift the focus of an insurgency that has long been defined by a localized Islamism that values self-determination. And both Islamabad and New Delhi would be forced to worry more about transnational jihadists, such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda, gaining a foothold in the region. Pakistan, after all, is actively warring against transnational jihadists on its western front; it doesn't want them expanding in the east as well.

Pakistan's Strategy of Subversion

Since the start of the Kashmir insurgency, Pakistan has co-opted Kashmiri militants in a strategy designed to put pressure on India in the region. But that plan almost wholly depends on Islamabad being able to exert its influence over the insurgent groups. The loss of control that Musa's defection represents poses a fundamental challenge to Pakistan and could alter the delicate balance of power in the disputed region. Salahuddin and mainline Hizbul Mujahideen members, jarred by Musa's defection, will be working to subvert his breakaway faction and will likely try to kill him and his fighters. And Pakistan will provide support for those efforts.

Pakistan is currently fighting anti-state militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its spring offensive is well underway. For Islamabad, it is important to maintain the status quo in Kashmir and avoid any events that would require large numbers of Pakistani troops to be shifted to away from the FATA. That's exactly what transpired after the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by Pakistan-supported militants, after all, when a combined 1 million Indian and Pakistani troops faced off along the Line of Control in Kashmir, draining Pakistani resources at the FATA and allowing al Qaeda militants to more freely enter the semiautonomous region.

Any breakaway faction in Kashmir that espouses transnational jihadism — especially one led by Musa, who has shown no love for Pakistan — is bad for Pakistan's larger interests, and the country will be working with Hizbul Mujahideen to stamp out Musa's new group in a few ways. First, Pakistan will require Hizbul Mujahideen to tighten control over its field commanders to prevent any additional breakaway factions. Most likely, Islamabad will also provide Hizbul Mujahideen with financial, military and propaganda support, just as it did in the early 1990s when it shifted support away from the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front — which didn't support merging an independent Kashmir with Pakistan — to the newly created Hizbul Mujahideen. In that case, the group that fell out of favor ultimately renounced violence, while Hizbul Mujahideen joined a cluster of insurgent groups that waged attacks against the Indian state.

The Limits of an Islamist Vision

Beyond Islamabad's moves to stifle Musa's faction, there's another factor limiting his ability to succeed in the Kashmir Valley: his Islamist vision. The region of Kashmir has long been defined by a liberal, tolerant religious ethos driven by Sufism. Musa's calls for the region to implement a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law cuts against that grain and may make it difficult for him to attract a large following. The insurgency and separatism movements in Kashmir, while religious, have been equally driven by the goal of achieving self-determination. But Musa, who seems to be driven solely by his strict Islamism, has been vague about his interest in seeing Kashmir achieve greater autonomy and self-rule, an aspiration that most Kashmiri residents support.

New Delhi has been reluctant to remove its garrisons in Kashmir, worried that increased autonomy in the region would create more space for Pakistani intervention and galvanize other self-determination movements within India. So, while Musa may still garner support from some Kashmiri youth simply because he is fighting the Indian armed forces, his strict Islamist ideology and rejection of separatism will fundamentally limit any attempt to translate his insurgency into a meaningful political movement. Even though the majority of the region's residents are eager to push Indian forces out, the already well-established organization of Hizbul Mujahideen, which does support the popular goal of self-rule, will limit the backing that Musa's group can win.

Beyond Kashmir

Unlike Hizbul Mujahideen, however, Musa's mission isn't limited to Kashmir. He hopes to capitalize on the grievances of Muslims throughout India who have been singled out by rogue Hindu nationalists, such as India's cow vigilante groups. Both al Qaeda and the Khorasan chapter of the Islamic State share this goal, as the groups have long sought to radicalize a segment of India's 175 million Muslims. So far, however, those organizations have drawn only a handful of radicalized Indian Muslims to their cause. Though they are generally economically marginalized, Muslims in India have been sufficiently absorbed into the cultural fabric of the country's identity, and the nation's democracy provides Muslims in the Indian mainland, outside of Kashmir, opportunities to air their grievances.

Since forming his faction, Musa has reportedly added up to 15 defectors from Hizbul Mujahideen. And for Indian security forces, this division within the insurgency is a reason to maintain a cautious optimism regarding Musa's group. Already, it has claimed credit for leading Indian security forces to Hizbul Mujahideen commander Sabzar Bhat, who was killed by the troops. Any disruption in the insurgent movement, which this new breakaway faction most certain is, could make it easier for New Delhi to exercise its counterinsurgency efforts.

Though it may become further factionalized, the insurgency in Kashmir will endure as long as locals continue to chafe against the presence of Indian armed forces. And while there are a number of factors working against the success of Musa's faction, it's still possible that Musa — or perhaps another breakaway rebel commander, if Hizbul Mujahideen is unable to prevent further defections — could gain members by exploiting the perceived failures of both Kashmir's mainstream and separatist political leaders. If Musa's breakaway faction were able to achieve critical mass, it would indicate a shift in the insurgency toward a focus of transnational jihadism, which neither New Delhi nor Islamabad would welcome.

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