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Could Islamic State make inroads in Kashmir? Open in fullscreen

Umar Lateef Misgar

Could Islamic State make inroads in Kashmir?

A group of protesters wave an ISIS flag and throw stones in Srinagar, Kashmir [AFP]

Date of publication: 19 December, 2017

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Analysis: The appearance of IS insignia at a militant's funeral in Kashmir raises important questions, writes Umar Lateef Misgar.
Since the late 1980s, Indian-administered Kashmir has been a site of deadly armed conflict between Indian forces and a mostly unified armed insurgency. 

In recent years however, the ideologies behind these insurgent groups have varied significantly.

While some groups like the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) once saw both India and Pakistan as occupying powers and advocated for a wholly independent sovereign nation of Jammu & Kashmir, others like the Hizbul Mujahideen (Hizb) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) sought Kashmir's permanent merger with Pakistan.

Sectarian violence between the two groups and heavy-handed counterinsurgent tactics by the Indian government sidelined the nationalists and the JKLF officially declared a unilateral ceasefire over twenty years ago, in 1994.

Since that time, the Hizb and LeT have assumed almost total control of the Kashmiri 'battlefield'.

A new cause

When the Russian Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, many Mujahideen fighters with global Jihadist leanings found a new cause in Kashmir. Having joined the ranks of Pakistani-backed groups however, many gradually disappeared altogether.

Having reached a peak of around 20,000 fighters in the 1990s, the number of armed insurgents in Kashmir currently numbers around 300. Most are local Kashmiris who identify themselves with either Hizb or the LeT, while others have declared their allegiance for other jihadist groups.

In July this year, Zakir Rashid Bhat (alias Zakir Musa), a local commander of the Hizb group, defected with a handful of fighters to create Ansar Ghazwat-ul Hind and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Beyond these small numbers however, many believe that there is no strong ground for transnational Jihadi groups to begin recruiting in Kashmir.

"The adherents of Salafism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, who could have been potential recruits for IS or al-Qaeda, mostly follow the official Saudi version of Salafism that discourages any rebellious activity," Zahid Salam, a scholar at the Islamic University of Kashmir, told The New Arab.

Salam, a student of the effects of global Jihadi movements on Kashmiri insurgency, maintains that groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda have not demonstrated any proactive stance towards Kashmir. This becomes important when one compares it to other places like Syria or Libya, where senior figures within the groups were initially sent to establish new formations.

Warning signs

Despite the fact that IS insignia has regularly appeared in protest rallies and the funerals of insurgents across Kashmir, the director general of the local police force, Sheesh Paul Vaid recently declared that the group's imprints in Kashmir were non-existent. The Indian Home Ministry seconded Vaid's statement.

According to Micheal Kugelman, Senior Associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, IS flags and other insignia in Kashmir are a highly superficial indicator of the group's popularity.

"Kashmir does not provide a conducive environment for IS to advance," he said.

"You don't have a deeply sectarian climate or a critical mass of hardened Islamists keen to take their fight across the globe," he added.  

Secessionist leaders in Indian-controlled Kashmir maintain that jihadist groups like IS have no role to play in what they see as an essentially indigenous struggle against India's military presence. 

Some experts maintain however that IS' experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan, via its parent organization al-Qaeda, remains helpful for the group to test the already troubled waters in Kashmir.

Joshua Landis, Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, believes that this operational experience in the region along with the rapid rise of anti-Muslim sentiment across India provides ideal conditions for the group to thrive.     

Although, in a 2016 interview (pdf) with IS's propaganda magazine Dabiq, Hafiz Saeed Khan, the head of the group's Khurasan branch, altogether steered clear of India and focused more on what he called Pakistan's betrayal of the Kashmiri insurgent movement.

When asked about the Afghanistan-based wing's capabilities on expanding into Indian-controlled Kashmir to "fight the cow-worshipping Hindus", Khan chose to focus more on getting rid of the Pakistani "regime" and exploiting its conventional military capabilities.


As recently as November 17 this year, IS claimed through its Amaq news agency to have killed a local police officer in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital.

The subsequent report in Amaq however, claimed the attack was carried out against Pakistani security forces. This gives some sense of how the group might be ignorant of even the basic political geography of Kashmir, let alone carry out any operations in the region.

In another goof-up, multiple news agencies in India, while attributing it to IS, simultaneously claimed the attack in Srinagar had been carried out by Ansar Ghazwat-ul Hind, al-Qaeda's recently formed local branch.

Considering that al-Qaeda and IS have been at loggerheads since the latter's appearance on the global Jihadist scene, it is hard to imagine that Ansar can work as a local front for both groups at the same time.     

The armed insurgents in Kashmir are mostly driven by immediate grievances, which include the pervasive human rights abuses carried out by the Indian forces in Kashmir since the onset of insurgency in the late 1980s.

"Any association with IS would undercut and taint their cause, and that's the last thing these armed groups would want," Kugelman told The New Arab.

In fact, the threat of IS might be more urgent in mainland India. According to many reports, around 22 Indians, including women and children, from the Southern state of Kerala travelled to Afghanistan with the aim of living under the rule of supposed caliphate. 

For now, the possibility of IS establishing any significant foothold in Kashmir seems implausible. However, IS's rapidly declining influence in its traditional bases of power may force the group to shift its focus on controlling or supporting insurgencies that remain operationally confined to relatively smaller areas. Kashmir presents itself as an ideal ground for that possible switch.   

IS's ability to feed off local grievances, as was demonstrated in Iraq where the group cunningly exploited the national government's discriminatory approach towards the country's Sunni communities to initially gain prominence also makes Kashmir an appealing prospect for the group.

As the governments of both India and Pakistan prolong their decades-old conflict by failing to negotiate a sustainable solution, and the Indian government keeps responding to all forms of dissent in Kashmir with an iron fist, the possibility of this ruthless group making inroads into Kashmir, whether in the form of material support or ideology, cannot be altogether dismissed.     

Umar Lateef Misgar is a graduate student of International Relations at the Islamic University of Kashmir. He regularly writes for The New Arab, openDemocracy, Counterpunch and London School of Economics Human Rights Centre.

Follow him on Twitter: @Kaashur

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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