The Kashmir Crisis: Is Hizbul Mujahideen Chief Syed Salahuddin Still Relevant?

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 9

On September 1, Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) chief Syed Salahuddin called on the Pakistani government to send its military to Kashmir to protect the people there from the Indian security forces. If the United Nations does not send peacekeepers there, he said, “it is binding upon the armed forces of Pakistan, to enter Kashmir to militarily help the people of the territory,” adding that “in these testing times…mere diplomatic and political support is not going to work.” Salahuddin was speaking at a gathering of his supporters in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK), the part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir that has been under Pakistani control since 1947 (First Post, September 2).

The “testing times” that the HM chief referred to is the ongoing crisis in India-administered Kashmir. On August 5, the Indian government’s announced the revocation of Article 370 of the Constitution, which provided the state of Jammu and Kashmir with autonomy. In the weeks since this controversial decision, the situation in the Kashmir Valley has been tense and India has clamped down on local protests (The Caravan, September 22).

Pakistan has been raising the issue in various global forums to rally the international community against India’s unilateral decision. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Imran Khan has threatened to go to war with India and has promised to teach the country a lesson (India Today, August 30). He has promised “to do everything possible” to support the Kashmiri people in their struggle against India (India Today, August 26).

In the past, such support to Kashmiris has taken the form of arms and training to Kashmiri and Pakistani militant groups. India’s security establishment fears that Pakistan will step up such support in the coming months. Infiltration of militants from PaK into the Valley is growing (NDTV, September 18). In Pakistan, religious extremists, anti-India militants like Salahuddin, as well as politicians are calling for “a jihad” to “liberate” Kashmir from Indian rule (Express Tribune, August 25). Will the latest phase of the Kashmir militancy see a revival of Salahuddin’s stature in the Valley?

Pakistan’s Protégé

Salahuddin was among the first generation of Kashmiris who crossed into PaK from the Valley in 1989-90 to receive arms and training from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to fight the Indian state. His pro-Pakistan leanings and willingness to do its bidding caught the attention of the ISI, which then assisted in organizing HM, with Salahuddin as its “supreme commander.” Under Salahuddin, HM pursued Pakistan’s agenda in Kashmir. It attacked the Indian security forces and simultaneously decimated pro-independence outfits like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Being the main beneficiary of ISI largesse, HM soon came to dominate the anti-India militancy (See Terrorism Monitor, July 28, 2017).

By the end of the 1990s, HM’s fortunes began fading. Kashmiris were weary of the militancy. The flow of local recruits waned. Rifts between HM’s PaK-based leadership and its Valley-based commanders and fighters came to the fore (The Statesman, May 7, 2002). The latter criticized Salahuddin for living in comfort in PaK. Kashmiris complained that while Salahuddin’s five sons pursued regular careers in the Valley, their own children were dying in the fight against India. Between 2000 and 2015, it was the predominantly Pakistani (rather than Kashmiri) Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba that were Pakistan’s new protégés. Salahuddin was better known in this period for his periodic anti-India tirades than expertise in fighting the Indian forces.

Hizbul’s Revival

HM’s fortunes improved in 2015-16, when its south Kashmir commander Burhan Wani captured the imagination of Kashmir youth (Rising Kashmir, July 6, 2017), who joined the HM in droves. Unlike militants of the 1990s, this new generation of HM fighters is tech-savvy and active on social media (Outlook, July 8, 2018). During this period, Salahuddin’s stature in terrorist circles received a boost when  the U.S. State Department declared him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in June 2017 (Terrorism Monitor, July 28, 2017).

However, HM has also suffered losses over the last couple of years. It has lost several charismatic commanders and fighters to Indian counter-insurgency operations, including Burhan Wani. Old tensions between the PaK leadership and the Valley commanders continue to sap HM’s strength on the ground. Importantly, new terror groups pledging loyalty to transnational jihadism have emerged in the India-administered Kashmir. Islamic State (IS) now claims to have an Indian “province” known as Wilayah al-Hind. A bitter power struggle is unfolding between various Pakistan-backed anti-India groups and the global jihadists. The anti-India militant field in Kashmir has become more complex (Asian Affairs, August).

Whither Salahuddin

Over the past 15 years, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed have been the main executors “sword-arms” of Pakistan’s anti-India policy in Kashmir. The post-Article 370 phase of the militancy, which is expected to see more bloodshed than earlier phases, could see the re-emergence of HM as Islamabad’s main “sword arm” in its proxy war against India. Pakistan needs a Kashmiri group that will follow its orders to fight its war in the Valley, and HM and Salahuddin strongly meet this criteria.

The mood in the Valley is strongly anti-Indian, but it is not pro-Pakistani. Many Kashmiri youth want independence from both countries. A growing number have become radicalized and is drawn to the fiery rhetoric of global jihadists. They may not be willing to take orders and instructions from Islamabad. 73-year-old Salahuddin may not be able to fire the imagination of the new generation of militants in the Valley.