On October 17, two migrant laborers from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh came to work in the Kashmir Valley, and were later killed in a grenade attack in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)’s Shopian district. Just two days before this, a Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu of Kashmiri origin) was also shot dead outside his home in the same district. These killings are the latest in a string of militant attacks on Kashmiri Pandits and non-Kashmiri migrants from other parts of India.
According to Indian police, the grenade attack that killed the two laborers was the work of “hybrid militants,” which refers to the dual lives of militants, and “faceless militants,” which refers to their anonymity (Indian Express, October 19; Deccan Herald, August 16). They placed emphasis on how the current phase of the militancy in Kashmir is different from the social media-driven militancy of the 2014-2019 period and previous phases when militants were trained in Pakistan or Kashmir’s forests. The key question, therefore, is this: why is this latest wave of militancy in Kashmir of particular concern to India’s security establishment?
The Bygone Burhan Wani Era
Since its eruption in 1989-90, anti-India militancy in Kashmir has passed through several phases. In the initial years, the militants enjoyed mass support. However, weariness of the violence and criminal activities of the militants by the mid-1990s began eroding popular support for the militants (Terrorism Monitor, April 15, 2016). This changed in 2014-2015 when Hizbul Mujahideen’s charismatic commander, Burhan Wani, burst onto the scene.
Audio clips of Wani’s speeches and videos of his activities inspired Kashmiri youths, some of whom took up arms against the Indian state. The subsequent 2014-2019 period, which is often described as the “Burhan Wani era,” was a phase of social media-driven militancy. Militants flaunted their faces and activities on social media, which won them adulation from the masses (Terrorism Monitor, April 15, 2016). However, the exposure of their identities enabled counter-insurgency forces to easily track them down and dozens them were swiftly eliminated (Scroll, February 8, 2017).
The elimination of militants dealt a severe blow to the Kashmiri militancy of the 2014-2019 period. However, anti-India sentiment in the Kashmir Valley surged after the Indian government revoked article 370 of the constitution in August 2019, which guaranteed J&K autonomy, and Article 35A, which granted J&K residents special rights, including a few related to property. To quell mass protests against its unilateral moves, the Indian government arrested hundreds of political leaders and activists while implementing internet shutdowns and other restrictions on freedom of speech and movement, but this all failed to curb the militancy (Observer Research Foundation, August 22, 2020). Instead, it served to fuel a new wave of anti-India belligerency in Kashmir, which has been far less easy to track than the publicized violence of the “Burhan Wani era.”
Kashmiri Hybrid Militancy
A key feature of the current anti-India militancy in J&K is its “hybrid” nature because of the dual life of the militants. Security officials have observed that many militants operating in Kashmir since 2020 lead mostly “regular” lives, including being engaged in activities like studying or working for the most of the day, until they slip out to carry out an assigned attack and then return to their normal routine. Unlike militants in the past who were full-time combatants trained in Kashmir’s forests or in camps in Pakistan, hybrid militants have been radicalized online and receive an easy-to-use weapon, such as a pistol or grenade, after which they are assigned to kill a specific individual. Importantly, most hybrid militants do not have a track record of engaging in anti-state activity and therefore they are often not found in police records. Unlike militants of the Burhan Wani era, their identities are not known to authorities (Deccan Herald, August 16 and Scroll, August 16).
In the past, security forces were the main targets. Now, however, civilians, Hindus, and unarmed policemen are bearing the brunt of Kashmiri militant attacks. More than 70% of the 55 targeted killings since 2021 by “hybrid militants,” according to J&K police, have been civilians (Article 14, October 6). Since August 2019, militants have not carried out major attacks on “hard targets,” except for the December 2021 attack on a bus carrying police personnel at Zewan in the outskirts of Srinagar, which left three policemen dead. Other than that, there haven’t been any major assaults on army or police establishments in recent years (NDTV, December 14, 2021).
Thus, while the number of total militant attacks has dropped, unarmed civilians are bearing the brunt of the militant attacks. From August 2019 to July 2022, 118 civilians, including 21 Hindus and five Kashmiri Pandits, have been killed in J&K, according to the Indian government (The Tribune, July 21). The government’s scrapping of article 35A, which would change the demographic composition of Muslim-dominated Kashmir as well as its distinct culture and identity, appears to be the main trigger for the attack on local Pandits and non-Kashmiri migrants. The goal of the attacks, in essence, is to drive out those who are not Kashmiri Muslims. Several Pandit families and migrants have consequently begun leaving the Valley (The Hindu, October 26).
Although J&K has not witnessed major terrorist attacks on security establishments or convoys over the last few years, there have been several targeted killings of civilians, including religious minorities and of unarmed policemen. Most of these attacks have been carried out by “hybrid militants.” While it is evident that these militants do not have the capacity or training to carry out attacks on well-guarded security establishments or armed personnel, they are a source of concern because they are able to kill civilians easily. Such killings have the potential to trigger an exodus of religious minorities from predominantly Muslim Kashmir.
Additionally, hybrid militants maintain a low profile and are not found on police records. Unlike the militants of the Burhani Wani era, little is known about them, which makes it hard for security agencies to track them down and eliminate them. It also makes the current phase of the militancy a new, dangerous, and especially challenging one for India.