No new resistance in Kashmir, Pak eyes Jaish

Amid views of the The Resistance Front’s potential ability to script a turnaround in militancy, intelligence and security personnel believe that actors from across the border are arming and pushing battle-hardened Jaish-e-Mohammad cadre into the Valley.

Published : Jul 08, 2020 07:00 IST

Border Security Force  personnel with a Pakistani drone, loaded with a sophisticated rifle and some grenades, which they shot down along the border in Kathua on June 20.

Border Security Force personnel with a Pakistani drone, loaded with a sophisticated rifle and some grenades, which they shot down along the border in Kathua on June 20.

IN Kashmir’s scarred landscape, as hardened militant commanders and their newly inducted recruits perish in relentless encounters, at times more swiftly than they emerge, it has become tempting for security analysts to predict the fate of Kashmir’s three-decade-long armed insurgency. The conversation quickly gravitates towards The Resistance Front (TRF), hitherto unheard of but now increasingly viewed in Srinagar’s press circles as the “new, formidable player” in militancy.

The TRF has made a string of claims on social media, owning responsibility for headliner militant activities such as the Handwara gunfight on May 2 in which a commanding officer, Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, was killed. Even as opinion is divided on home-grown militants’ capacity to rattle the security apparatus, given the massive and persistent damage inflicted on Hizbul Mujahideen’s rank and file, and a sense of fatigue in South Kashmir’s local people on the question of supporting armed combatants, some view the TRF as a potential force that could script a phenomenal turnaround in militancy.

This assessment is based on unflagging optimism. As Narendra Modi’s regime appears determined to swamp Kashmir’s culture and demographics by an influx of outside settlers and simultaneously spurns civilians who want to chart out a democratic campaign to offer resistance, the indispensability of armed insurgents as a countering force is acknowledged in private conversations. People’s despair and their helplessness in meeting the challenges posed by New Delhi’s militaristic handling of Kashmir is driving them to buy unrealistic assertions about the TRF. The questions being asked are: Will the TRF find support from local Kashmiri people or will it rely on combatants infiltrating from across the border? Can Hizbul Mujahideen survive the unusually aggressive anti-militancy operations? What is Pakistan’s game plan at the moment?

TRF not on ground

Frontline ’s investigation, based on interviews and interactions with multiple sources from diverse backgrounds, found that the TRF may not be anything more than a bogey raised by elements within the home-grown militants, either aimed at providing cover to outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or give a psychological boost to their cadre, at a time when the government forces appear definitive in their proclamations of victory. Frontline ’s investigations, however, also suggest that militancy in Kashmir is not petering out, as actors from across the border are likely focussing on stockpiling and weaponisng battle-hardened Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) cadre in the Valley.

As per sources in Jammu and Kashmir’s security apparatus, who shared insight on recent militant activities to this reporter, there is “no specific input that the TRF exists on the ground”. “We do not consider the TRF as an independent, distinct terror outfit. We do not maintain any separate column for the TRF, to mark terror modules or OGWs [over-ground workers] under it,” a source said. According to this source, the Handwara gunfight involved LeT militants, although the TRF claimed responsibility for it.

On May 2, the Army and the Jammu and Kashmir Police launched a joint operation at Changimulla in Handwara town where militants had held some civilians hostage. Five personnel were killed in an eight-hour long exchange of fire. One of the two militants killed was identified as LeT chief Haider, who hailed from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. However, the source quoted above told this reporter that “both militants could be local”. If this is true, then the official version comes under the scanner. Vijay Kumar, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, while referring to the Handwara encounter during a press meet in Srinagar on May 7, claimed that “the killing of Laskhar commander Haider in the encounter is a big jolt to the group”.

Some observers view that the LeT may have floated the TRF to project it as a home-grown outfit and tasked it with giving a Kashmiri signature to terror strikes launched from Pakistan’s soil. Pakistan is said to be under increasing pressure from the Financial Action Task Force to contain terrorist modules operating from inside its territory. The sources in the security and intelligence wings in Kashmir find this theory plausible, but in off-the-record conversations they admit that there are little inputs available to make any verifiable claim.

“Most militant activities in the Kashmir Valley are being perpetrated by local recruits in the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Islamic State, and the LeT, besides the Hizbul. It is unusual that the TRF is trying to appropriate claim,” said a source in Jammu and Kashmir’s security apparatus. Vijay Kumar had earlier told the media that the TRF drew its cadres from the LeT and the Hizbul Mujahideen. “The TRF is not a new thing. Due to international pressure after the August 5 abrogation of Article 370, Pakistan made a conspiracy, changed the name and floated the TRF to give a local face to militancy and indicate that it has no hand in it,” he claimed.

Over the past one year, Pakistan has consistently attempted to frame the Kashmiri resistance as entirely an indigenous one. This is essentially triggered by the current Pakistani regime’s realisation that global perception management vis-a-vis its role in Kashmir is a critical component of its warfare against India. “The Indigenous Kashmiri resistance against Indian Occupation is a direct consequence of India’s oppression & brutalisation of Kashmiris,” tweeted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in May.

The early signs of the TRF emerged when the Jammu and Kashmir Police busted an over-ground workers’ hideout in Sopore on March 22 and recovered a cache of arms and ammunition that militants had dumped near the Line of Control in Keran. The arrested OGWs said they belonged to the TRF. The TRF also claimed responsibility for the April 5 hand-to-hand combat in Keran which left five infiltrators and as many commandos of the Army’s Special Forces dead.

A Hindustan Times report recently stated: “TRF is being controlled from Pakistan by top three Lashkar handlers: Sajad Jatt for South Kashmir, Khalid for Central Kashmir and Hanzala Adnan for North Kashmir.” On June 1, the TRF, in a statement posted online, broadened its message to encompass a warning against influx of “Indian settlers”. “Any Indian who comes with the intention to settle in Kashmir will be treated as an agent of RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and not as a civilian and will be dealt with appropriately,” it said. The warning was sounded after the Jammu and Kashmir administration relaxed the criteria to qualify as a domicile.

Insiders in the security establishment, however, attribute both the Sopore and Keran incidents to “possibly the LeT”. Kashmir’s militancy had had similar experiences in the past when amorphous outfits spawned out of nowhere and deployed a stern language of resistance to capture prominence. The Allah Tigers is a case in point. In August 1989, as Kashmir stared at an imminent armed struggle, Allah Tigers’ chief, one Air Marshall Noor Khan, announced a ban of cinemas. However, as Yasin Malik’s Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, and later the Hizbul Mujahideen, dominated the fractious theatre of militancy, the euphoria surrounding the Allah Tigers waned, and so did the outfit.

A conversation with senior officials monitoring intelligence in Jammu and Kashmir underscored the point that the LeT had definite presence in the Valley, but its cadre might be operating on its own. “There are not many Pakistani elements in the LeT cadre in Kashmir. My understanding is that the LeT may not be receiving institutional support or directions from handlers across the border. These are mostly groups of local boys who carry out small-scale attacks and disappear because the organisational pattern and allegiance to their parent body based in Pakistan are rapidly getting diluted,” an official told Frontline .

There could be several explanations for this reported fluctuation in Pakistan’s interest in the LeT, though one cannot be categorical about it. One view is that the LeT is more or less independent of the Pakistani establishment and possibly it has “gone out of control” or its “utility is finished for the time being”. Others contend that the Pakistan Army and its intelligence agencies are alarmed by the wide outreach of Falah-e-Insaniyat, a charitable organisation run by the LeT, and are unwilling to accord primacy to the LeT, although its “Pakistan-based functionaries continue to drive money from the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence]”.

Hizb on the wane

A group of seasoned observers believes that Pakistan is loath to facilitate the Hizbul Mujahideen either. “The Hizbul Mujahideen is definitely on the wane... they are being killed like chicken. This is not just because the Hizb boys are new recruits, inadequately armed and rudimentarily trained, but also because their interface with Pakistan is at an all-time low. They are on their own,” a senior Kashmiri scribe writing for international media told this reporter. People within the security establishment mirrored this view.

“Right now, almost all of the Hizb’s cadre is locally recruited,” said a source in Jammu and Kashmir’s security grid.

After the killing of Riyaz Naikoo on May 6 at Beighpora in an encounter, the Hizbul Mujahideen is facing a leadership crisis. Though Saifullah Mir, a trained pharmacologist, succeeded Naikoo, security analysts aver it would be unrealistic to think the outfit can regroup any time soon. In November, Dilbagh Singh, Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, stated that “terrorism is on its last legs”. The numbers do not rebut that claim. While in 2018 as many as 219 local militants were recruited, in 2019, it was down to 119. Compared with 318 terror incidents in 2018, the number was 173 in 2019.

The crackdown on militants continued in 2020, with at least 115 of them eliminated in various encounters since January. In exclusive information available to Frontline , the number of local militants active in the Valley is currently around 120. The different wings of the security apparatus diverge on the number of foreign militants in Kashmir, but a rough estimate pegs the number between 50 and 100.

The dwindling numbers are hardly an indicator that battle lines have been redrawn in India’s favour. The assessment of the security grid in Jammu and Kashmir is that Pakistan, which imposed restraints on the Jaish-e-Mohammad in April 2019 buckling under international pressure following the Pulwama terror strike in February 2019, drastically reduced them after August 5 as friction over New Delhi’s “unilateral action” in Kashmir deviated focus from Islamabad.

The JeM, in the weeks following the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, iterated its commitment to violent reprisal against India. “There are people who are silent, but doing a great deal,” it said in a social media message, attributing the statement to its chief Masood Azhar Alvi.

The rhetoric could not be empty, warn officials in Jammu and Kashmir’s intelligence and security grid. “JeM is sufficiently under the Pakistan Army’s control. In the past three years whatever infiltrations were attempted were done mostly by the JeM. It is sending cadre that is well-trained and very close to its leadership,” an official pointed out. The JeM cadre, unlike the Hizb militants, possess sophisticated weapons such as M4 sniper rifles and are known to execute high-end, coordinated terror strikes. Despite an apparent fatigue with militancy, as is admitted by Srinagar’s intellectual and media elites privately, renewed local support to insurgents is not ruled out in a place where political and economic grievances fester. Jaish’s hand was suspected in the foiled attempt of a vehicle-borne IED (improvised explosive device) blast in Rajpora, Pulwama, on May 28. The security grid believes that the May 4 gunfight at Wanigam village in Handwara, in which three personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force died, carried the JeM imprint, though the TRF claimed responsibility for it.

At present, the JeM is reportedly the only outfit in Kashmir that has foreign militants in its ranks. Despite a generally downward curve in cross-border infiltration, the JeM is believed to be steadily pouring into India. In 2019, India estimated that 202 insurgents had crossed the Line of Control. It was a steep decline from 323 in 2018, and 406 in 2017.

A view prevails that there is a qualitative shift in the nature of infiltration. A senior defence expert told Frontline that “Pakistan may be focussing on stockpiling and infiltrating higher capacity combatants, as it recalibrates its approach from ‘counter-infiltration’ to ‘defensive territory infiltration’, which is to say, in the event of a conflict with India, its assets would be ready to act on its behest.”

Attempts to arm JeM foot soldiers in Kashmir are on. As recently as on June 20, in Hirangar sector of Kathua district, the Border Security Force shot down an eight-foot-wide Pakistani drone, which was on a mission to smuggle weapons inside Kashmir Valley.

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