India Killed Kashmir’s Top Militant Commander. What Now?

The anti-India militancy in Kashmir suffered a serious setback on Wednesday morning when Indian security forces killed Riyaz Naikoo in an encounter at Pulwama in south Kashmir. Naikoo, who had been the Hizbul Mujahideen’s operational commander in the Valley since 2017, was India’s most-wanted terrorist in Kashmir.

Naikoo is credited with having saved the HM from collapse in 2017, when another HM commander, Zakir Musa, left the group to set up the Ansar-ul-Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), al-Qaeda’s Kashmir affiliate. Naikoo is said to have prevented an exodus of fighters from the HM to the newly formed AGH. Not only was he successful in holding the HM together, but he is also said to have played an important role in preventing inter-group fighting in the Valley,

Naikoo’s elimination is a major victory for India’s counterinsurgency forces. It has come at a critical time; over the past month, security forces have suffered a string of reverses in encounters with militants in the Kashmir Valley.

On April 5, for instance, Indian security forces intercepted five militants of The Resistance Front (TRF) at Keran near the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border between Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. A deadly face-off ensued, which culminated in the death of all five militants. However, the security forces also lost five paratroopers.

The Keran encounter has triggered concern in India’s security establishment. The new phase of Kashmir militancy, which began in 2015-16, seems to be entering “another escalatory phase,” a senior official of the Indian Army’s Northern Command told The Diplomat.

In 2015, Burhan Wani, an HM commander from south Kashmir, captured the imagination of Kashmiri youth. His charisma and in-your-face defiance of the Indian state as well as his skillful use of social media to communicate with Kashmiris inspired scores of local youth to join the militancy. His death in July 2016 provided another boost to the militancy, as boys joined the HM in droves.

The post-2015 generation of HM militants was locally trained. After a few weeks of training in the basics, these militants were thrown into combat. Inexperienced and poorly trained, most survived just a few months in the battlefield (Naikoo was an exception in this regard, having survived counterinsurgency operations for several years).

Not surprisingly, the militancy began to wane before long. Indian security forces were able to eliminate not only the HM rank-and-file but also its leaders. With the exception (until Wednesday) of Naikoo, they were successful in killing all the militants in Wani’s inner circle.

Indeed, even a few months ago, security officials were claiming that militancy in Kashmir was declining. This was attributed to the intensification of counterinsurgency operations in recent years and the crippling lockdown that New Delhi imposed on Kashmir in August last year to quell mass unrest and militant activity in the wake of the center’s decision to strip Kashmir of its autonomy. According to official figures, Kashmir witnessed 88 militancy-related incidents between August 5 (when the lockdown was imposed) and November 27, compared to 106 such incidents in the preceding 115 days. Thus there was a 17 percent fall in the number of militancy-related violent incidents in the Valley late last year.

However, over the past month, militancy seems to be on the upswing again. Militants have carried out several audacious attacks in recent weeks. Encounters between security forces and militants have also increased.

TRF, which emerged in October last year and was active only on social media until recently, has claimed responsibility for some of these attacks, including one on a convoy at Sopore in Baramulla district on April 18 that left three paramilitary personnel dead.

Indian officials are of the view that TRF is a front of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terror group that enjoys patronage from Islamabad. It is a “Pakistani creation,” the Home Ministry official said. Under pressure from the Financial Action Task Force, Pakistan has simply slapped a “new name on the many terror groups that it uses against India.”

Analysts say that TRF is an amalgam of several militant groups operating in Kashmir. Its formation will enable a pooling of militant manpower and resources. A unified anti-India militant front would prove more challenging to Indian forces. Additionally, TRF provides the militant movement with an image makeover. Hitherto, militant groups in Kashmir have had names that lay bare their links to Islam. This did not endear them to Western societies. This could change with words like “resistance” figuring in TRF’s name.

Moreover, recent incidents and encounters reveal that local Kashmiri youth are going to Pakistan for weapons training again, as they did in the 1990s. Of the five TRF militants who participated in the Keran encounter, three were local Kashmiris, who had gone to Pakistan for training in 2018. After their training, they were infiltrated into India, which was when Indian security forces intercepted and eliminated them.

Unlike the locally trained militants, the Pakistan-trained ones will prove more challenging to Indian forces. The militants in the Keran encounter, for instance, were clearly well-trained. They stood up to India’s elite Special Forces for several days and managed to kill five highly experienced paracommandos. The gunbattle at Handwara on August 2-3 lasted for 18 hours and the militants were able to kill five army personnel, including two officers.

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Most of these attacks and encounters have happened in the north Kashmir districts of Kupwara, Baramulla, and Bandipora. These are districts that border Pakistan-administered Kashmir and where the most popular infiltration routes lie.

With ice melting in the Himalayan passes, militant routes into India have become more traversable over the past month. An increasing number of Pakistan-trained militants are returning to the Valley now and they are being intercepted by the Indian security forces; hence, the surge in encounters in the border districts.

Interestingly, Pakistan’s ceasefire violations have also increased in recent months. Up to April this year, Pakistan violated the ceasefire 1,197 times, with March alone seeing 411 violations, according to Indian officials. In comparison, there were only 267 ceasefire violations by Pakistan in March 2019.

Pakistan has generally stepped up shelling along the LoC when it is infiltrating militants into India. Such shelling is aimed at deflecting the attention of Indian forces monitoring the border and to provide cover to the militants crossing the LoC. The surge in Pakistan ceasefire violations since March indicates that it has stepped up infiltration of militants into India again.

More militant infiltrations, attacks, and encounters can be expected as summer sets in.

Anti-India feelings in Kashmir are running high. India’s brutal suppression of them, its lockdowns and arbitrary detentions of Kashmiri leaders and youth, has enraged the people. Anger and alienation especially in the Valley is at an all-time high.

This presents Pakistan with an opportunity to fish in troubled waters.