Kashmir riots highlight the risk of growing instability

Kashmir riots highlight the risk of growing instability

The death of Hizbul Mujahideen’s leader in a gun battle with government forces in Kashmir sparked days of clashes. The insurgency is likely to continue, exploiting the India-Pakistan stalemate.

On July 8, Burhan Wani, a commander of the Kashmir’s largest insurgent group Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), who was well-known due to his presence on social media, died in a gunfight with the Indian army in the Indian-controlled part of the region. Two other HM members were also killed in the operation.

Thousands attended Wani’s funeral the following day, held in his hometown of Tral, about 40km south of Srinagar. The Indian government said no police or security personnel were present at his funeral, to avoid a confrontation with the angry crowd.

However, after the funeral, police stations and military installations were attacked in numerous areas across the region, fuelling deadly protests and riots across the region, which lasted several days and left 30 dead and nearly 800 injured, including 100 policemen.

Many protesters were killed by gunshot wounds as government forces fired live ammunition and tear gas to try to enforce a curfew imposed across the Kashmir Valley. Twelve Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans were injured when a demonstrator threw a grenade in downtown Srinagar in the evening.

To date, the death toll has reached 42 people dead and over 3,500 wounded. In addition, all 10 districts of the Kashmir Valley are still under curfew with Internet services suspended.

Worst civilian unrest in Kashmir since 2010

The level of separatist insurgency violence has grown in the region and has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, mainly civilians, since 1989. The last significant outbreak of violence in the region took place in the summer of 2010, when more than 100 people died in anti-India protests, which broke out after police shot dead a teenager.

These latest incidents, however, have the potential to become the worst civilian unrest since 2010 due to the high number of people injured and the spreading violence.

Burhan Wani’s funeral was attended by thousands of people, and, despite restrictions, the funeral venue was so crowded that there was no space to conduct funeral prayers. Born in a highly-educated upper-class Kashmiri family, he was driven to insurgency at the age of 15, after his brother was targeted numerous times during police crackdowns.

Unlike HM insurgents in the past, Wani was extremely active on social media. His video messages, which would often go viral in Kashmir, urged young people to fight against Indian rule. In his latest video he had warned local police of the possible consequences if “they would have continued to resist the independent movement”.

Considered as a terrorist by Indian authorities, Wani was seen by many locals as a freedom fighter, representing the spirit and political aspirations of a new Kashmiri generation. Due to Wani’s active role in social media, Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest terror group in Kashmir, was able to recruit numerous young men.

The death of Burhan Wani also triggered repercussions in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Here, the HM terrorist Hafiz Saeed, who has plotted and executed some of India’s deadliest terror attacks, held a rally eulogising Wani and warned publicly that “many more Burhan Wanis” will wage war against India. He shared the stage with another much-wanted man in India, Sayeed Salahuddin, also a leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen.

India-Pakistan stalemate exploited by Kashmiri insurgents

The riots demonstrate that decades-long confrontation between India and Pakistan risks further escalation. Although meetings and talks have taken place for the resolution of the situation, any solution is still far away.

India claims that Pakistan is providing assistance to the insurgents, who cross the Line of Control. Pakistan, meanwhile, claims that India is not respecting the human rights of the Muslim population within the Kashmir region. Pakistan also states that India is doing nothing to stop the escalation of the conflict and violence.

In such a tense context, local insurgent groups like Hizbul Mujahideen take advantage of the stalemate to grow their activities and reinforce their presence and support among the population in the area. Observers have cited various reasons for the radicalization of the Kashmiri population, with some arguing that the absence of any political dialogue between Delhi and Islamabad has fostered deep-rooted resentment.

Alienation has further increased in the absence of any economic opportunities, which also increases the feeling of frustration among the young Kashmiri generation. This surely contributed to fuelling the current insurgency, possibly leading youths to join the ranks of Hizbul Mujahideen.

Additionally, the heavy presence of Indian security forces and the numerous reports of human rights violations contributed to further exacerbation of anti-India sentiments.

Therefore, despite ongoing peace talks between Indian and Pakistani authorities, the region is unlikely to see any resolution of the conflict in the near future and the vast majority of analysts remain sceptical about the resolution of the situation.

Hizbul Mujahideen is likely to have a growing influence in the area, enjoying increasing support from the population due to the growing dissatisfaction towards the Indian government. Massive presence at Burhan Wani’s funeral can be seen as a clear indicator of actual public support to the group.

If talks at the political level show no signs of improvement in the months to come, it is likely that other violent and deadly protests will occur again, fuelling instability in the region and confrontation between India and Pakistan.

About Author

Stefano Sarsale

Stefano is an analyst that holds two master’s degrees in International Relations and Security and Terrorism. Specialized in the MENA and South-east Asia, he previously worked for the Centre for International Studies (Ce.S.I.) in Rome, the University of Kent's Conflict Analysis Research Centre (CARC), the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv and the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre (ESISC) in Brussels. He is also specialized in terrorism and conflict-related issued, on which he published a number of articles for the think tanks where he previously worked and the Analysis blog Europinione which he contributed to creating.