Behind killings in disputed Kashmir, fears of Taliban spillover


When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Kashmir’s limited autonomy in 2019, his government claimed it would lead to greater stability. But in recent weeks Kashmir has seen a surge in targeted killings of Hindus and Sikhs, and clashes between Indian security forces and militants who oppose Indian rule. 

Some experts see in the targeted killings in the Himalayan valley of non-Muslims a spillover effect from Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s victory over U.S.-backed forces has buoyed Islamic militants across the region. India has long accused archrival Pakistan of fomenting unrest in Kashmir. 

A spillover from the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan carries echoes of the unrest of the 1990s in Kashmir. But another salient factor is India’s dismantling of the region’s autonomy.

The revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy made it easier for nonnatives to live and work there, signaling a potential demographic shift that threatened the region’s character. Now the attacks on civilians have stirred unease among Indians who moved there for work. Thousands have begun leaving by bus and train, concerned for their safety. 

A senior police official said that authorities had disrupted the militants’ network and that more arrests would follow. “There are clear directions to stop these attacks at any cost,” the official said. 

Makhan Lal Bindroo had watched as other Hindus left Kashmir, driven out by the threat of militant violence in the early 1990s. He vowed not to leave his birthplace in the disputed Muslim-majority territory. At the time he told his family, “I have no threat.”

On Oct 5, Mr. Bindroo was shot dead by militants inside his prominent pharmacy in Srinagar, the summer capital. Since Oct. 1, a dozen civilians have been killed, seven of whom were from minority communities of Hindus and Sikhs, including laborers who had moved to Kashmir for work.

In total, 39 people have died so far this month, including 13 Indian army personnel and 14 alleged militants, raising fears of an escalating security crisis in a region claimed by both India and its archrival Pakistan. 

A spillover from the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan carries echoes of the unrest of the 1990s in Kashmir. But another salient factor is India’s dismantling of the region’s autonomy.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Kashmir’s limited autonomy in 2019, his government claimed it would lead to greater stability. But now Indian authorities have had to launch a major crackdown in Kashmir, arresting hundreds of suspected militants and engaging in firefights, in a bid to stop the killings. 

Some experts see in the targeted killings in Kashmir of non-Muslims a spillover effect from Afghanistan, where the recent Taliban victory over U.S.-backed forces has buoyed Islamic militants across the region. Politicians in Kashmir have voiced concern: In a statement on Oct. 8, a coalition of parties said the recent killings “have created a climate of fear that has not been seen since the early 1990s,” when an insurgency against India erupted and led to a mass migration of Hindus.

And while that isn’t happening yet, as resident Hindu families are staying on in Kashmir, non-Muslims who had moved to the Himalayan valley for work are going home. Migrant laborers are leaving by train and bus to other parts of India, despite government assurances for their safety. Authorities have stepped up security around commercial and residential properties of non-Muslims, and some minority families have been moved to secure locations.

Police officers carry an activist of the Congress party's youth wing as others try to stop them during a protest against recent killings of civilians in Indian-controlled Kashmir, in New Delhi, Oct.18, 2021. Indian-controlled Kashmir has witnessed a major uptick in violence targeting Indian migrants in the disputed Himalayan region.

By revoking Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019, India ensured that nonnatives had greater rights to live and work there, rights that were previously restricted to locals. Today, anyone who has lived in Kashmir for 15 years can become a permanent resident or apply for jobs. To many in the local Muslim population, this signaled a potential demographic shift that threatened the region’s character. 

A new militant group

Kashmir-based militants, which India says are supported by Pakistan, have seized on the changes to push their agenda.   

In the past two years, a new militant group, The Resistance Front or TRF, has emerged as a challenge to Indian rule. The group fashions itself as operating without Pakistani backing, in contrast to other militant groups, and it has claimed responsibility for most of the recent attacks on civilians, including the killing of Mr. Bindroo. The group accused Mr. Bindroo of collaborating with right-wing groups.  

Police in Kashmir claim TRF is actually an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani militant group that India and the United States say was the perpetrator of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. 

SOURCE: Central Intelligence Agency

After the recent surge in violence, Indian authorities have carried out multiple raids across the valley aimed at TRF, detaining or questioning at least 900 people in recent weeks, according to security officials involved in the operations.

Vijay Kumar, Kashmir’s police chief, said that these killings of civilians, including non-Muslims, are “committed by newly recruited terrorists or those who are about to join terrorists’ rank.”

He accused Pakistan of fomenting the violence. “Terrorists’ handlers across [in Pakistan] have got frustrated and started targeting unarmed policemen, innocent civilians, politicians, and now innocent civilians from minority communities including women.” 

A senior police official said that the arrests have disrupted the militants’ network, halting future attacks. “There are clear directions to stop these attacks at any cost. In coming weeks, more people will be detained or questioned to damage the functioning of the TRF,” the official said.

Taliban’s return in Afghanistan 

Many experts believe that the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has inspired the militants to step up their attacks in Kashmir against Indian rule. 

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., says that the Taliban’s victory has already galvanized militants in Afghanistan and across South Asia. 

“This is a concern for both Pakistan, which will fear stepped-up attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, and India, which will fear new assaults by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed in Kashmir,” he says, referring to Pakistan-backed groups that Delhi accuses of infiltrating Indian-administered Kashmir. 

Both groups have long-standing ties with the Afghan Taliban, which is accused of supplying weapons and training their fighters. In February 2019, Jaish-e-Mohammed carried out a major suicide attack on Indian forces in Kashmir, killing more than 40 personnel. Mr. Kugelman, an expert on Afghanistan, says India fears that the Taliban will increase their support for both groups. 

Lt. Gen. D.P. Pandey, general commanding officer for the Indian army in the region, said those involved in civilian killings want to trigger divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Kashmir. 

In a statement via Telegram, TRF claimed that the targeted civilians in Kashmir were collaborating with India, and their killings should not be seen as a communal attack. 

Still, migrant workers in Kashmir are voting with their feet. On Monday, dozens of nonlocals gathered outside bus stations in different towns in Kashmir with luggage, ready to leave the valley and its troubles behind. 

Pramod Kumar, a laborer from Bihar, says that the situation has turned dangerous in Kashmir. “We are not leaving because of people, but the killings have made it difficult to be here,” he says.