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Violence in Kashmir: Why a spike in killings signals an ominous new trend

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Militants in Indian-administered Kashmir have increased the targeted killing of Hindus, who are a small minority in the region, spreading panic among them. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Praveen Donthi draws upon interviews with residents to explore the implications of this violence.

What is happening, and why is it important?

A new, worrying pattern is emerging in Indian-administered Kashmir, where militants are targeting members of the small Hindu community for the first time in decades. Plagued by turmoil since separatists took up arms against the Indian state in 1989, Jammu and Kashmir is India’s only Muslim-majority region. Indigenous minorities include Hindu brahmins, widely referred to as Kashmiri Pandits, as well as other Hindu communities, Sikhs and Buddhists. While most Pandits fled Kashmir when the conflict was at its peak in the 1990s, a few remained and some have returned. Now this small community is at the receiving end of a spate of violence, while other lesser-known Hindu communities have also come under attack.

Over just the past three months, militants from various outfits have killed at least six Hindus. They first shot and grievously wounded a Hindu pharmacist outside his home on 4 April in southern Kashmir’s Shopian district, before killing a Kashmiri Hindu truck driver in his house in another southern district, Kulgam, on 13 April and a Kashmiri Pandit inside his office in the government revenue department in the central Budgam district on 12 May. On 2 June, a masked gunman walked into a bank in Kulgam district and shot a Hindu employee who had migrated from Rajasthan state. Three more Hindus, including a woman schoolteacher and a migrant labourer, were killed by militants that same week. Another migrant labourer was seriously injured.

Targeted killings are not uncommon in Kashmir, and the range of victims is wide. Since the year began, militants have carried out at least nineteen such attacks on government employees, police officers, teachers, migrant labourers, local government representatives and a woman famous for her Instagram videos. But the number of slayings motivated by the religious identity of the victims, especially Kashmiri Pandits, has been steadily growing over the last couple of years, and has accelerated in the past few months. These attacks first came into the spotlight when militants successively targeted a Hindu jeweller, on 31 December 2020, and then the son of a Hindu man who runs a famous eatery on 17 February 2021 – both in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir’s capital city. Since then, ten or more Hindus have been killed in the region.

This series of killings has brought back memories of the Kashmiri Pandits’ ordeal after fighting first broke out in Kashmir in 1989. The insurgents’ attacks and threats against non-Muslims, especially Kashmiri Pandits, triggered an exodus in the early 1990s, with thousands of Pandit families leaving everything behind as they fled fearing for their lives. According to government data, 40,000 Pandit families settled in other parts of the country during this period, with only some 800 families staying behind.

At least two of the Pandits killed recently were among those who had opted to stay in Kashmir, while others had come back as part of government-sponsored programs to resettle Pandit families in their region of origin. In 2008, the Indian government built camps for some 3,000 returnees and announced it would make available government jobs to facilitate their return. A year after coming to power in 2014, the current government, run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), announced the creation of another 3,000 jobs, and a plan to build new townships for Pandits. The plan met with widespread criticism from Muslim Kashmiris, who often compare it to Israel’s settlement project in Palestine.

With the government posting guards at their temporary accommodations, the Pandit returnees were largely safe as long as militants focused their attention on government and military targets. But the spate of murders that began in April has spread panic among the community, prompting several hundred to leave the region again, and triggering protests by those who had returned under the resettlement plans. The government, however, has rejected Pandit demands to be relocated from the Kashmir valley to Hindu-dominated Jammu until the security situation improves, instead moving them to more secure locations inside Kashmir. A Kashmiri Pandit organisation accused security forces of barricading relocation camps to stop those trying to leave the region as part of the government’s effort to downplay the level of violence and project normalcy. Frustrated and angry, many Pandits have refused to resume work despite government pressure.

The recent attacks come amid controversy over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies, both in Kashmir and nationally. The BJP’s ascent to power in 2014, and the Modi government’s re-election in 2019, has led to a sharp rise in communalism and hyper-nationalism in India. In line with its manifesto, the ruling party scrapped Jammu and Kashmir state’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019, and the Modi government has since passed a flurry of legislation removing constitutional safeguards that reserve land and jobs for locals. The new laws have created fear and uncertainty among many Kashmiri Muslims about outsiders coming in and dominating them, giving fresh impetus to militancy. Some Kashmiri Muslims and militants seem to assume that New Delhi is appointing Pandits in the regional administration departments that are crucial for enforcing the new laws, increasingly perceiving them as agents of the Hindu nationalist state.

With the BJP government fanning the flames of religious tension across India for political purposes, including by using its hardline Kashmir policy to win elections, the attacks on Hindus in Kashmir could easily lead to retaliation against Kashmiri Muslims living elsewhere in the country. Mobs have attacked Kashmiri university students in reaction to events in Jammu and Kashmir in the past – most recently in January. In the face of anti-Hindu violence, the Modi government could well double down on its security-centric and punitive approach to dealing with the Kashmir insurgency, which risks further alienating Kashmiri youth, pushing more of them to turn to militancy. With India accusing Pakistan of supporting the insurgency, and Islamabad countering that New Delhi oppresses Kashmiri Muslims, such a scenario could increase friction between the two nuclear-armed neighbours who as of late have been enjoying relatively smooth relations.

What triggered this latest wave of targeted attacks? Why now?

The recent attacks on Hindus, and outsiders, almost certainly reflect a backlash against the Modi government’s repressive actions in Jammu and Kashmir, and its broader pro-Hindu nationalist policies, which have intensified since its re-election to a second term in May 2019. Prior to the 2019 polls, New Delhi had already (in November 2018) done away with the state’s regional assembly. Then, less than three months after the elections, it scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s partial autonomy, and downgraded its administrative status by splitting the state into two union territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – placing them both directly under central rule. New Delhi has since made a series of unilateral administrative changes that have sown significant resentment among Kashmiri Muslims. It has also turned a blind eye to right-wing Hindu group attacks on Muslims across the country, leading many in Kashmir to believe that the BJP government is trying to transform India into a Hindu nation, in line with the Hindu nationalist movement’s long-time goal. The last three years have also seen a brutal crackdown on the media and all forms of dissent in Kashmir, leading to the detention of rights activists and dozens of prominent politicians (most of whom have since been released). Against this backdrop, local militants have gained wide sympathy among the Muslim population.

New Delhi’s decision to allow Indians from outside Jammu and Kashmir to purchase land and acquire residency in the territory has sharpened local Muslims’ fears that the BJP government is working to achieve demographic change by altering the socio-religious character of the Muslim-majority region. Other reforms and innovations have reinforced this sense among Kashmiri Muslims.

A related source of resentment is that returning Kashmiri Pandits have reclaimed homes that they fled decades ago, which were then occupied by squatters or sold to a new generation of tenants. In some cases, the current occupants are being forced suddenly to vacate the premises. A new online portal that the government has created to allow Kashmiri Pandits to register claims (some of which are alleged not to be genuine) with respect to previously abandoned properties has spread fears of dispossession among the Muslim community.

The BJP government downplays any link between the foregoing action and attacks on minorities, but in at least some cases, the causal connection seems clear. One of the first Hindus to be shot, in Srinagar on 31 December 2020, was from another part of India and had obtained his domicile certificate under the new legislation just weeks before he was killed. The Resistance Front, a new outfit that came into existence after Kashmir’s 2019 change in status, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group alleged that the victim was an agent of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent organisation, “who was posing as a businessman” and “was an active participant in the demographic change and settler colony project run by Hindutva fascists to alter the demography of Kashmir”. Another militant group alleged that the latest victim – the Rajasthani banker killed on 2 June in Kulgam – had also just got his residency certificate, though other reports contradict this claim.

Militants have resorted to targeted killings of civilians and minorities in part because they are short on weapons. Unequipped to engage the security forces in gunfights as they used to, they are going after soft targets, whether off-duty policemen or unarmed members of minorities. The targeted attacks, which immediately make headlines across the country, also provide an opportunity to highlight that, contrary to the BJP government’s assertions, Kashmir is still in a state of conflict. The only outsiders who have not been attacked so far are tourists, whose growing numbers recently reached a ten-year high, and who could well become targets, particularly if the government continues to insist that robust tourism is a sign of normalcy.

The hubbub over an incendiary film released in March has crystallised resentment among some Kashmiri Muslims of both Kashmiri Pandits and the central government. The film, The Kashmir Files, offers a crudely rendered, imbalanced and sometimes brutally graphic documentary treatment of the 1990s Pandit exodus. It won praise from Prime Minister Modi himself, as well as several of his ministers, and BJP-ruled state governments across the country have promoted it by waiving entertainment taxes on its distribution and, in some cases, giving government employees a holiday to go watch it. The film’s supporters argue that it simply brings to light the Kashmiri Pandits’ tragic story, which is often neglected in narratives of the conflict, but critics call it Islamophobic propaganda and argue that it seeks to inflame hatred of Muslims, liberal intellectuals, activists and all critics of the ruling dispensation. In any case, the BJP’s promotion of the film has helped make Kashmiri Pandits living in Kashmir yet more vulnerable by stirring up intercommunal tensions and putting them in the spotlight.

Who are the militants responsible for these targeted killings?

Several new militant groups have emerged in Jammu and Kashmir over the last three years, fuelled by public fear and anger over the central government’s post-2019 attempts at demographic change. Older groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Pakistani proxy jihadist outfits, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, are still active, but new groups with non-religious names such as The Resistance Front, Kashmir Tigers, People’s Anti-Fascist Front or United Liberation Front of Kashmir are now at the forefront of militant activity, and several have claimed responsibility for attacks on Hindus and other minorities.

Indian security forces allege that the new outfits are actually splinter groups of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, which they claim Pakistan has created to avoid scrutiny by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The FATF had until recently placed Islamabad on its grey list for failing to curb money laundering and counter terror financing to outfits such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. But while Pakistan likely does still support at least some Kashmiri militants, the extent of its assistance is very difficult to confirm, and as discussed below there is reason to believe that the new militant groups lack robust outside backing.

Moreover, it is clear that these new groups represent something more than a simple rebranding or reconfiguration of older outfits. For one thing, the new groups have somewhat different goals than their predecessors, with their stated objectives focused less on the old insurgency’s aim of overthrowing Indian rule in Kashmir, and more on countering the government’s push to recast the region’s socio-religious composition. For another thing, the new groups operate differently. With counter-insurgency operations having intensified since 2019, Kashmir militants have gone deep underground, and their traditional above-ground networks are much less active, or at least less visible. According to Indian security forces, civilians with no prior record or known links to militant outfits seem to be carrying out many of the current wave of attacks – forming a new category of actors the police refer to as “hybrid militants”.

Thirdly, the new groups are using new tactics in their attacks. In the past, militants directed most of their fire at security forces. They did not own up to killing civilians – usually political party workers or suspected informers – as Kashmiri society did not approve of such actions. That has now changed: hatred of the government’s policies means that the stigma attached to killing civilians has vanished, even if residents have offered some token condemnation and joined in sometimes staged symbolic protests. Militants thus claim the killings openly, if not proudly. They have highly specific intelligence about the identity and location of the targets. Every Indian who migrates to the region – even a labourer who has travelled to Kashmir for temporary work and is not seeking residency – is now a legitimate target in the militants’ eyes. At least nine migrant labourers have been killed or injured in 2022 so far.

What is Pakistan’s role, and how is it affecting bilateral relations?

New Delhi and Islamabad are going through a rare phase of cordiality — most likely because India is facing a border crisis with China and Pakistan is under immense international pressure from the FATF to curb support to militant outfits. Moreover, in early 2021, the two countries renewed their 2003 ceasefire agreement over the Line of Control – the de facto border between the Indian and Pakistani parts of Jammu and Kashmir. Still, disagreements over Kashmir continue. Given Pakistan’s history of supporting militancy in Indian-administered Kashmir since the 1990s, New Delhi continues to blame Islamabad for enabling the ongoing militant attacks.

Kashmiris object to New Delhi’s rhetoric with respect to Pakistan’s role. They point out the contradiction between its accusations and its claims that militants no longer infiltrate the region from Pakistan due to the ceasefire. More fundamentally, they also say the government blames Pakistan for current Kashmiri militancy and focuses on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits in order to deny the agency of local militants and paint them as mere religious fanatics, thus obscuring the struggle’s political dimension. They point out that militants have killed more Kashmiri Muslims – focusing on those who supported India in various ways – than anyone else since the conflict began.

As for whether Islamabad actually does continue to support Kashmiri militancy, it seems likely as noted above, though in what way and to what extent is unclear. The vast majority of militants killed or arrested in the last few years have been locals, while the modest weapons and apparent lack of training militants now demonstrate in battle seem to indicate that outside backing has drastically reduced. According to official data, Indian security forces killed 118 militants from January to May – twice the number in the same period of 2021. Most were killed in gunfights with security forces soon after joining, sometimes within just a few days. But while the government presents the higher death toll as a sign of success, security agencies also estimate that the number of militants has remained stable – between 100 and 200 – over the last few years, indicating that youths are joining the militants’ ranks at least as fast as fighters are falling.

What is the Indian government doing to address the spike in violence?

The Indian government’s answer to the recent uptick in violence, and the panic it has triggered among the Hindu community, has been to ramp up security measures and counter-insurgency operations – heavy-handed tactics that are likely to make the political crisis worse. In 2019, the Modi government claimed that the radical administrative changes it was introducing in Jammu and Kashmir, such as scrapping its partial autonomy and special status and protections, would pave the way to peace and development. It continues to make this assertion today, despite evidence to the contrary. The BJP government looks at the Kashmir crisis primarily through a security lens and – wearing the blinkers of its Hindu nationalist ideology – ignores the situation’s political and humanitarian aspects. Essentially, for the government, it is a national security challenge posed by pro-Pakistan Islamist elements who are to be crushed. Consistent with this approach, the government deployed more troops across the region in response to the slayings, and soon claimed that the militants involved had been eliminated.

The spike in violence does not, however, seem to be prompting a rethink of the government’s Kashmir policy, including the resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits. Indeed, New Delhi rejected the demand of Pandit government employees to be transferred out of Kashmir, as that would have gone against its narrative of having brought normalcy back to the restive region. Instead, it posted them closer to district headquarters, where garrisons are larger, and increased security measures around their residential quarters. None of these steps gives Kashmiri Pandits any greater sense of security as they remain vulnerable to attack as soon as they step out of their houses and offices. Almost a month after the latest murder, some are protesting and many still refuse to go to work.

What more can be done?

Close to three years after New Delhi changed Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional and administrative status, it is clear that the BJP government’s iron-fist approach is not working. While New Delhi shows little inclination to deviate from its current path, the government would have a lot to gain by acknowledging the political roots of the Kashmir crisis and approaching it as a multidimensional problem, rather than framing it as a security crisis fuelled by Pakistan to be solved with greater and greater applications of force. Though highly aspirational, the elements of such an approach might include the following.

The government should attend to Kashmiris’ concerns that it seeks to alter the region’s demographics. It might address them through a series of public consultations, although the credibility of such a process would require it to be coupled with rollback of at least some of the post-2019 changes. As it stands, the government’s silence on this issue only fuels resentment of the Indian state, motivating even more youth to join the militants’ ranks.

As for the government’s efforts to facilitate the return of Kashmiri Pandits, New Delhi should prepare the ground so that returns do not proceed in an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility. Ideally, a truth and reconciliation process that involves both local Hindu and Muslim communities could help both sides to address the history of acrimony between them. Pushing for returns unilaterally, without any local consultation, exposes returnees to the risk of bodily harm – all the more so when the BJP government is seen to be playing up the Pandit community’s plight to serve its political agenda.

More broadly, the government will continue to court regional instability until it ends its crackdown on political activity, free expression and peaceful dissent in Jammu and Kashmir. Although it eventually released Kashmiri politicians it had kept in detention for months after August 2019, the BJP government still refuses to engage with any of them, including those who have historically participated in the Indian electoral process and served as go-betweens with the population. New Delhi thus has no credible political allies in Kashmir, which is self-defeating. Youngsters who now see militancy as the only solution in response to the BJP’s government’s hawkish approach would likely feel less alienated if they felt there were a chance of being heard in New Delhi through political channels.

Security forces should also avoid offending Kashmiris’ religious sensibilities. Human rights activists point out that, unlike in many other conflict zones, the authorities do not return the bodies of slain militants to their families in Kashmir, denying them funerals. It also stokes popular anger and likely prompts more youth to join the fight. Handing over the bodies of slain militants, even with reasonable restrictions (such as requiring that there not be a public funeral or procession) would allow the families to fulfil their religious obligations, while helping defuse the popular anger at New Delhi.

Finally, India’s international partners also have a role to play in addressing the crisis. The United States and European Union, in particular, should more persistently press the Indian government to re-engage with Kashmir’s political leaders, and highlight that its relentless crackdown on Kashmiri civil society is only fuelling resentment and heightening the risk of militancy. They should make clear that progress on discrete issues, such as the return of dead fighters’ bodies to their families, can bolster India’s international image and help quell public discontent. They should also systematically raise the issue of harassment and abuse of journalists and human rights activists in bilateral interactions. Major breakthroughs are unlikely in the near term, but consistent pressure can have some effect, and it is important for Washington and Brussels to expend greater effort in trying.