Over the last two years, Kashmir watchers have trained their gaze on four southern districts of the Valley – Pulwama, Anantnag, Shopian, Kulgam. Since 2014, there has been a rise in the number of local youth taking up arms. Encounters between militants and armed forces are frequent and the local population does not shy away from expressing support for the rebels. In the local as well as the national media, a consensus has emerged: a new wave of local militancy is gathering strength in South Kashmir.

It is certainly a visible militancy – the cohort that gathered around Burhan Wani, the 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander killed in an encounter on Friday, was skilled in using social media to mobilise support. But the theory has to be treated with caution. “Calling South Kashmir the new hotbed of militancy is a misnomer,” said an officer in the Criminal Investigation Department, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was created first by us [the police] and then the media. In 2009-2010, the theatre of militancy was in the north, but one did not discuss it then. There were no selfies, no social media.”

A few caveats

To begin with, the phenomenon is not, as yet, a wave. According to the CID, there were 89 local militants active in the Valley this year, 60 from South Kashmir. Compare this to the thousands who joined in the early 1990s, at the height of the militancy. According to government figures, 550 alleged militants were killed in 1990. The casualties kept increasing every year for the next decade. In 2001, when the armed movement was winding down, 2,020 were killed.

Second, it is no longer restricted to the south. “Till December 2015, that might have been true,” said the CID officer, “but now in 2016 it is not.” Militancy is spreading in the northern regions of the Valley as well. However, Central Kashmir, places like Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal, remains a buffer zone between the north and the south, said another senior police officer. Militancy is not picking up in these areas.

Third, local militants are a diminishing majority. According police estimates, there are 70 foreign militants active in the Valley at present – 20 to 25 in South Kashmir, 10 in Baramullah and Sopore, 10 to 15 in Bandipora and the rest in the frontier district of Kupwara, mostly in the jungles. Recent reports spoke of a 65% rise in infiltration this year, and the police claim that Pakistan plans to push 300 militants into the Valley. About 120 have made it so far and 50 have been killed. Even these figures may be a modest estimate. “Foreigners are not in our radar,” said the CID officer. “We don’t know them. We are in a much better position to quantify local militants.

The game changer?

With Wani's death, of course, the picture could change. Over the last few days, the Valley has erupted in protest, vast crowds gathered at his funeral in Tral and at least 21 people have been killed in firing by security forces. As former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah commented recently, "Burhan’s ability to recruit in to militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media." People also recall how the death of Ashfaq Majeed Wani, a militant with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, led to local youth joining militancy in large numbers after 1990.

Moreover, police sources claimed that even foreign militants crossing over in the north tend to head south. “Militants lack the kind of support they have in the south, barring Sopore and Palhallan,” said the senior police officer.

What makes the south fertile ground for militancy? Police and other experts claim there are no specific regional factors. The protests of 2008, 2010, and the crackdown which followed, left an angry Valley in general. Human rights violations by security forces, a major cause of disaffection, were spread across all regions. The rallying cry of “azadi” is heard in all districts. Yet the south is defined by certain historical and political factors that the north is not.

A stronghold of the PDP

“The towns of South Kashmir have always seen a lot of mainstream political mobilisation,” said Gul Wani, who teaches political science at Kashmir University. “In Tral and Pulwama, the People’s Democratic Party, wearing the cap of soft separatism, was able to draw in followers of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Hizbul Mujahideen. It did so in the last state elections as well.”

The region has been a PDP stronghold for close to two decades. Anantnag, in particular, has become something of a family seat for the Mufti family. Most recently, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti won the by-polls for the Anantnag assembly constituency by a large margin. But there is palpable anger over the PDP’s tie up with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has fed into a disillusionment with mainstream politics in general.

“No one thought the PDP would become a supplement to the BJP,” said Gul Wani. “The PDP-BJP alliance is a radicaliser. It is not religious but political radicalisation.” As a section of the youth loses faith in political systems and the hope of finding representation in mainstream politics, Wani felt, they may be tempted to take up the gun.

And of the Jama'at-e-Islami

Another theory, asserted with varying degrees of certainty by security officials, experts and local journalists, is that militancy has grown and thrived in pockets where the religio-political Jama'at-e-Islami organisation is strong.

In South Kashmir, the organisation has traditionally had broad swathes of influence. Tral and Kulgam, in particular, have been Jamaat bastions. The party is said to draw its supporters from the richer, more influential sections of society here. According to the CID officer, a large number of the youth who joined militancy belonged to Jama'ati families.

The Jama'at started life in Lahore in 1941, as “the party that stands for complete Islam”, and the Jammu and Kashmir branch was formally established in 1953. The party website recounts how it faced opposition for “raising the voice of revolutionary change in the social and political set up of the state in accordance with the principles and teachings of Islam”.

In the early decades, the Jama'at established schools and even fought elections to the state assembly, where it brought up the question of self-determination, until it was banned by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. With the rise of militancy in 1989, the Jama'at became prominent again, coming out in open support of the Hizbul Mujahideen. It was banned again in 1990 and, over the next decade, Jama'at leaders were targeted by both security forces and rival factions of the militancy. The organisation was decimated and one faction drew closer to the mainstream, choosing to support the PDP in assembly elections.

But 2008 proved to be a major inflection point, says Ata Hasnain, former general officer commanding of the Srinagar-based XV corps. It marked a transition to street protests, where the Jama'at played a leading role. And the PDP’s alliance with the BJP is also believed to have disappointed many of its Jama'at supporters. “I don’t know if the Jamaat is feeling alienated,” said Hasnain. “It’s time to start engaging with them.” But the onus of engagement fell on the political establishment, he added.

Military focus

In the past, military attention has been unevenly divided between the north and the south. The army’s efforts have primarily been directed at checking infiltration through the Line of Control in the north and securing Srinagar, said Hasnain. “All robust army operations have been in towns like Sopore, Handwara, Bandipore, Pattan,” he said.

The army also conducted operations in the south, “cleaning out” the Lidder valley and adjoining areas, as he put it. But through the 1990s, Hasnain says, the one place they could not touch was the Tral area of Pulwama district, home to Burhan Wani and stronghold of the Jama'at. “Tral was always alienated, always a nerve centre [of militancy],” said Hasnain. "Maybe I should have tried more soft measures with Tral."

Even after the first wave of militancy was wiped out by the army in 2001, said the CID officer, there were militants in Tral. The area, veined with cool streams and covered with apple orchards, is bordered by the Dachigam forests and gives way to mountains that are contiguous to the Sindh and the Indus Valleys. These remote reaches are believed to harbour militants. But for some reason, the army never went in there, said Hasnain.

Today, the main town of Tral is garrisoned with security forces. Outsiders going in are stopped and questioned at a checkpost. But the town remains an angry, impregnable fortress within a fortress, girded with barbed wire and watched at all times, yet refusing to give up its secrets.