The February 10 attack on a highly-fortified Army camp in Sunjuwan, Jammu, had the imprint of the Pakistan-based militant organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad all over it. The group has specialised in fidayeen or suicide attacks since its inception in 2000.

The attack was carried out a day after the fifth death anniversary of Afzal Guru, who was hanged and buried in Delhi’s Tihar Jail on February 9, 2013. The Jaish has a squad named after the Parliament attack convict, and since Guru’s death, several attacks have been carried out by the “Afzal Guru Squad”.

The date picked to launch the attack is symbolic but the way Guru is being used to inspire young Kashmiris to join militant ranks also merits debate. In the past, most of those involved in such suicide attacks have been Pakistanis. But a change has come about in the last few years with local Kashmiris now taking part in them. For instance, on December 31, two Kashmiris – Fardeen Khanday and Manzoor Baba – were among three gunmen who stormed into the heavily guarded Central Reserve Police Force training centre in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The militants were killed after a prolonged stand-off, but five paramilitary soldiers were also killed. The Jaish took responsibility for the attack.

The attackers inflicted heavy losses at the Sunjuwan military station too. As of Sunday evening, five soldiers, one civilian and four militants had been killed. The civilian casualty is due to the fact that the camp had family accommodation as well.

Rise in local militancy

It is no coincidence that the attack was launched on February 10, which is sandwiched between two days on which Kashmir shuts down in protest. While February 9 is Guru’s death anniversary, February 11 is the day Maqbool Butt, the founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, was hanged in 1984. He was also buried in Tihar jail. While Guru was hanged for his role in the December 2001 attack on Parliament, Butt’s hanging was prompted by the murder of Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre at the hands of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front activists.

Though there was a mild protest at Butt’s hanging in 1984 itself, his death is believed to be a motivating factor for the large-scale armed rebellion that broke out in Kashmir in the late eighties. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front pioneered the armed struggle to “free Jammu and Kashmir from Indian rule”. The outfit was initially supported by Pakistan, which slowly abandoned it for the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen and many other outfits. Butt continues to be the undisputed leader of the idea of an independent Kashmir. Those who have worked on the subject believe that he became an inspiration for the revolt in Kashmir. That is why even today, over 30 years after Butt was executed, a shut-down call is given in the Valley to commemorate his death, and a grave is still reserved for his mortal remains in Srinagar’s sprawling martyrs graveyard.

Likewise, Guru’s hanging too accentuated the anger in Kashmir against the Indian state. He was number 28 on death row. Plucking him from there to execute him was seen as a deliberate move by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government to push Kashmir to the wall.

Security experts are of the opinion that Guru’s hanging gave an impetus to local militancy, with anger among young Kashmiris spurring them to join militant ranks. This trend accelerated after 2016, when Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri, was killed in an encounter with security forces. The numbers speak for themselves. On February 6, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly that there was a 44% jump in locals joining militancy in 2017 (126) as compared to 2016 (88). According to the data provided in the Assembly, 54 Kashmiri youth joined militancy in 2010, 23 in 2011, 21 in 2012, 16 in 2013, 53 in 2014 and 66 in 2015.

Masood Azhar. (Photo credit: AFP).
Masood Azhar. (Photo credit: AFP).

The one who got away

One of the first attacks by the Jaish’s Afzal Guru Squad was on an Army camp in Mohra, Uri, on December 5, 2014, in which 10 soldiers were killed. This attack took place a day before the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Several other attacks followed.

Using Guru’s name might have helped Jaish chief Masood Azhar to recruit young Kashmiris ready to die for Islam and Kashmir. His scheme seems to have worked. Members of the squad have successfully attacked several targets, from Tangdhar near the Line of Control in Kupwara, to Pathankot in Punjab, and now in Jammu.

Azhar was in India’s custody from 1994 until the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government released him and two other jailed militants in 1999, in exchange for the passengers and crew of Indian Airlines flight IC 814, which was hijacked and taken to Kandahar. Soon after his release, Azhar broke away from his parent organisation, Harkat ul Ansar, and founded the Jaish, mostly operating out of its base in Bahawalpur in Pakistan. In the past few years, he has managed to change the complexion of his outfit by recruiting local Kashmiris.

Maqbool Butt.
Maqbool Butt.

Icons in death

Though both Butt and Guru did not get support or recognition in their lifetimes, they are, in a way, being used as icons after their deaths. Today the people of Kashmir own both of them. New Delhi rushed to hang these two Kashmiri men, but they eventually turned out to be more dangerous in death.

When Butt was hanged, slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone, who was then in the mainstream camp, was perhaps the only politician who protested. According to Azam Inquillabi, the senior most separatist leader, the Jamat-e-Islami even expelled one of its senior members for protesting against Butt’s hanging. Butt was a strong advocate of a secular and Independent Jammu and Kashmir, which is in conflict with Pakistan’s stated position on Kashmir as also of Islamist militant organisations. But in Kashmir today, both Butt and Guru are seen as those who sacrificed their lives for the cause. They are seen as pioneers of the armed struggle even by the Lashkar-e-Taiba. A statement by the Lashkar spokesman on Friday referred to them as “pioneers of Kashmir’s indigenous freedom struggle”.

By stalling a political dialogue to resolve the Kashmir issue, the government of India has created a situation where people like Butt and Guru have become inspirations for Kashmiris, giving an impetus to the armed struggle rather than to a political solution. The government’s continuous denial that the issue is political, and its flight away from the political approach has compounded the problem. The result is that local militancy has grown and the roles of foreign militants and locals has reversed in the last five years. Even as the whole of India virtually celebrated Guru’s hanging, he continues to be seen as a victim who paid the price of being a Kashmiri Muslim.