TRAL, India (Reuters) — Separatists like Burhan Wani, more adept at spreading their message via smartphone than wielding an assault rifle, are becoming a rallying point in Indian-held Kashmir for youth who reject the authority of India’s federal government.
Wani, a 22-year-old commander of Hizb-ul Mujahideen, personifies a new generation of separatists who is winning public sympathy in a battle that once again risks destabilizing the troubled northern region.
“He is on a pious path and we are proud of him,” said Mohammad Muzaffar Wani, the father of the separatist who shot to notoriety with pictures of his group on social media last year, along with speeches calling Kashmiris to arms.
“All of Kashmir supports his cause,” Wani, the headmaster of a school, said in an interview at the family home in Tral in southern Kashmir.
A massive crackdown by Indian security forces has contained a separatist revolt in Indian-held Kashmir that first flared in the 1990s, with Pakistan’s backing, but is now mainly homegrown.
But the backlash it has provoked reflects what many Kashmiris call the refusal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-year-old government to engage in a meaningful dialogue over the fate of India’s only Muslim-majority region.
“The government of India has decided that they want to engage with the problem militarily, not politically,” said Mirwais Umar Farooq, a hereditary religious leader and advocate of a peaceful path to independence.
Separatist leaders accuse New Delhi of keeping people in Indian-held Kashmir, long the center of a bitter territorial dispute between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan, under the heel of up to 750,000 security forces.
At the same time, they say, it is pursuing a long-term strategy to effectively annex the region of 12.5 million people demographically, religiously and economically.
The result, both moderate and hardline separatists warn, will be the further radicalisation of a generation already brutalized by a crackdown on a wave of street protests that peaked in 2010.
“It’s troubling – there should not be this level of alienation,” said Naeem Akhtar, the state’s education minister and a leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), that has run Jammu and Kashmir state in an unlikely coalition with Modi’s Hindu-centric Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since last year.
“We should try and build emotional bonds between Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of the country,” added Akhtar. “It will take time, but I think we are on course.”
Both parties say their alliance of opposites is working, but their development agenda – including a road building campaign to upgrade infrastructure ruined by decades of neglect – has yet to deliver.
Cat and mouse
Human rights advocates say the separatists are not capable of launching serious attacks, preferring instead to play cat and mouse with security forces, who outnumber them by more than 3,000 to one, to make a political point.
“They have guns in their hands but circulating videos is not violence – it’s propaganda,” said Khurram Parvez, an official of a civil society grouping.
Wani, who remains at large, featured in a recent video, warming his hands by a forest campfire, chatting and laughing with colleagues.
In recent months, outpourings of sympathy for the separatists have escalated, with stone-throwing crowds gathering at the site of gun battles to thwart efforts to kill or capture the gunmen.
Huge numbers have turned out, too, at funerals of separatists killed in “encounters”, such as a recent shootout in which three militants – two linked to Wani – died.
“The worrying part is that the trust deficit between the system and the public is huge,” said a senior Indian military officer who estimates the number of separatists active in the Indian-held Kashmir Valley at about 200.
“The only way they can express their grievances is by violence against the symbols of the state,” said the officer, who sought anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Militancy has decreased in Indian-held Kashmir, a senior aide to Modi told Reuters, but social volatility has increased as security forces systematically eliminate domestic separatists, who rely on the sympathy of many Kashmiris.
“Before, the goal was to neutralize foreign infiltrators,” the aide said, on condition of anonymity. “Now the domestic terrorists are being bumped off.”
Female student Shaista Hameed, 22, and a male youth died in stray fire in one such encounter, in the village of Lelhar in February, that killed a militant from rebel group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Two separatists escaped, shielded by a stone-throwing crowd.
“These militants are our brothers,” said a local high school senior, who gave his name as Tariq. “They are fighting for us and demanding the right to freedom.”
Asked how he saw his future, he said, “If the atrocities continue, I will take up the gun.”