Recent reports in the western and Indian press claim that Kashmir's freedom movement is coming under the influence of "radical Islam". This narrative is out of step with reality, and ignores the founding principles of Kashmir's indigenous struggle.
A militant commander in Kashmir recently announced that he was fighting for establishing sharia, not for an independent nation or the embattled region's merger with Pakistan — the two main goals of the 70-year-old Kashmiri resistance movement. The ensuing analyses of the commander's pronouncements in the international and Indian media have tried to frame this development as an ideological "shift" in the movement.
The new generation of Kashmiri militants, it is being argued, is increasingly drifting toward the path of the Taliban, al Qaeda and other such groups driven by radical Islam. Such readings of the Kashmir insurgency disregard several important factors.
Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir's largest indigenous militant group that commander Zakir Musa was leading, distanced itself from his comments. Musa quit the day after.
His comments were not well received by even the most ardent supporters of the movement who often post pro-freedom messages on Facebook and Twitter at the risk of persecution. Some even suggested that he "leave Kashmir and join ISIS in Iraq". Prior to Musa's remarks, the political leadership of the resistance had categorically stated that ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban have no role in Kashmir's struggle.
In the past too, people have reacted to any perceived turn towards extremism. Asiya Andrabi is the only female resistance leader who has been booked 20 times under a draconian law, the Public Safety Act, which empowers authorities to detain anybody for up to six months without a trial. She supports jihad and sharia. Years ago, her cadres would throw coloured water on women who refused her diktat to wear burqa. On a few occasions, she and her small band of supporters barged into restaurants and publicly shamed couples. Her actions were hardly endorsed by her fellows in the resistance camp, or the people in general. She is highly respected for her pro-freedom sentiments but remains a marginal figure in the hierarchy of the leadership.
Alarmist narratives that see an ideological shift towards global Islamic movements often overlook and underestimate regulatory mechanisms within the Kashmiri resistance movement. A movement that has retained a deeply political foundation – informed by religion, ethnicity and identity.
Sensationalist narratives tend to amplify minor developments on the militant side of the movement, but downplay the wider political canvas. By privileging only the past 28 years – which are marked by an armed insurgency running alongside a political movement – significant political markers over the course of more than four decades are brushed aside.
Besides, Musa, a 22-year-old former engineering student, is not an ideologue. His invocation of sharia or a caliphate cannot be read in the same frame as those of global Islamist leaders. In fact, in October last year, Musa said in a video speech that "we have received many requests from our Sikh brothers to let them join us".
"God willing, we will try and make an exclusive group for Sikhs," Musa said while asking the migrant Kashmiri Hindus to "return to their homes".
"We take responsibility of their safety, they should look at those Pandits who never left Kashmir," he said, a far cry from the xenophobic attitude of most radical groups.
These reassurances and appeals to minorities and his recent statements will appear contradictory unless seen in the larger framework of the movement.
What Musa said echoes the Kashmir Valley's past in the early years of the insurgency. People used to chant "yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa" (The Prophet's code will rule here). Militants killed each other over whether Kashmir should be independent, or become part of Pakistan, about a quarter of a century ago – not over varying interpretations of Islam.
A couple of Afghan and Sudanese militants fought alongside their Kashmiri counterparts in the mid-90s but after they were killed no foreign militant has ever stepped foot into Kashmir. A militant from Pakistan is not considered a foreigner by Kashmiris because the country is a party to the dispute. Al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban might have evinced interest in "liberating Kashmir from infidels", but do we see their footprints, even in Pakistan-administered Kashmir?
Labelled as an unbending "hardliner" and "hawk", the octogenarian patriarch of Kashmiri resistance Syed Ali Geelani has repeatedly said that implementation of the UN Resolutions about Kashmir, which call for holding a plebiscite, is the only solution to the Kashmir dispute. He has said if people choose India, he would have no issues, although an Islamic nation would be his personal choice. When was the last time a "radical Islamist" appealed to an international body?
The Kashmiri resistance movement is not a symptom or a by-product of global Islamic movements. Its struggle begins in the 1930s against a tyrannical Hindu monarchy and predates the Palestine struggle, and the rise of various pan-Islamic movements. A deliberate attempt to link it with such movements sows confusion.
One cannot ignore the fact that many Kashmiris are catapulted into militancy as a response to the Indian state's brutality. According to a senior police official, JM Gillani, 95 of the 110 Kashmiri militants active today picked up arms just last year. These fresh recruits cannot be looked at in isolation from the recent unprecedented state repression.
Last year's uprising triggered by the killing of iconic Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, whom Musa had replaced, witnessed the killing of about a 100 street protesters and the world's first mass-blinding caused by pellet guns. More than a thousand people lost full or partial eyesight when government forces fired thousands of lead pellets into protesters. About 6000 protesters were treated for serious injuries at just one hospital in Srinagar, Kashmir's capital. A total of 15,000 people were injured and about 8000 were arrested.
Several stories documenting the lives of many of the militants killed during the past year have pointed out that relentless persecution by government forces had forced them to pick up arms. A sizable number of these militants had participated in the two major uprisings in 2008 and 2010, both marked by peaceful protests that were put down with ruthless force. At least 170 people were killed and hundreds injured during the uprisings. The popularity of militancy rose phenomenally because state violence and repression did not come to an end, despite the transformation of the movement from a markedly armed one, to a peaceful one in 2008.
If there is a turn towards radicalism at all, it is more evident in the acts of the Indian state, whose 1.2 million strong army – the second largest in the world – recently awarded an officer for tying a Kashmiri man to a vehicle, to act as a human shield from protesters throwing stones at soldiers.