The Indian government has launched a crackdown against Daesh's so-called chapter in India-administered Kashmir, but many cry foul, accusing New Delhi of fabricating the terror group's presence to criminalise popular dissent.
SRINAGAR/NEW DELHI — On December 28 last year, soon after congregational Friday prayers, a group of masked men, who appeared to be teenagers from their voice and mannerism, forced their way into Jamia Masjid, one of the key epicentres of separatist politics in the disputed region of India-administered Kashmir.
One of the masked men climbed the mosque's pulpit and waved the flag of Daesh, more commonly known in the Indian sub-continent from its acronym Isis. The incident evoked a sharp reaction from the people, prompting angry but non-violent protests.
Local police sent a communication to the top brass and warned them of violent consequences if the forces didn’t move to arrest the men along with their supporters. The communication also stated that locals were demanding police reveal the identities of the young men.
“Five to six youth were detained and some of them were minors,” said a police officer.
A week later, the head priest of the mosque Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who is also one of the leading separatist politicians of the region, arrived at the mosque with several dozen supporters in tow, and led the act of “purifying” the desecrated pulpit.
The unidentified masked men seemed to have been attempting to announce the arrival of Daesh in India-administered Kashmir— where several insurgent groups have already been fighting the Indian rule since 1989 — and change the ideological direction of the region's separatist discourse.
Did they succeed in making an impression?
Speaking to TRT World, separatist leader Mirwaiz dispelled reports of Daesh's formal arrival in Kashmir and implied the incident of desecration could be doing of "certain agencies", a lingo used locally for Indian intelligence agencies, to criminalise popular dissent against Indian rule in Kashmir.
"Jamia Masjid has been at the centre of resistance for years and there is an attempt to hijack this space," Mirwaiz said. "The action of these misguided youth is helping the narrative created by our adversary that our struggle has some international agenda and that we want to conquer India. I think the time has come to remind our people that our mainstream struggle is well defined.”
Even leading pro-Indian politicians in Kashmir, who've vowed to implement and protect the Indian constitution in the disputed region, do not buy the reports of Daesh's arrival.
"I have been travelling in my constituency and I believe the whole narrative surrounding Daesh in Kashmir is to give a bad name to the people of Kashmir who are very moderate," said Ali Mohammed Sagar, a Kashmiri politician affiliated with the pro-India National Conference political party.
There is no concrete evidence as yet that can link the handful of unknown men claiming to represent Daesh in Kashmir with the terrorist organisation that has been almost defeated in Iraq and Syria.
But the mere act of raising Daesh flags in anti-India protests, or announcing the group's arrival from Jamia Masjid's pulpit, has triggered a troubling discourse in India's mainstream media, with many news anchors making observations and statements to suggest Kashmir's freedom struggle is no longer driven by the UN-sanctioned right to self-determination but by Daesh's agenda of establishing a global caliphate.
One of India's leading TV anchors, Arnab Goswami, who has often been criticised for sensationalising the news reports, accused Kashmir's octogenarian separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani of providing "overground support" to Daesh in Kashmir.
From 2014, when the presence of 'Daesh sympathisers' was first reported in local media, through to June 2018, the government of India always maintained there was no Daesh in Kashmir, describing the spotting of Daesh flags as isolated events that weren't enough to conclude the terrorist group had arrived in Kashmir.
Even the Ministry of Home Affairs, responding to a question raised in Indian parliament, said on January 3 last year that "nothing has been established on ground that Isis [Daesh] is operating in any part of Kashmir Valley”.
The following month in February, another parliamentarian inquired whether the government was “in the process of investigating the extent of influence of Isis [Daesh] on Kashmir militancy”.
The ministry, according to official records, replied: “As per the report some miscreants raised ISIS [Daesh] slogans after the killing of one terrorist in an encounter at Zakoora, Srinagar on 17.11.2017. Apart from this incident, there have not been any report of influence of ISIS in Valley. No suspect having links with ISIS has been reported in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Four months later on June 19, 2018, the internal rift between India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Kashmir's local Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the two coalition partners that ruled the disputed region from March 2015, ended with a split. The BJP pulled out of the government, criticising its partner of being "soft on terrorists", and a month later a senior BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi accused the PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti of having "proximity to separatists".
Amidst this political disorder, the police chief of India-administered Kashmir, SP Vaid, said what several news TV channels in India had been saying for a long time. On June 22, Vaid said that ISJK (Daesh's local chapter) was active in Kashmir.
Following a gun battle in south Kashmir's Anantnag district, in which four Kashmiri militants were killed, Vaid tweeted that the slain fighters belonged to ISJK.
Vaid was perhaps the first Indian government official to make a bold statement about the group's ability to strike in Kashmir.
One more significant statement came from Dilbagh Singh. The police chief of India-held Kashmir, who after the desecration of Jamia Masjid told reporters in Jammu: “The presence (of Daesh) is not that big but the fact that people are being radicalised along those lines cannot be denied."
So within a year, the Indian government changed its stance from Daesh had "no" to "not a big" presence in Kashmir. In the last few months, the government also launched a crackdown in Kashmir, arresting at least a dozen youth suspected of being ideologically “inspired” by Daesh.
Although there is no concrete answer as to what Daesh in Kashmir means or where it started, a senior police official in the region told TRT World that former associates of a militant group called Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TuM) are being investigated for their potential role in establishing a Daesh-affiliated insurgent group in India-administered Kashmir.
“Another individual, a Srinagar resident, has also been taken into custody for a non militancy case. He too is suspected of guiding some of the slain men but nothing has been proven yet,” said a police officer.
The four young men killed by Indian forces in June 2018, who police said were members of the alleged Daesh affiliate ISJK, were former militants of TuM.
“TuM chief Sheikh Jamil-ul-Rehman and another individual by the name Aijaz Ahangar developed some issues and it is believed Ahangar parted ways. Seven youths have been killed in gun battles in the last two years. It was these youth who called themselves ISJK,” said the officer requesting anonymity
TuM officially denounces Daesh.
According to a police intelligence report, Ahangar is most possibly somewhere between Afghanistan and the Pakistan border. A former Kashmiri militant associated with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen outfit, Ahangar's father-in-law Abdul Gani Dar Gazalli, served as the top commander of the TuM. Gazalli was arrested by India's Border Security Force in 2002 when he was considered one of the longest surviving militant commanders in age.
Gazalli now runs Saut-ul-Haq, a social welfare group that was originally a faction of Jamaat-e-ehle Hadith. He has largely been out of the news since he was accused and arrested in the killing of Jamaat-e-ehle Hadith leader Maulana Showkat Shah a decade ago. In 2017, Gazalli, who maintains a low profile, was in news again when his teenage grandson, and Ahangar's son, Abdullah-Ibn-Aijaz was believed to have been killed in a United States drone strike in Afghanistan. Abdullah, also known by his alias Abu Umair, was believed to be a militant as well.
Police officers privy to the case did not elaborate on what exactly affected the relations between Rehman and Ahangar but they did say the issues were enough for some TuM cadres to leave the group and declare their allegiance to ISJK.
According to a senior police officer, of the seven militants who were killed and accused of being the members of so-called Daesh affiliate ISJK, two young Kashmiri men, named Dawood Sofi and Mugees Mir, were the first ones to defect from TuM and acted as unofficial leaders of the group.
“It can’t be said for certain that they were reporting to Ahangar,” said another senior police officer, adding that of all the militants who broke TuM ranks, “one or two” remain. “We are not even sure if they are armed,” the officer said.
With the Indian police clamping down on Daesh suspects in Kashmir, several police officials said that they had gathered some insights into what drives some young people to sympathise with Daesh. Besides the usual "killing all apostates" and establishing a new world order under the Islamic banner, the suspected Daesh supporters offered up information that surprised the interrogators, the officer said.
“Most of the youth we have questioned said that not Abu Bakr Baghdadi but Qayoom Najar is the founder of their ideology. We are yet to ascertain who recruited them or who were they reporting to but it definitely is not Najar,” the police official explained. PDP spokesperson Waheed Para also said that when their party was part of the coalition government, until summer 2018, they tried to find the “nucleus” of the group but were not able to do so.
Najar was one of the most experienced militants in Kashmir, quitting Hizbul Mujahideen in 2015 to form a new outfit named Lashkar-e-Islam. Under Najar's command, the militant group allegedly killed at least six civilians in north Kashmir for working for the Indian police and army.
Although the killing of alleged informants by militants was frequent during the peak of militancy, the strategy had faded out to avoid alienating local populace. Najar, a militant for 17 years, had a different plan, however, as he called for a more aggressive and ruthless insurgency model, officials said.
Indian security forces killed Najar in 2017 near the de-facto border between India and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
But police say that those Kashmiris who defend Daesh-style militancy eulogise Najar, often citing the wide impact his aggressive tactics had created in the disputed region.
Did Najar espouse Daesh's ideology?
According to Ashraf Sehrai, the chief of Kashmir's hardline separatist group Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (TeH), Najar suddenly turned up to meet him after the police accused him of carrying out killings in north Kashmir.
"He (Najar) turned up one day to meet me. We discussed the incidents and I told him that he was earning a bad name for himself to which he responded by saying that there were misconceptions about him," said Sehrai, whose own son Junaid, joined Hizbul Mujahideen soon after getting his masters degree in business administration,.
As the separatist leadership disapproved of militants taking any unsparing approach, Sehrai said Najar wanted to clear the air.
"His main concern was that if there are issues between our cadres, workers or leaders why aren't the militants allowed to take action militarily. I made him understand the principles on which our struggle is based on and told him how showing empathy to our enemies also is important," said Sehrai.
Citing an earlier anecdote, in which he managed to convince an insurgent in the 90s to let go of an alleged informant, Sehrai said: “I said it back then and I say it now, is killing a sinner the only punishment available? No.”
Sehrai said that Najar also met senior separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. “They talked at length and discussed his concerns. He [Najar] had little tolerance for evil deeds and that became a reason for him to take a different path. But he too understood our point of view. He died a martyr and may Allah accept his martyrdom,” Sehrai said.
The senior separatist leader also expressed skepticism over Daesh's so-called presence in Kashmir. “I don't know of the youth who are raising the banner of certain groups but I want to appeal to them, stop this and return to your own fold before all this leads to bloodletting between brothers. Your actions might not help the oppressors but they are definitely not helping the oppressed,” he said.
With all the resistance against Daesh-style militancy emerging from within the separatist fold of India-administered Kashmir, the Indian government has intensified its search for Daesh suspects, casting a pan-India scrutiny and looking for possible clues that can link alleged Daesh suspects of Kashmiri origin with the suspects from mainland India.
Separatist leader Sehrai and the leader of conservative party Jamaat-e-Islami, Zahid Ali, urged caution however, accusing the Indian government of "restarting the trend of picking up youth" both inside and outside Kashmir and framing them as Daesh suspects.
“These young men are often from poorer households. Their parents find it extremely hard to navigate the Indian justice system,” Ali said.
At the helm right now are three criminal cases, two of which are being investigated by India's premier probe body, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), and one by the Delhi Police Special Cell (DPSC).
One case with the NIA deals with two young men from the Indian state of Telangana who are accused of “conspiring” with two other Kashmiri youth to join Daesh. The other case involves a recent spate of arrests of Daesh suspects in Delhi and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state. Some of the detainees are accused of being in touch with a priest in Kashmir.
The case pursued by Delhi Police contradicts India's Home Ministry and the police in Kashmir, who maintain that no one from Daesh's alleged Kashmir chapter ISJK is out in the open. Yet, Delhi police launched a series of "operations" by arresting nine young men including some students studying in Indian universities.
Defending its actions, NIA spokesperson Alok Mittal told TRT World that the arrests made by the agency in Kashmir were related to old cases. “The J&K police have informed us most of what was to be believed an ISIS inspired group have been eliminated. The suspicious characters are in custody”.
When asked to compare the motivations of those allegedly inspired by Daesh, arrested from different parts of India, with those arrested in Kashmir, Mittal said: “Those arrested elsewhere were either driven by a desire to see a global caliphate or they were seeking revenge on perceived persecution of Muslims in India. The motivation of youth arrested from Kashmir, that is a matter of investigation.”