The New Kashmir Insurgency

The internet gave new life to a dying militant movement on the subcontinent

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The New Kashmir Insurgency
An Indian Kashmiri man browses blocked services on the internet on his mobile phone on a footbridge in Srinagar on April 27, 2017/Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images

It was nearing midnight and the mourners wanted to move ahead with the burial. Haja had been dead for several hours.

She had been heartbroken since her husband had left — 41 days ago — to join Kashmir’s insurgent ranks. She had kept skipping meals and would often go to sleep without dinner. On a cold December evening in 2020, she collapsed and, while being transported to hospital, died outside a village in southern Kashmir.

Saqib, Haja’s red-cheeked teenage son, insisted the mourners wait and quarreled with them. A seventh-grade student, Saqib was reluctant to let his mother be buried without his father having a final chance to look at her.

The mourners tried to make Saqib understand; it is impossible for him to come; there are soldiers everywhere, they told him.

Haja was married to Zahoor Lone for nearly 20 years, and the two were madly in love, always showing affection to each other. They would rarely be apart, nor would they argue.

“They were like Layla and Majnun,” said Salma, Lone’s sister, referring to the fabled lovers who are the Muslim equivalent of Romeo and Juliet.

As Haja lay dead in her house and mourners waited in the rain, Lone arrived to bid farewell to the love of his life. He was furious and crazed; at one moment, he pointed his assault rifle and tried to fire a burst of rounds just to ask the mourners to be quiet, Saqib said.

Lone performed the funeral services, interred Haja, and before first light disappeared back into the maze of Kashmir’s insurgency from which he had briefly emerged.

Hours later, Lone released an audio eulogy for Haja, whom he lovingly called Ruby. “Everyone has to drink from the chalice of death,” Lone said, his voice soft and feeble.

“If I was allowed, I would have cried a lot, I would have cried tears of blood,” he said.

It was the last time Lone’s voice was heard. Lone was an exception in Kashmir’s insurgency: a married man in his forties and a father of two children. A week after Haja’s death, Lone was wounded in a shootout. He died the next day and was buried in a remote graveyard, nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles) away from home and Ruby’s grave.

Lone’s journey into an insurgent underground was different from the generation that preceded him: those who had embraced social media and made it a platform for propaganda and recruitment.

There are no pictures of Lone posing with assault rifles and announcing his recruitment to the militant cause. His life and death remained faceless as Kashmir’s insurgency slid back to its original state of anonymity.

Kashmir, a stunningly picturesque Himalayan valley of vast meadows and ice-cold streams, lies at the confluence of three distinct civilizations and has withstood and accommodated influences from each one of them: the Chinese to its northeast, the Indian to its south, and the Arab-Persian Islamic civilization to its west.

Its mountains have served as borders and barriers for ages, protecting Kashmir from invaders and providing a moderating effect from extreme, radical shifts. The absorption of ideas was thus slow, steady, and deep-rooted.

The latest lasting influence came from the central Asian city of Hamadan in the 14th century, when a Sufi scholar and preacher, Mir Syed Ali, traveled to Kashmir and established Islam as the primary religion.

Kashmir’s last native and sovereign ruler, Yusuf Shah Chak, was tricked into dialogue by the 16th century Mughal emperor in Delhi and forced into exile. It was the first interaction between a government in Delhi and the people of Kashmir, and like others that followed, it ended on an unsettling note. Chak left behind a nation of artisans, craftsmen, farmers, and the poet queen Habba Khatoon, whose verses of loss and separation have become timeless and still echo in the region.

In 1846, the people and land of Kashmir were sold by the British to a Hindu king, Gulab Singh, for 7.5 million silver coins. The partition of India by the British at the dusk of its empire in 1947 led to quick political and military events around Kashmir that forced its split into parts administered by Pakistan and India. Three wars and an insurgency also followed over the next seven decades.

The first shots of insurgency in Kashmir valley, which is governed by India, rang in 1989, before it burst into a full-scale rebellion a year later when azadi, or liberation, was sought. The insurgency waxed and waned as it faced deadly infighting, dreaded militias engineered and armed by Indian forces, and a massive counterinsurgency campaign as soldiers and paramilitary personnel flooded into the region.

The insurgency was backed by Pakistan, which allowed hardened Muslim fighters to move into Kashmir and lead the insurgency’s fight back by mounting sophisticated suicidal raids where insurgents breached fortified camps. The wave of such raids ended when Pakistan reversed its policy under President Pervez Musharraf in the aftermath of 9/11, allowing India to seal off a rugged, mountainous frontier in Kashmir, which had been a passageway for insurgents.

In 2013, Kashmir’s war was nearing its end. The flow of militants had dried out, and fewer Kashmiris were joining their ranks. Numbering only 78, this was the lowest number of Kashmiri insurgents since the early years when thousands had roamed in the rural and urban pockets that they dubbed liberated zones.

Peace was in the air as Indian and Pakistani leaders waited for the perfect moment to sign a deal that would settle Kashmir’s status with a permanent solution; the borders were not to be redrawn.

Throughout the last decade, as internet penetration deepened and the number of social media users grew in Kashmir, a young generation of militants emerged from the ashes of a dying movement. This generation weaponized social media, setting the stage for a unidirectional conversation in which the insurgents showcased their lives and ideology.

They uploaded videos and speeches, which galvanized their followers. Their love of social media became so intense that every time a young man joined the militant ranks, his recruitment was announced online, his photograph splashed across social media sites that showed him armed with an assault rifle and a brief biography.

Facebook became the favorite platform for these newly minted warriors: The lack of regulations facilitated the transmission of pictures, videos, and audio files, the most powerful of which were conversations between the insurgents and their families recorded in the final moments of the insurgents’ lives. The fighters spoke calmly, asked their families not to mourn their deaths, and promised to meet in paradise, all while the sound of gunfire echoed in the backdrop.

During the next seven years, nearly a thousand young men joined the insurgency, uprooting Kashmiri society as the recruits included married men with children, professionals with advanced degrees, farmers, laborers, and students.

There was, however, a cost to the social media-powered stardom. The use of social media led to increased scrutiny by the Indian security forces.

Kashmiri police attempted to regulate social media for the first time in July 2015 by seeking authority from a local court to block Facebook pages with a picture of militants that had gone viral.

In the years that followed, hundreds of Facebook pages were brought down as social media giants streamlined their regulations. Pictures and videos of militants then transitioned to Twitter and Telegram, where they briefly survived before coming under the same corporate invigilation and were likewise removed.

In April 2017, the government in Kashmir made the first desperate bid to block social media sites and messenger services outright as it ordered telecom operators to shut access to 22 platforms including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Google Plus, WeChat, YouTube, and Snapchat. In the same month, police also claimed to have disrupted and shut down more than 300 WhatsApp groups they claimed were used to mobilize protesters in the region.

The measures were meant to silence militants’ voices that were increasingly shaping the politics of the region and to choke the space for dissent for the armed men and civilians. Sanjay Dhotre, India’s minister of state for Electronics and Information Technology, told the parliament in March that the government is empowered to block any information “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offense relating to above.”

..social media sites became the new ground zero in the war of narratives and expression of dissent.

The internet services in Kashmir also would become a casualty as social media sites became the new ground zero in the war of narratives and expression of dissent. The government severed internet services every time there was a gunfight to prevent mobilization of the insurgency’s supporters.

August 2019 marked the beginning of the internet shutdown that would achieve the grim feat of being the longest ever in a democracy.

At midnight on Aug. 4, internet and other forms of communication including landline phones were suspended and a curfew was imposed as the right-wing, Hindu government in New Delhi implemented its plan to abrogate Kashmir’s limited autonomy. It was the beginning of a silence in Kashmir, and insurgents had no way to communicate with the people.

In one of the orders seeking continuation of the internet shutdown, the government of Jammu and Kashmir claimed that insurgents were using it to “propagate terrorism, indulge in rumormongering, support fallacious proxy wars, spread propaganda and ideologies, and cause disaffection and discontent.”

Low-speed internet remained suspended for seven months, while the suspension of high-speed internet lasted 18 months, thus halting the insurgents’ social media blitz.

During these months, the insurgency maintained the recruitment process, but it was different. There were no announcements, no videos, and no photographs. The insurgency had moved back to being anonymous.

Irfan Thokar, 22, had joined the insurgent ranks in August last year and lived within them for three months.

“My son never released his photograph. I think it is a good thing, it is safe for them,” said Mohammad Ishaq, a slim man in his 50s who talked passionately about Thokar, his piety and simplicity.

Ishaq keeps pictures on his phone of his son’s civilian life, and there are no photos of Thokar’s militant times. “I never asked him to return; he was gone in God’s way,” he said.

Three months after he went underground, Thokar was killed in a gunfight in Shopian, the district where the towering Pir Panjal mountains mark Kashmir’s southern boundary.

Southern Kashmir, with its villages surrounded by vast apple orchards that are the backbone of the economy, mountainous springs that feed the streams and rivers, and a highway that cuts through and leads to Indian states, has not only been the scene of deadly insurgent attacks but also home to most of the insurgents.

During the years when social media framed the insurgency, there was a frenzy of demonstrations in southern Kashmir, some of which lasted for months. When Burhan Wani — a young militant who pioneered the use of social media for the insurgent cause — was killed in a gunfight in July 2016, southern districts turned into no-go zones for Indian security forces as demonstrators established checkpoints and stoned police officers, soldiers, and paramilitaries.

Over the next two years, the people of southern Kashmir became a vanguard for insurgents as counterinsurgency operations were disrupted in the street-by-street clashes, with demonstrators throwing stones and Indian forces responding with tear gas and bullets. In one such incident in December 2018, seven civilians were killed in an orchard in southern Pulwama district while trying to prevent soldiers from raiding a hideout where three insurgents were holed up.

The insurgents, who once celebrated a hero’s status in life and in death in the southern apple belt, now have a muted response since Indian forces developed an elaborate crackdown that has evoked deep fear among the people.

In Shopian’s Turkwangam village, the family of Asif Lone, another fighter who joined the insurgents in July last year and was killed months later in December, refused to talk.

The houses in Turkwangam, like elsewhere in Shopian, are assigned numbers by the army to make it easy to locate them in case of a counterinsurgency operation.

The multiple and sustained crackdowns during the last two years have strived to erase the social media presence of insurgents, while soldiers in southern districts randomly confiscate phones and search for saved photographs and videos of insurgents and suspected messenger applications used by insurgents.

Rashim Bali, a two-star general of the Indian army who leads Victor Force, the army’s counterinsurgency grid in southern Kashmir, has experience fighting several insurgencies and believes conversations are important. He also distinguishes the ideological contours of different insurgent groups.

Bali conducted a unique outreach program in the southern Pulwama district in February and held a town hall discussion with young men and students, one of whom raised a question about confiscation of phones by soldiers.

“What do we want to see in the phones? There are so many applications today … which are used to create a damage to our brotherhood, we just want to find a clue to defeat these conspiracies,” Bali said.

“More than that, my soldiers are not interested in your phones. If you think your phone will not be returned, it is my order today that none of your phones will be retained for more than fifteen minutes … fifteen can be twenty minutes, but your phone will not be with soldiers for more than twenty minutes,” he said.

There was, however, a catch. Bali could only answer for his soldiers, not for the paramilitaries and police.

Meanwhile, a military intelligence officer in south Kashmir said it was good for the army if insurgents use social media.

“The more they use it, the more they will get killed. They can be cautious, but they will make mistakes, and we need one mistake to track them,” the officer said.

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