India kills top Kashmiri rebel – A setback or a stimulus for separatists? | News | DW | 28.05.2017
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India kills top Kashmiri rebel – A setback or a stimulus for separatists?

Fresh protests have erupted in parts of Kashmir after Indian security forces killed Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, a top militant leader, in a gunfight. Will Bhat's death be a turning point in India's counterterrorism efforts?

Indian authorities imposed curfew in many parts of Kashmir's state capital Srinagar after angry protesters took to the streets following the killing of Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, head of the militant Hizbul Mujahideen (Party of Holy Warriors) group, on Saturday.

Bhat was killed by Indian paramilitary forces in a gunfight in the Tral area, Indian army spokesman Rajesh Kalia said.

The nearly 16-hour gun battle ended early Saturday when Bhat and a fellow rebel were killed.

"Yes, both of them were gunned down and the operation is still going on," police chief Shesh Pal Vaid told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Bhat succeeded Burhan Wani, a popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander whose death in July 2016 triggered a wave of violent protests in India-administered Kashmir.

Hizbul Mujahideen is a Kashmiri separatist group and has been designated a terrorist organization by India, the European Union, and the United States. The group has been active in Indian Kashmir since 1989 and favors the integration of the entire Kashmir region with Pakistan.

Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir - a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

Read more: The Islamization of Kashmir's separatist movement

India accuses Pakistan of training and arming the rebels in the portion it controls and sending them to the Indian side, a claim its neighbor denies.

On May 23, the Indian army said it targeted Pakistani military posts along the Kashmiri border to stop Pakistan from infiltrating armed militants into Indian Kashmir.

Protests and violence

At least three protesters were injured Saturday during clashes with the security forces. Observers say the fresh violence in the region shows that Bhat's killing could spark more anti-India protests in Kashmir.

Despite New Delhi's claims of Pakistani interference, anti-India sentiment is strong in many parts of Indian Kashmir. Many resent the deployment of hundreds of thousands of Indian troops and openly voice support for rebels.

Some Indian civil society members believe New Delhi cannot exonerate itself from responsibility by accusing Islamabad of creating unrest in the valley. A number of rights organizations demand that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government reduce the number of troops in Kashmir and let the people decide their fate.

"The Indian state survives in Kashmir only by using the might of its army, and the force of its guns. The people are no longer scared of the bullet," Sumati Panikkar, a leftwing activist in New Delhi, told DW.

Read more: Opinion: Modi's India is a bad example for Kashmiris

Last month, video footage of a Kashmiri protester tied to an Indian army jeep - apparently to be used as as a human shield - generated outrage on social media. The 11-second clip, which went viral on social media, showed an unidentified man tied to the front of an army vehicle as it passed through a street in the Budgam district of central Kashmir.

The inability of Indian authorities to rein in the separatist movement has led many Kashmir analysts to suggest that India is losing grip on Kashmir.

"The initiatives aimed at de-escalating violence in India-administered Kashmir should be multi-faceted and long-term. The security forces should be held accountable for their human rights violations so that the Kashmiri people would regain trust in state institutions," Agnieszka Kuszewska, an associate professor of political science at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, told DW.

Watch video 26:00

Shashi Tharoor on Conflict Zone

Rise of Islamism

Hizbul Mujahideen's activities in both Indian and Pakistani Kashmirs are also a sign of growing Islamization in the valley. Recently, Zakir Musa, an influential Kashmiri leader, distanced himself from the group and aligned himself with al Qaeda.

Kuszewska says the rise of religiously-motivated nationalism, especially in religiously and ethnically diverse parts of Kashmir, should be taken seriously.

Read more: Kashmiri youth: The new face of violent resistance against Indian rule

Some analysts blame Pakistan for the Islamization of Kashmir's separatist movement, as evident from its alleged support to Hizbul Mujahideen and militants like Wani and Bhat.

"Pakistan uses terror as a strategic policy despite facing several terror attacks itself and losing thousands of its people. The jihadist infrastructure continues to operate from Pakistani soil. History tells us that the militants who operate in Kashmir are, mostly, either local Kashmiri Muslims or Pakistanis," Varad Sharma, an Indian expert on Kashmir, told DW.

Unlike Hizbul Mujahidden, Kashmiri groups that favor an independent region want Pakistan and India to step aside and let the Kashmiri people decide their future.

"The demilitarization of the region is the only way forward. The border clashes between India and Pakistan are resulting in civilian deaths," Toqeer Gilani, the president of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, told DW.

"It is high time India and Pakistan announce the timetable for withdrawal of their forces from the portions they control and hold an internationally-supervised referendum," Gilani added.

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