How Taliban takeover impacts Kashmir

How Taliban takeover impacts Kashmir

Lessons from the Past

Worry less about the Taliban, and more about getting the nuances of Kashmir right and the locals’ support for counter-terrorism. Credit: PTI Photo

In April 1995, then Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao was nervous as militants had taken hold of the famous Charar-i-Sharif and he invited a Kashmir expert to discuss what his government could do, in addition to the Army siege of the militants, to resolve the impasse. The expert senstised Rao on the matter – Charar-i-Sharif was not merely a place of religious worship, but represented the entirety of the Kashmiri personality as it was the tomb of Sheikh-ul-Alam Shiekh Noor-ud-din Noorani, also called Nund Rishi, the most revered personality in Kashmir. 

“If the shrine is destroyed by the militants, they will be doomed forever. But if the impression goes round that it was done by the Army, Indian prestige will equally suffer,” the expert told Rao. A suggestion was given to Rao that a channel be opened with the Kashmiri nationalist wing of the militants, telling them that Delhi’s priority was to save the shrine. The person heading the militants holed up there was Haroon Khan, better known as Mast Gul, a Pashtun from Peshawar. 

Before Rao could act, the shrine got burnt down, and Gul and all his men, except one, escaped. Rao again called for the expert and noted, “I had heard about Nund Rishi but had not known the importance of the shrine. None of my political and administrative advisers on Kashmir had ever told me that. I was just considering your suggestion when the incident took place.” 

In 2014, Gul, after a long hiatus, was back in the news. He had joined Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Pashtun group on the Pakistani side, with connections to the Afghan Taliban. The memories of Mast Gul and a few more militants of Pashtun ethnicity are often invoked in the context of the possible negative impact on Kashmir of the Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan. There is a need for nuance here, factoring in the realities of the region and its relations with the Pashtuns, who form the bulk of the Taliban. 

First, there are contradictory accounts about the past presence of militants of Pashtun ethnicity in J&K. While some official accounts have mentioned numbers of Pashtun militants in the past, other officials have contested that narrative. A broad range of foreign militants have been in J&K in the past, but their presence was restricted to the 1990s and even then their numbers were miniscule. The intercepted and live chatter of foreign militants present in J&K on their wireless sets, which this author had listened to from time to time, were in Punjabi, Pothwari or Gojri languages. These are languages spoken in Pakistani Punjab and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, the two areas that send the bulk of foreign militants to J&K. 

Second, the contemporary connection of Jammu and Kashmir with Pashtuns is a creation of the Pakistani State. Various personalities of Pashtun ethnicity had been appointed by Pakistan to official Kashmir-centric positions to present the Pakistani perspective on Kashmir before the diplomatic community. For instance, Shehryar Khan Afridi, a Pashtun from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is presently the chairperson of the Parliamentary Special Committee on Kashmir (PSCK) while Ali Amin Gandapur, also a Pashtun from the same province, is the federal minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan. These two federal level positions are examples of the Pakistani State’s institutionalised focus on the “Kashmir issue.”    

In the past, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a notable Pashtun and prominent Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) leader, was the first chairperson of the PSCK, which was constituted by the Pakistani National Assembly in August 2008. Appointed by the Pakistan People’s Party government initially, he was retained by the successor Nawaz Sharif government. As the PSCK head, he had reportedly utilised $2.72 million under different heads during his 10-year tenure. Fazlur Rehman, belonging to a family of Deobandi scholars and whose father Mufti Mahmud was Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, had visited India in July 2003. Apart from visiting Deoband in UP, he had even met then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. 

Independent scholars have recorded the various ugly facets of the 1947 attack on Kashmir Valley by members of Pashtun ethnicity from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. The attack was marked by acts of brutality against the locals, including Christian nuns, as they entered Baramulla district. In addition, the memories of 66 years of Pashtun rule over Valley from present-day Afghanistan from 1752 to 1819 AD are still institutionalised as a period of trauma in the collective memory of Kashmiri society. 

Finally, the comparison with the earlier phase of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 and its consequences in Kashmir is not applicable to the present context. Universally, after 9/11, any outside support to extremist violence in Kashmir is widely seen as abetting terrorism. Pakistan is still under the scanner of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). A considerable portion of the Pakistani army is fighting the TTP in its own Pashtun areas and thus it is vested in holding the ceasefire along the Line of Control. This constricts the ability of the Pakistani deep state to provide the earlier level of support to organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, such as facilitating infiltration along the fenced LoC, which was initiated in December 2001. 

A person of non-Kashmiri ethnicity is easy to detect in the Valley’s milieu because of its distinct language and facial features. It makes the task of the security apparatus easier to detect non-locals. Like the lesson from the early summer of 1995 and as counter insurgency/terrorism studies across the world have repeatedly pointed out, in any situation like Kashmir that has a component of local disaffection, apart from strengthening the security apparatus, getting the local nuances right and the support of the local Kashmiris is critical for the success of counter insurgency/counter terrorism.  

(The writer has written two books on J&K, including ‘Across the LoC’, published by Columbia University Press)

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