By Soutik Biswas
5 September 2014
Will the disaffected youth of Kashmir really listen to al-Qaeda and "raise the flag of jihad"? Is there an appetite for violence?
'War should continue, message to the Muslims of Kashmir' was the name of a video uploaded earlier this year by al-Qaeda, urging Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir to follow the "brothers" in Syria and Iraq and wage jihad against India.
In 2013, according to Jason Burke, journalist and writer of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, the militant group's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a set of "strategic guidelines" that mentioned Kashmir. Last July, a video message by a cleric linked to the group, upbraided Indian Muslims for their supposed lack in "global jihad".
Zawahiri's latest video in which he said "al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent" would "raise the flag of jihad" across South Asia, and talked about reaching out to disaffected Muslim youths, especially in Kashmir, has grabbed attention. "We should take this seriously. They are trying to attract a constituency. They have local assets and networks in Kashmir and we will have to see what they do now. There is the prospect of a spectacular action," says Praveen Swami, strategic and international affairs commentator for the Indian Express newspaper.
After all, Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state has a long history of violence between separatists and security forces, with tens of thousands of troops stationed there. In recent years violence has abated from its peak in the 1990s, but the causes of the insurgency are still far from resolved.
There are disturbing reports of young, educated Kashmiri Muslims joining the underground. Security forces put the number of active militants in the Muslim-dominated valley at around 80 today, down from several thousand at the peak of the insurgency.
But, as senior journalist and editor of the Rising Kashmir newspaper Shujaat Bukhari says, the "educated Kashmiri youth today are completely alienated from the Indian mainstream." The memories of anti-India protests in the summer of 2010 when more than 100 people were killed are still fresh. India's recent diplomatic spat with Pakistan means that the fragile peace process is in a limbo.
Yet observers in Srinagar feel that Zawahiri's call will find few takers even in today's restive Kashmir.
For one, they say, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have made easy inroads into failing or fragile states like Syria, Iraq and Somalia. India presents a completely different picture with a strong state. Kashmir also remains one of the most militarised regions in the world.
Secondly, as political scientist Noor Ahmad Baba says, despite the simmering discontent and disillusionment with India, Kashmiris have no "appetite for more violence and al-Qaeda's extremist ideology".
"There is a potential clientele of young men who are dissatisfied with the India. There is a sense of deprivation and Kashmiris feel discriminated against. We are also seeing some influence of Wahhabism and puritanism among some people here, who could be influenced by radical groups. But al-Qaeda and its associates will never get the space here. Remember Kashmiri militant groups could sustain an insurgency for only a few years before they turned to groups from across the border in Pakistan. They could not sustain it," says Professor Baba.
Journalist Shujaat Bukhari echoes a similar sentiment.
"You have to understand the dynamics of militancy in Kashmir to realise that militancy cannot be sustained for long. In the early 1990s Kashmir was literally pushed into violence. And then they soon got fed up with it. Local groups passed on the baton to foreign militants during the peak of militancy, and the number of local militants went down," he says. "Al-Qaeda will not get any support here. The ground is just not fertile for them to take root."
Also, the disputed region's separatists admit in private conversations that there is no place for extremist groups like a-Qaeda in Kashmir. "Their ideology," says a Kashmir-based observer, "of sectarianism and violence will never be acceptable or work in Kashmir."