NEW DELHI – Since the fall of Kabul, fear is rising in Indian-administered Kashmir and in New Delhi that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan points to a possible return to its most bloody ever decade of anti-India militancy in the region – a 1990s redux.
The territory is bounded on the west by Pakistan; the Afghan border lies several hundred kilometers further west. But it has been the site of a roiling dispute between India and Pakistan since both states’ independence in 1947, including two wars, and a simmering conflict between India and China since 1962, whose latest lethal skirmishes occurred just over a year ago.
And within Indian-administered Kashmir itself, there has been an intensified tension between New Delhi, which two years ago stripped the country's only Muslim majority state of its limited autonomy, arguing it was feeding anti-India militancy and hampering development, and a spectrum of separatist groups including militants, some of whom are widely acknowledged to be backed by Pakistan.
Kashmir has long been captive to events in Afghanistan. Back in 1989, the Soviet superpower negotiated its exit from Afghanistan after the Mujahideen dealt it a humiliating defeat. Five months later an anti-India insurgency erupted, triggered by rigged elections in which New Delhi ensured the victory of a coalition of Indian nationalist parties over an Islamist coalition many predicted would win.
Those ‘results’ were followed by thousands of local youth crossing over into Pakistan for weapons training and, joined by armed militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan, they entered Indian administered Kashmir touting AK-47 assault rifles to confront the Indian state, unmoved by the cost that would be borne by the civilian population.
Thus Kashmir became an incubator and testing ground for Islamist Afghan Mujahideen who, along with thousands of local militants, ruled the streets of Kashmir for nearly half a decade. 26,103 people were killed in Kashmir from 1990 to 2000.
Now, India is anxious the same script – the infiltration of a new generation of Afghan Islamist militants – is about to play itself out.
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Nearly 50 foreign fighters from banned militant outfits, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jash-e-Mohammad (JeM), which have strong links with the Haqqani network, fought against the U.S. in Afghanistan and now are now participants in the Taliban government, have entered Kashmir in the past few weeks, according to official data shared by Indian security agencies.
Security observers say the Taliban may now shift their gaze towards Kashmir.
In a September press conference in Kabul, the foreign minister stated Taliban policy: to stand with "Kashmir and everywhere where there is tyranny."
"The most immediate concern for India lies in the cross-border terrorist threat," Stanford University Asian security analyst Arzan Tarapore told me.
"We know that anti-India transnational networks, especially LeT and JeM, operate closely with the Afghan Taliban. With the Talibs now ascendant in Afghanistan, we may see foreign fighters turn their gaze to another front in their jihad. It doesn’t help that the Taliban has publicly singled out Kashmir as a matter of concern," he added.
It's a major reversal of what New Delhi had been celebrating as a steep decline in militancy and the infiltration of foreign fighters into Kashmir, which it attributed to the annexation of the territory.
In February this year, India's home affairs minister of state told parliament of a dramatic fall in infiltration attempts, from 2016 in 2019 to 99 in 2020, "the lowest in a decade." The actual number of foreign militants who managed to infiltrate Kashmir peaked in 2018, at 143, falling to 138 in 2019 and to just 23 last year, according to data from India's Ministry of Home Affairs.
But now, for the first time since annexation, the number of foreign militants crossing the border with Pakistan is rising.
Over just the last week, militants believed to have infiltrated from Pakistan have killed nine Indian soldiers. And in a sign that New Delhi is facing a two-pronged conflict, nine non-Muslim civilians, including a well-known pharmacist, Makhan Lal Bindroo, and two school teachers, were killed by local militants.
A little-known outfit, The Resistance Front (TRF), claimed responsibility, accusing those killed of collaborating with a right-wing Hindutva agenda to implement the "nefarious designs of the [Indian] occupier" in Kashmir. Police say the group formed after annexation and is a local front for the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba militant outfit.
The local militant groups hope to capitalize on the sense of alienation and insecurity felt by the Kashmiri Muslim majority, while violently intimidating non-Muslim minorities.
Muslim Kashmiris' faith in the elections and the democratic process, already shaken by the rigged 1987 elections, was convulsed further when the region’s special autonomy was abrogated in 2019. A generation of Kashmiris now fears New Delhi is not only determined to quash their voices, but also to re-engineer the state's demography and economy to dilute its Muslim majority and entrench centralized control.
Kashmir has long had a fragile security environment, but Kashmiris also know that for New Delhi, 'national security' writ large will always be a prize card to delegitimize dissent and legitimize an unrelated government agenda. And some Kashmiris draw on an analogy comparing New Delhi's overarching policy to Israel's West Bank settlements, with Kashmir standing in for Palestine.
That is the contention of an alliance of Kashmir-centric pro-India political parties, the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, which issued a statement this month accusing the BJP government of annexing Kashmir as an answer to a "long-standing demand of the Hindutva elements, with an eye no doubt on altering the demographic composition of the only Muslim-majority state in the country, rather like Israel is doing on Palestinian lands."
They also attacked Delhi's "systemic disempowerment" of the people of Kashmir, and directly contradicted its claims that annexation had brought peace, quashed terrorism and nurtured democracy, calling them "nothing but a concocted and fabricated stories" belied by "the situation on the ground."
The spate of killings targeting non-Muslims brought back haunting memories of the 1990s, when the majority of Kashmir's Hindus fled the region fearing militant attacks, and the Indian state carried out a widespread crackdown on the majority Muslim community. Thousands of migrant laborers and a handful of employees from minority communities have begun to flee Kashmir.
"Political violence in India is intimately tied to a demographic imagination," says political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta. That there could be a policy of deliberate demographic change is a "palpably real" popular fear among the majority Muslim population, but there are various parties invested in escalating tensions and fear.
On the one side, there's the Modi government: "The narrative of Hindutva feeds on contrived fears of demographic domination by minorities," adds Mehta.
On the other hand, "Pakistan and separatists are creating the fear of demography change in Kashmir," senior Kashmiri Pandit leader Sanjay Tickoo tells me. Tickoo heads a group fighting for the rights of the 808 families from the historic Pandit (Kashmiri Hindu) community who didn’t flee the violence of the 1990s.
Even as the government established a minority communities' distress helpline, Tickoo says the public support from the Muslim community is the remedy to stop their further migration. "[The] authorities have asked us not to venture out of our homes but I believe if the majority community publicly supports us then we are safe here," said Tickoo.
Indian security forces in Kashmir have responded with an iron hand, detaining over 700 people, mostly young men including minors, in a sweeping crackdown.
For Delhi, a perfect storm could be brewing: Rising local separatist and Islamist militancy, increased Indian militarization, and increasing pressure wrought by a re-energized flow of militants from Afghanistan infiltrating Indian-administered Kashmir, pushing the story of a shared enemy and destiny, if not strategy, weaponry and organization, between those local Kashmiri militant groups and themselves.
Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen made this explicit in a BBC interview last month: "As Muslims, we also have a right to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India or any other country."
India's ambassador in Kabul from 2010 to 2013, Gautam Mukhopadhaya warns that India is now facing an open-ended and newly empowered terror threat: Afghanistan, he says, may be "poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India."
Although officially, both the Haqqani network and the Taliban have forsworn "meddling" in Kashmir, declaring it was time to turn over a new leaf with New Delhi, it is not surprising that India takes these assurances with a grain of salt, not least in view of the rising number of infiltrators and attacks and the potential use of proxies for easier deniability.
With defense experts and Indian army officials warning that India could be facing a two-front war with both China and Pakistan, the precarious security situation in Kashmir and the disaffected local population mean the ascent of new rulers in Kabul, no matter how mollifying their current tone, is a snowballing national security headache for India.
Samaan Lateef is an India-based journalist writing for the UK’s Daily Telegraph. He grew up in India-administered Kashmir and has written extensively on South Asia politics, human rights, minorities, and border conflicts between India, China, and Pakistan. Twitter: @Samaanlateef