ISIS in Kashmir: more fiction than reality
On 5 August 2015, the then-Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah revealed that a Kashmiri youth based in Australia had joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the first Kashmiri to do so.
“Heard that a Kashmiri youth from Australia has joined ISIS,” Omar told reporters after inaugurating a rehabilitation complex at Jehangir Chowk area. However, he denied that anyone from Kashmir had joined the terrorist organisation. “According to my knowledge, so far, no one from Kashmir has joined the group or gone to Syria or Iraq. There are no such inputs.”
The youth was later identified as Adil Fayaz Wada from Srinagar's upscale Jawahar Nagar locality. He had been pursuing his MBA degree from Queensland University. After finishing his degree, Wada had told his family that he had got a job in Turkey, after unsuccessfully trying to get one in Australia, Dubai and Qatar.
In January 2016, a 23-year-old youth from Preng village of Ganderbal district, Sheikh Azhar ul Islam was deported from the UAE for being an alleged IS sympathiser, along with two other Indians – Adnan Hussain from Karnataka and Mohammad Farhan from Maharashtra. On their return, they were arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) at the Indira Gandhi International Airport.
And now Afshan Pervaz, 21, a resident of Khanyar, a downtown Srinagar locality, has been deported from Turkey for allegedly trying to join ISIS. According to police, Pervaz had told his family that he wanted to go to Iran for higher studies, and had booked a seat on a flight to Tehran on 23 March, from where, according to the J&K's Director General of Police, SP Vaid, he had moved to Turkey.
This makes Wada the only Kashmiri who has allegedly joined ISIS so far – the second being a sympathiser, and the third caught in the act of allegedly trying to join the group. However, the families of the three have all strongly refuted the charge.
ISIS-like turn in Azadi struggle?
The worry in Kashmir, as security experts will tell you, is not about Kashmiris joining the ISIS, which is seen as a highly unlikely scenario, but an “ISIS-like turn” in the ongoing Azadi struggle.
Stoking these fears is the recent ideological strain within the militant ranks, triggered by former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Zakir Musa's branding of the Kashmir movement as 'Islamic' in nature. He had threatened to chop off the heads of the Hurriyat leaders should they continue to insist that the struggle in Kashmir was political. And on being rebuffed by the PoK-based Hizbul leadership, Musa quit as the commander of the outfit and hinted at striking on his own.
Announcing his exit from in audio slideshow, complete with quotes from Al Qaeda leaders like Imam Anwar Awlaki and Abu Bakr Bashir, Musa said that although he had nothing to do with ISIS and Al Qaeda, he was not against them. But he made it clear that he won't budge from his stand – that the goal of the Kashmir movement is the creation of an Islamic state, and that he would prefer to fight its secularist champions now than after Azadi.
However, in Kashmir, Zakir's Islamist preference has become a cause for grave concern. Some of this concern has also been expressed across social media, where many subscribers insist that the movement in Kashmir is essentially political and not religious. In fact, the Facebook page “Zakir Musa ka kya paigam, Kashmir Banega Darul Islam (What is the message of Zakir Musa? Kashmir will become the abode of Islam)” has just eight likes.
Tarnishing the movement with hardline labels
In Kashmir, the debate about an ISIS takeover of the militancy has become inherently suspect. People generally do not look at it through the prism of a pursuit of Islamist-versus-secular state. In everyday discourse, being Islamic or secular is incidental to a struggle that is taking a daily humanitarian toll in terms of the lives lost and the economy of the state.
The only thing that weighs heavy on the minds of people is a dignified end to the problem. So, people tend to look askance at the attempts to ideologise the movement; more so, when the attempt is to bring in Islam, ISIS or Al Qaeda into the discourse.
“This is seen as a dubious move to tarnish the Kashmiri movement with a hardline Islamist label, to ensure the world doesn't warm up to it,” says the commentator Gowhar Geelani. “People don't like such an attempt, real or imagined.”
And that is why, whenever ISIS flags were hoisted by a few masked youth in downtown Srinagar, people generally suspected the hand of “Indian intelligence agencies” behind it.
But when contacted by the media, some of the youth who either witnessed the hoisting of these flags or approved of the practice explained that its sole purpose was to “offend New Delhi”, rather than emulate the terror outfit, about which they generally knew little.
Besides, more often than not, such flag hoistings are the outcome of the attempt to draw media attention. Earlier, youth in the Valley also flew flags of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, in keeping with the changing jihadist trends in the neighbourhood and across the globe. And with ISIS in the ascendant, the flags of the group, for a while, became a constant with the new protests.
Has Musa patched up with Hizb?
For now, the only thing that points to an apparent ideological shift in the militant struggle are the Islamist observations of Musa, and his consequent exit from Hizbul to pursue an independent religious goal.
However, according to eyewitnesses, Musa was present at the funeral of the slain Hizbul commander Sabzar Bhat, and broke down on seeing the body.
Has he returned to Hizbul? Has there been a patch-up? Nobody knows.
However, things are likely to become clear in the weeks and months ahead.