Explainer

What’s Behind the Latest Violence in Kashmir?

Militants are attacking minorities and outsiders in pursuit of demographic hegemony.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard during a random search along a street in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir, on Nov. 9, a day after a salesman was shot to death by suspected anti-India militants.
Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard during a random search along a street in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir, on Nov. 9, a day after a salesman was shot to death by suspected anti-India militants. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images

A deadly wave of attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir this fall has brought back haunting memories of the 1990s, when militancy in the region was at its peak.

Kashmir, a picturesque valley nestled in the Himalayas that is often lamented as a lost paradise, witnessed a total of 39 killings in October alone, including 13 civilians and several Indian soldiers and militants. After the attacks continued into November with the shootings of a policeman and a local Muslim shop staffer, New Delhi deployed an additional 5,500 troops into the valley. 

The spate of attacks began on the evening of Oct. 5, when pharmacist Makhan Lal Bindroo was shot to death by Islamist militants in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. That same evening, a Hindu street vendor from an eastern Indian state was killed in one of the city’s bustling markets. Two days later, militants marched into a government-run school there and shot the principal and a teacher—a Sikh and a Hindu, respectively—at point-blank range.

A deadly wave of attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir this fall has brought back haunting memories of the 1990s, when militancy in the region was at its peak.

Kashmir, a picturesque valley nestled in the Himalayas that is often lamented as a lost paradise, witnessed a total of 39 killings in October alone, including 13 civilians and several Indian soldiers and militants. After the attacks continued into November with the shootings of a policeman and a local Muslim shop staffer, New Delhi deployed an additional 5,500 troops into the valley. 

The spate of attacks began on the evening of Oct. 5, when pharmacist Makhan Lal Bindroo was shot to death by Islamist militants in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. That same evening, a Hindu street vendor from an eastern Indian state was killed in one of the city’s bustling markets. Two days later, militants marched into a government-run school there and shot the principal and a teacher—a Sikh and a Hindu, respectively—at point-blank range.

Each killing carried a message. Bindroo’s family is among the last 800 Kashmiri Pandit families that remain in their ancestral region. In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits—an upper-caste Hindu group native to Kashmir—fled the valley after receiving threats from radical Islamists to forcibly convert to Islam. Experts said Bindroo’s cold-blooded killing was meant to dissuade the diasporic Kashmiri Pandit community from returning.


Back up. Why is Kashmir so contentious?

The 1947 Indian Independence Act divided colonial-era British India into two new countries: India and Pakistan. Kashmir’s Hindu monarch was free to accede to either. Although initially indecisive, he chose to join India after Kashmir was invaded by a Pakistani tribal army at the behest of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. A war then broke out between Indian and Pakistani troops, and a year later, India raised the issue of Kashmir before the United Nations Security Council.

The U.N. intervened, and India and Pakistan agreed to a cease-fire. The U.N. resolution called for a referendum to ascertain the will of the Kashmiri people—but only after Pakistan withdrew its troops and India reduced its military presence to a minimum. Neither country followed through, which effectively split Kashmir into India-administered and Pakistan-administered regions.

Both India and Pakistan continue to claim Kashmir in its entirety and have had several wars over the territory. As each acquired nuclear arms, their rivalry has become a major security concern for peace and stability in the world.

While Pakistan-administered Kashmir has become religiously homogeneous over the past decades, Indian-administered Kashmir is home to several religious groups. Pakistan-administered Kashmir is 99 percent Muslim, with negligible numbers of Hindus and Buddhists registering at 0.6 percent and 0.3 percent, respectively, according to the 2017 census. In Indian-administered Kashmir, 68.3 percent of inhabitants are Muslim, 28.4 percent are Hindus, 1.9 percent are Sikhs, 0.9 percent are Buddhists, and 0.3 percent are Christians, according to the 2011 census.


Why are Kashmir’s minorities being targeted again now?

The Resistance Front (TRF), the outfit that claimed responsibility for the attacks on Bindroo and others, is reported to have said it will attack any “stooges and collaborators” and “outside domicile holders” to discourage them from seeking residence and buying property in Kashmir. Around 400,000 Indian workers travel to Kashmir every year to work as carpenters, tailors, and masons. But ever since the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special status in 2019, they can seek permanent residency.

Dilbagh Singh, the director-general of police in Indian-administered Kashmir, said the TRF is a front for the Pakistan-backed terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba and a local militant organization called Hizbul Mujahideen. “There is a pattern as they want to terrorize the minority community,” Singh told the Daily Excelsior.

Lashkar-e-Taiba has carried out many lethal attacks in India, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which terrorists killed as many as 166 people. Pakistan has steadily denied all charges of involvement in terrorist attacks against India.


Tell me more about Kashmir’s special status.

In August 2019, the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had promised autonomy to Indian-administered Kashmir. This move brought the region firmly under the central government’s control and split it into two union territories or federal units: Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Local politicians were replaced with New Delhi-appointed governors.

The Indian government also revoked Article 35A, which barred nonlocals from settling in Kashmir permanently by denying them the right to buy or own immovable property there. Since 2019, however, only two Indians have purchased properties in Jammu and Kashmir, according to a written reply by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs to parliament.


Why did Modi revoke Articles 370 and 35A?

At the time, Modi claimed Articles 370 and 35A hindered the economic development of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Writing in the Financial Times in 2019, Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar argued the change was “fully in consonance” with Modi’s vision to “spread digital access, improve skills, boost start-ups, manufacturing, generate jobs and embrace technology.” His government also said the previous state of autonomy, which was meant to be temporary, promoted instability and abetted corruption of the political elite.

Since August 2019, the Indian government has launched many projects to revive the region’s economy, including laying the foundations of hospitals and a medical college to improve Kashmir’s health infrastructure. It also boasted of an increase in tourism opposite a decrease in terrorism.

But while New Delhi has claimed success, local politicians said many recently finished projects were initiated long before Articles 370 and 35A were revoked. Moreover, they stress Kashmir performed much better on human development indicators, such as life expectancy and poverty rates, prior to August 2019 and claim the bump in tourism can be chalked up to pandemic-related restrictions on international travel.


What’s next for Kashmir? 

In April, the Modi government said there has been a 60 percent reduction in terrorist attacks in Kashmir since August 2019. Yet local politicians warned recent killings exposed that all is not “normal,” as claimed by New Delhi. In fact, violence may be on the rise: A report by the BBC found that, since 2019, more young Kashmiris have felt drawn toward armed struggle. Many militant groups contend that, through Modi’s maneuvers, Kashmiris risk losing their land to wealthier Indians and, with it, their political identity.

But security analysts say it is too soon to spell doom for the region’s new constitutional arrangement. At least three TRF militants responsible for the recent killings have already been killed by Indian security forces, and the police maintain that as many as 130 terrorists, in their words, have been killed in the valley this year, while 700 overground workers or handlers have been arrested.

The mood in the valley, however, is tense. Many nonlocal Indian workers and Kashmiri Pandits have been moved to Indian Army camps to ensure their safety.

The good news is the cease-fire brokered between India and Pakistan along the Line of Control in February has largely held. The Indian government, nonetheless, is circumspect of Pakistan’s promises and worries Pakistan might use the Taliban’s return in Afghanistan to spawn more or hide existing anti-India jihadis to infiltrate Kashmir.

Kashmiris, for their part, are still waiting to sample the economic growth Modi guaranteed when he snatched their political autonomy. Many feel angry and frustrated that they were silenced into acquiescence by boots on the ground and the ever-looming fear of arrests by authorities.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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