By Avantika Deb
The restive Jammu and Kashmir region in northern India has witnessed a significant surge in violence since early October. Targeted militant attacks and a crackdown by security forces have resulted in the deaths of at least 42 people, including suspected rebels. A nascent offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) known as The Resistance Front (TRF) is believed to be behind the targeted killings. The TRF is likely to significantly complicate Indian counterinsurgency operations through unique strategies, as the long-standing Kashmir autonomy dispute characterised by secessionist sentiments remains unresolved.
Targets and strategies
While TRF is known to be backed by LeT, Indian security officials claim that it is also supported by Pakistani intelligence. The first known attack carried out by TRF was in October 2019 when at least eight civilians were injured in a grenade explosion in Srinagar. After declaring their existence, TRF claimed themselves to be an “indigenous resistance of Kashmir to flush out the occupational Indian regime”; Indian authorities believe that this declaration is meant to obscure TRF’s ties to Pakistan.
Throughout 2020, TRF claimed responsibility for several attacks targeting security forces and civilians in parts of Kashmir, particularly Srinagar, Kupwara and Baramulla. The new surge of attacks since October 2021, however, seems to be targeting Hindu and Sikh minorities and non-Kashmiris like migrant workers; TRF claimed that it is only targeting those working for Indian authorities. At least 13 civilians have been killed in separate attacks since last month, including three migrant workers in Kulgam and two minority community teachers inside a government school in Srinagar.
TRF’s strategies are different from those of other major terror outfits operating in the region, such as LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen. It maintains a low profile and secrecy regarding the identity of its members, unlike other groups. At the same time, it uses social media to promote its views and to claim responsibility for its attacks; in fact, it is perhaps the only group that gives an explanation behind every single killing. The most prominent strategy used by the TRF is the deployment of ordinary civilians to perform violent acts against soft targets, as opposed to deploying its own recruits. These “hybrid militants” are harder to track since they are not on police watchlists.
Roots of the problem
Policies designed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government have exacerbated the tense security environment in Kashmir. The TRF came into existence right after the government revoked Article 370 and Article 35A of the Constitution which took away a semi-autonomous status and special rights from Jammu and Kashmir, which is the only Muslim-majority region of India. The autonomy provisions were originally intended to preserve the region’s distinct demographic character. The move was followed by harsh and controversial measures restricting movement and telecommunications in the region, during which opposition leaders were arrested and strikes and protests were prohibited.
Potential for further attacks
In response to the recent attacks, authorities have ramped up security and counterinsurgency measures in the Kashmir Valley. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has deployed hundreds of additional personnel to conduct checkings on up to 8,000 vehicles and 15,000 people daily. The longest-ever security operation went on for at least 16 days in Poonch and Rajouri districts in late October.
However, the targeted killings seem to continue unabated, the latest being the shootings of a police constable and a shopkeeper in early November. Another challenge for Indian authorities is the prominent discontent displayed by anti-government protesters over the brutal measures used by security forces. Further terror attacks are very likely to continue in the near-term as the TRF militants continue to develop new guerilla-style tactics with the aid of locals who are displeased with the central government’s response to the crisis.
The long-drawn conflict in India’s Jammu and Kashmir region has witnessed the emergence of a new terror outfit following the central government’s implementation of controversial policies. The Resistance Front (TRF), an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) jihadist organisation, has carried out multiple targeted attacks in recent months resulting in revamped counterinsurgency operations and a severe worsening of an already disastrous situation.
Avantika Deb is an India-based political and security risk analyst covering South and East Asia.