India withdraws security for Kashmiri separatists, stoking fears

Controversial move by home ministry comes days after suicide attack on paramilitary forces that killed 42 Indian troops.

Kashmir - Curfew
Indian soldiers patrol during a curfew in Jammu on Saturday following the deadly attack [AFP]

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Analysts and pro-Indian political leaders have warned of an escalation in tensions after a decision to withdraw the security detail for top Kashmiri separatist leaders.

The move by India’s home ministry came days after a suicide attack on Indian paramilitary forces that killed 42 Indian troops in the restive region and raised fears of a confrontation with Pakistan

On Sunday, a formal order was issued to remove government protection given to the region’s four separatist leaders because of the attack. 

“In view of the recent terror attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Lethpora village in Pulwama, the government of India has emphasised the need to immediately review the wastage of police resources in providing unnecessary security to a large number of non-government persons, particularly relevant in the context of security provided to separatists and their sympathisers,” the order said.

The announcement could lead to further crises in the region, which has been engulfed in violence for years, analysts said. Last year was the deadliest in nearly a decade, with the highest number of casualties of rebels, security personnel and civilians.

More polarisation

In the past, several Kashmiri separatist leaders have been assassinated under mysterious circumstances.

While India has blamed Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI for its role in eliminating leaders for their alleged willingness to compromise on the disputed region, pro-separatist leaders in Jammu and Kashmir state have also been a thorn in the side of Indian security agencies.

Ajai Sahni, a defence and security analyst based in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera: “The entire orientation of this [BJP] government as far as Jammu and Kashmir is concerned has been directed towards their own electoral interest.”

“They [BJP] use polarisation as a principal weapon for whatever they have been doing in the region, and this step will feed more polarisation. This is essentially going to appeal to the constituency who have been demanding these things for a long time. It is not a considered move by the state apparatus. It is a political move. If these people are under threat, the state cannot simply remove their security,” he said.

Sahni said there has been a political destabilisation in Kashmir for the past five years. “That’s why we are in a condition that we are in now,” he said.

With separatist leaders enjoying overwhelming public support in the Muslim-majority state, any attack on them carries the potential to trigger a new law-and-order crisis in the restive state. 

“If something happens, anyone is attacked, it will impact the local situation. It will put pressure on local police and the governor,” another security analyst, Rahul Bedi, told Al Jazeera.

Police officials in the region expressed the same fear of attacks on the Kashmiri leadership.

“Some of these leaders have been attacked several times. It’s worrying. If anything happens it will be difficult to handle,” a senior police official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

The latest attack has also escalated tension between India and Pakistan, with New Delhi warning Islamabad of reprisals. The Indian government has also accused the separatist leaders of “receiving money from Pakistan and its intelligence agencies”.

Separatist leaders in Kashmir demand an independent state or a merger with Pakistan.

‘Diverting attention’

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, one of the four separatist leaders whose security was withdrawn, accused the Indian government of “diverting the attention from the Kashmir dispute”.

“The government provided me security. I did not ask for it. And now they have withdrawn it. Let them. They just want to divert the attention of people from the real issue, which is Kashmir’s struggle for the right to self-determination,” he told Al Jazeera.

Umar, whose father Moulvi Mohammad Farooq was assassinated by unidentified gunmen in 1990, said he would continue to “fight against the Indian oppression in Kashmir”.

“This won’t affect us; our struggle will continue. We won’t change our stand,” Farooq said.

Another separatist leader, Abdul Gani Bhat – leader of the Muslim Conference – said “it is a non-issue” for them.

“The government kept these guards in our offices and homes. It was their decision. We never told them to give us any security. I even requested them once to withdraw it. Even our security and the recent attack has no connection. They are deliberately connecting the two things,” Bhat told Al Jazeera.  

“Without anybody guarding me with a gun, I will move freely.”

Adviser to the state governor, Vijay Kumar, told Al Jazeera the decision was made by the federal home affairs ministry and “they are looking into some more nuances of it”. 

‘Knee-jerk reaction’

Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and a senior pro-India politician, called the step as “knee-jerk reaction”. 

“Why was the security granted to them? It was because of the threat perception. And who assessed that threat perception? It was the government. Many leaders were killed and that was the basis why security was granted. That’s what a country has to do for its citizens,” Mufti said.

The killing of dozens of Indian security forces by a 20-year-old Kashmiri suicide bomber has triggered xenophobic attacks against Kashmiris in several parts of India by right-wing groups.

On Sunday, the Himalayan region observed a complete shutdown to protest the reprisal attacks.

Source: Al Jazeera