NEW DELHI -- The number of foreign militants is rising in Indian administered Kashmir for the first time since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government scrapped the region's limited autonomy in 2019, forcing New Delhi to adjust to a shifting geopolitical environment following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August.
Many of the foreign fighters crossing into Kashmir are affiliated with Jash-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), groups based in Pakistan that have been fighting together with the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction, in Afghanistan. They are entering northern Kashmir from Pakistan, an Indian police official in Srinagar told Nikkei Asia.
According to the latest Indian police data seen by Nikkei, 50 foreign militants, mostly from Pakistan's Punjab Province and tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, have infiltrated since July and are active in northern Kashmir, which is a part of India's union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
The number of active foreign militants tracked in 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. The decline in foreign fighters reflected tighter security in India in the run-up to abolition of the region's semi-autonomous status in August 2019. During that period, hundreds of ill trained local militants were killed in gunbattles with Indian troops.
But the trend seems to be reversing with the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
"There has been a surge in infiltration, yet it's early days. JeM and LeT will get rejuvenated after finishing off in Afghanistan," a senior Indian security official responsible for counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir, told Nikkei on condition of anonymity. "There could be a tactical shift in militancy, but a strategic change would take a little bit more time," he added. The official predicted there will be "more militant boots on the ground" in the region as "changes in weaponry and consistency in attacks would signal a strategic shift."
After the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1989, Islamist militants from various countries entered Kashmir to fight for the region's independence from India. There are growing fears among Indian officials, politicians and experts that Kashmir will see similar infiltration again. Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, recently discussed with army and police officers the need to tighten security along border with Pakistan.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center, said that although he believes LeT and JeM have not cooperated with the Taliban on many operations inside Afghanistan in recent years, they have had a presence in the country.
"The Haqqanis, being the powerful and influential force that they are within the militant networks of the region, have links to many groups, including those that target India," and many regional militants, including those with Kashmir in their crosshairs, have been "galvanized by the Taliban takeover [in Afghanistan]," Kugelman said.
Ram Madhav, a senior member of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who was also responsible for the party's Kashmir affairs until last year, was among the first in India to warn of a Taliban spillover into Kashmir. In a recent tweet, he claimed that the Taliban have trained over 30,000 "mercenaries," and that the group's "leadership [will] now deploy them elsewhere."
"India [should] brace up for serious security challenges. ... The immediate threat is [for] India," Madhav tweeted soon after the Taliban took control of Kabul.
The spike in the number of foreign militants in Kashmir has also raised fears of more attacks on pro-New Delhi politicians in the territory. On Aug. 22, militants lobbed a grenade at a local politician, Narinder Kaur, in Shrakwara-Wagoora in northern Kashmir. "I am scared to move out of my house since then," Kaur said.
Shesh Paul Vaid, former director-general of the police for the Kashmir region, said there are concerns that a spillover of the Taliban into Kashmir will further stretch India's armed forces, which are already facing a likely two-front war with China and Pakistan.
"The LeT and JeM have strong links with [the] Haqqani network, which is traditionally anti-India, and that can have an impact on Kashmir. Their presence can lead to high-profile attacks in Kashmir and the rest of India," said Vaid, who in 1999 supervised the release of JeM leader Masood Azhar and his two associates from a local jail after an Indian plane was hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Adding to the concerns, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen earlier this month said in an interview with the BBC: "As Muslims, we also have a right to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India or any other country."