The supreme commander of Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), Syed Salahuddin – a Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant who was declared a global terrorist by US authorities last year – appears quite determined to take the Kashmir struggle forward to its “logical conclusion,” come what may. While Pakistan is under pressure from the Trump administration to clean up its act, Salahuddin remains as defiant as ever.
The US move against Salahuddin and his Kashmiri militant organization looks to have had zero impact. Salahuddin, labeled a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ (SDGT), simply laughs the designation off.
“Pakistan has just ignored the Trump administration’s wrong-headed decision of terming a ‘freedom fighter’ a ‘terrorist,’” which violates United Nations resolutions and the US Constitution,” he tells Asia Times in an exclusive interview. “Pakistan knows very well that a ‘mujahid’ cannot be a ‘terrorist,’ [and therefore] continues to provide ‘moral’ and ‘diplomatic’ support to the forces fighting for the right of self-determination in Kashmir.”
His assertion reinforces India’s claims that Pakistani authorities have been lending support to militant outfits in the region.
Pakistan issued afatwa known as ‘Paigham-e-Pakistan‘ (“Pakistan’s message”) on January 16 this year. It empowers only Pakistan’s federal government, rather than militant groups, to announce holy wars (jihad). Terming the decree a “blessing,” Salahuddin’s response is to suggest that the government use it to declare a holy war in Kashmir.
“Pakistan is pursuing a weak Kashmir policy in the face of deepening political chaos,” Salahuddin says. Mounting international pressure to end support for the “Kashmir resistance struggle” and other Islamist movements against US intervention in the region has diverted the focus of Pakistan’s policymakers, he contends.
Government sources told Asia Times that Pakistan has asked such militants to keep a low profile. Salahuddin denies, however, that the government has laid any restrictions on his movements or barred the HM from participating in public activity. “I participated in the public meetings held on October 27 last year and again addressed the Kashmir Martyrs Day rally on November 27,” he claims.
Despite minimal activity in most of Pakistan, HM leaders are certainly active on the Muzaffarabad side of Pakistan-held Kashmir. They enjoy high-level security cover there – provided by the country’s premier agencies. Salahuddin insists that “the HM struggle for Kashmir ‘liberation’ has gained momentum after the India-US nexus conspired to crush Kashmiris.”
When the armed militancy erupted in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the 1980s, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a group of young Kashmiri men trained in Pakistan, played a leading role. As the Indian Army began to recover lost ground over subsequent years, the HM established itself as the most prominent Kashmiri militant group to operate in the Kashmir Valley. However, following major reverses, its influence waned, and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) began to emerge. Unlike the HM, the LeT had mostly Pakistani cadres.
The rise of a young Kashmiri man on social media a few years ago revived the HM, however. Burhan Wani’s Facebook and Twitter postings garnered him a massive following in the Valley. On July 8, 2016, Wani was killed by Indian security forces following a brief gun battle. As soon as the news of his death spread, massive protests erupted across the Valley, leading to more deaths, and hundreds being maimed by pellets fired by the police.
Salahuddin, acknowledging Wani’s loss, believes the HM has created enough awareness among the youth to “give a tough time to the Indian forces whenever a Kashmiri dies.” In fact, Wani’s death gave Kashmiri jihad a new lease of life, he says. “We have now trained a score of youth in Kashmir to utilize social media channels to disseminate the message of Kashmiri jihad and to motivate the people to support the armed resistance.”
There have been rumors of links to Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) and Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative political party. Salahuddin denies these but hastens to add that a majority of Pakistanis support HM’s cause. “We have ‘spiritual bonds’ with Jamaat-e-Islami and share its religious and ideological perception, but other than that HM has no link whatsoever with Jamaat-e-Islami,” he says.
It is worth stating, for the record, that these ‘spiritual bonds’ include the fact that Jammat-e-Islami’s media wing ran HM’s media and public relations operations for several years out of Punjab.