SRINAGAR — Hours before the United States designated Kashmir rebel leader Syed Salahuddin a global terrorist, he appeared in a video calling for strikes in the Himalayan territory in remembrance of another rebel leader whose killing by Indian forces last July triggered months of deadly protests.
The U.S. State Department’s announcement June 26 coincided with an official visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington. It said Salahuddin “has committed, or poses a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism.”
But to his vast Kashmiri following, Salahuddin, 71, is seen as a hero and his cause of ousting India from the mostly Muslim region is considered just.
Salahuddin is now based on the Pakistani side of the divided territory, where he leads Kashmir’s largest indigenous rebel group fighting Indian rule across a heavily militarized de-facto border. The group, Hizbul Mujahideen, says the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir should be absorbed by Pakistan, reuniting the two sides as the single territory that existed before India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947.
A SIMMERING DISPUTE
The status of Kashmir has been a key dispute between India and Pakistan since the two split after the end of British colonial rule and each claimed the territory. They each control part of Kashmir and have fought two wars over their rival claims. Initially, the anti-India movement in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir was largely peaceful, but after a series of political blunders, broken promises and a crackdown on dissent, Kashmiris launched a full-blown armed revolt in 1989.
Salahuddin is considered to have been instrumental in getting Kashmir to the point of rebellion.
Then known by his real name, Mohammed Yusuf Shah, Salahuddin and others helped political dissidents unite and contest state assembly elections in Indian-held Kashmir. The resulting Muslim United Front became a formidable force against the pro-India political elite, but still lost an election in 1987 that was widely criticized as rigged.
Salahuddin ran for an assembly seat, and lost, in the main city of Srinagar. He was dragged out of the ballot-counting hall and detained for months without charges, triggering a strong public backlash.
Young activists from the Muslim United Front began crossing over to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where they allegedly were armed and trained by the Pakistani military. Pakistan denies giving anything other than political and moral support to the insurgency.
KASHMIR BOILS OVER
By 1989, Kashmir was in the throes of a full-blown rebellion. Many militant groups surfaced, with up to 20,000 rebels staging bloody attacks on the Indian security establishment and pro-India Kashmiri politicians. India responded with a massive militarization of Kashmir’s cities, towns and countryside, saying it was fighting a Pakistan-sponsored proxy war. It unleashed a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, and soldiers were given broad impunity and allowed to shoot suspects on sight or detain them indefinitely.
Salahuddin crossed over to the Pakistani side in 1991, and within a few months returned to the Indian side to lead Hizbul Mujahideen. Five years later he went back to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where he led the United Jihad Council, an umbrella group of 13 Kashmiri rebel organizations that is understood to have links to the Pakistani military.
The rebellion raged for about a decade, leaving some 70,000 Kashmiris dead in the fighting and ensuing Indian crackdown. By 2011, the militancy had largely been crushed. Most anti-India sentiment is now expressed through regular strikes and street protests by tens of thousands of civilians. The protests often lead to clashes between rock-throwing youths and rifle-toting soldiers.
On June 26, Salahuddin called for a week of resistance, including two days of strikes, starting July 8, the anniversary of last year’s killing of Burhan Wani, a young, charismatic leader. Wani’s death enraged Kashmiris, who began resisting anti-rebel sweeps in remote villages.
HERO OR TERROR SUSPECT?
Political experts in Kashmir were surprised at the U.S. decision to list Salahuddin as a global terrorist. The Kashmir conflict has mostly been left out of global discussions and treated as a regional dispute, far from threatening Europe, the U.S. or other far-off nations.
The U.S. State Department said Salahuddin had “vowed to block any peaceful resolution to the Kashmir conflict, threatened to train more Kashmiri suicide bombers, and vowed to turn the Kashmir Valley into a graveyard for Indian forces.”
The timing of the decision was also unexpected, given that militancy has largely died down since the U.S. began pressuring Pakistan to rein in the rebels in 2011. India has failed to win popular support, though, and many in Kashmir still call for “azadi,” or freedom.
“I don’t think this is a principled position,” and instead seems guided by U.S. economic and political interests, said Prof. Noor Ahmed Baba, who teaches political science at the Central University of Kashmir. “This man, per se, is not directed against America or its citizens. His activities have remained confined to Kashmir.”
He warned of the “dangerous” likelihood of antagonizing Pakistan, which “can further push the country closer to the emerging China-Russia alignment.” It could also complicate U.S. efforts to reinforce troop deployments in Afghanistan.
South Asia expert Paul Staniland said, however, the designation would have “bigger impact on Indian TV channels than on overall U.S. policy,” and so may not change much.
“It’s a way to play nice with Modi for his visit and to send a signal to Pakistan without doing anything actually very costly or inconvenient,” said Staniland, who teaches political science at the University of Chicago.
Others questioned why the U.S. would designate someone an alleged terrorist who posed no threat to the West.
“It is significant because the U.S. designates only those as terrorists who harm American interests, which Salahuddin doesn’t do. Harms only India,” Kashmiri journalist Ahmed Ali Fayyaz, who has known Salahuddin for decades, said on Twitter.
And in Salahuddin’s home village of Soibugh, residents were stunned that he had grabbed U.S. attention.
“Earlier, India and Pakistan would use Kashmir to further their agendas. But now it has shifted to the global arena, where America is using Kashmir to appease New Delhi in tapping Indian markets,” villager Mohammed Akbar said. “Our misery continues.”
INDIA CHEERS, PAKISTAN ASSAILS
India welcomed the U.S. State Department announcement, delivered just hours before Prime Minister Modi met with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington.
“What the U.S. did is correct,” Indian Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi said in New Delhi. “This declaration by the U.S. may probably help in impacting his movements and funding.”
Pakistani officials said they felt betrayed and alarmed, while Salahuddin’s supporters demonstrated in Pakistani Kashmir, shouting anti-Indian slogans and burning the Indian flag.
Sardar Masood Khan, the president of Pakistan’s portion of Kashmir, denied that Salahuddin or Hizbul Mujahideen had anything to do with terrorism, saying the group was engaged “in a struggle for the freedom of occupied Kashmir.”
The Pakistani foreign ministry called the designation “completely unjustified.”
The United Jihadi Council, the rebel umbrella group chaired by Salahuddin, also decried the U.S. decision.
“Syed Salahuddin is the symbol of the Kashmir Freedom movement,” spokesman Syed Sadaqat Hussain said in a statement.
“The freedom struggle of Kashmir people is a rightful movement,” he said. “We believe that the freedom-loving nations of the world will also reject this step by the Trump administration.”
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.