Black Flags, Dark Motives

Symbol of terror Masked youth show off the IS flag in downtown Srinagar
Symbol of terror Masked youth show off the IS flag in downtown Srinagar. Photo: Faisal Khan

Since June, the flags of the Islamic State (IS) have been waved three times in downtown Srinagar, triggering some media alarm that the dreaded terrorist group might be on its way to the Kashmir Valley. But security agencies are split over the prospect of the IS making an entry into the Valley, with the army voicing concern over the frequent flag-waving and the police ruling out that the group has any presence in the state.

A police investigation of the youth behind the flags has revealed that they had no terror links. After the first is flags went up in downtown Srinagar in June, the J&K Police arrested an 18-year-old youth — the alleged kingpin of the five-member group that had resorted to the action during a protest. The police also arrested some painters from Maisuma who had drawn the IS symbols on the flags as well as the tailor who had sewed it.

But on questioning, it turned out that the youth had nothing to do with the IS, who are fighting in Iraq and Syria, and that it was an attempt to create a “fake security scare” and draw attention to the Kashmir issue. “They had no affiliation with IS. They just thought it would create some news,” said a police officer.

Incidentally, the police also detained the stringer of a national news channel to probe if he had set up the flag display “to get himself some exclusive news”. The youth were later let off on the direction of a local court.

Ever since, the flags have gone up two more times in downtown Srinagar, forcing the police to register two separate cases against unknown persons at Nowhatta and Eidgah police stations.

However, the army has taken serious note of the development. General Officer Commanding Lt Gen Subrata Saha has sought the “highest attention” of the security agencies to prevent the Kashmiri youth from being lured into the ranks of IS. “This is something that merits the concern of all the security agencies,” he said.

As usual, separatist groups have ruled out any role for the is in Kashmir, with Hurriyat G chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani terming the organisation “un-Islamic” and condemning its excesses in Iraq and Syria. Moderate Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq asserted that they didn’t want Kashmir to be a ground for any movement that had a different agenda than theirs.

But does the IS stand a real chance of setting up a base in Kashmir? Few in the state think so. “If the IS can come to Kashmir, so could have the Taliban and al Qaeda. But they haven’t,” says Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. “In the past, similar graffiti had announced the arrival of the Taliban and al Qaeda, but that didn’t happen.”

In June 2007, a 15-minute video clip that had an alleged al Qaeda commander declaring the group’s plans to open a Kashmir chapter caused concern in New Delhi. The then Union home secretary Madhukar Gupta called for an urgent need to probe the clip, as according to him, it had security implications that couldn’t be ignored.

Similarly, as recently as April 2013, some unknown persons hoisted Taliban flags across the walls of the Hari Parbhat fort overlooking Srinagar, which houses the CRPF. The flags were visible from a distance, prompting the police to pull these down and register a case.

The walls of the historic Afghan fort also carried anti- India graffiti. Slogans such as ‘Welcome Taliban, Go India Go Back’, had been painted across the fort wall. This was for the first time that the fort was used by suspected separatist activists to send a political message.

However, the frequent waving of the IS flags by masked youth who ensure that they get noticed by the media has made some quarters believe that something is fishy. “From making the flags to their display in public, there is a lot of effort that is involved,” said a police officer. “We are also trying to understand what informs this process, and whether these boys are doing it in their independent capacity or somebody is pulling the strings.”

On the other hand, the separatists believe that security agencies are likely to be behind the incidents. “There are two things: one, considering that the IS has acquired global infamy for its terrorist methods, India is trying to identify the just struggle of Kashmir with terrorism. Second, it could be some youth venting their frustration against New Delhi,” says Hurriyat G spokesman Ayaz Akber. “In both cases, it goes against the interests of the freedom struggle.”

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