In the past few days, Kashmir has witnessed the brutal murders of seven civilians, four of them belonging to minority communities.
A terrorist outfit known as The Resistance Front (TRF) has announced that it was behind the targeted killings.
Not much is known about the TRF. It maintains a low profile, unlike other militant organisations like the Hizbul Mujahideen, whose members' faces are quite exposed on social media due to their PR strategies.
Experts, however, have claimed that TRF is a Pakistani/ISI effort "to give terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) an ‘indigenous’ face, and to provide Pakistan’s deep state, an alibi," according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP).
“They don’t have a face,” a senior police officer stationed in Kashmir told Scroll.
He added that these terrorists are aware that "exposing their faces or releasing their pictures and videos will basically make them more vulnerable."
Then what exactly do we know about TRF? Since when has it been active and which attacks has it carried out? How is it different from other terrorist organisations in Kashmir and is it linked to any of them?
Origins of TRF
The Resistance Front was born in the period immediately after the Government of India, led by Narendra Modi, revoked Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution.
Consequently, Jammu and Kashmir's autonomous status ended and the special rights and privileges that "permanent residents" enjoyed were also stripped away.
NIA officials say that the outfit is backed by LeT and was created by Pakistan.
"The TRF, which is an offshoot of LeT, has been created by Pakistan in an apparent bid to make terrorist groups in Kashmir look like indigenous ones. The group has been getting regular support from the neighbouring country," said officials in the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to ANI.
TRF's first known activity was a grenade attack on 12 October 2019 that injured eight civilians in Hari Singh High Street, a few metres away from Srinagar's city square, Lal Chowk, according to Scroll and Hindustan Times.
Following the attack, on the same day, TRF declared its existence and arrival on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
In a statement, it claimed responsibility for the grenade attack, which it believed to be "the inception of indigenous resistance of Kashmir to flush out the occupational Indian regime", reported SATP.
The statement also warned of more attacks in the coming days.
The Indian Army was first alerted to the danger of TRF in April 2020 after a gun fight that was reported to have occurred close to the Line of Control (LoC) in Keran Sector, Kupwara, according to The Hindu.
Although the five militants died in battle, the army claimed that all five were from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and were "well-trained" and "motivated," added The Hindu.
In the first half of 2020, TRF claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks in Srinagar, Kupwara District, and Baramulla District.
Casualties in these attacks included numerous Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, Security Force (SF) personnel, civilians, and the terrorists themselves, according to a detailed timeline prepared by the SATP.
TRF in many ways is different from the other well-known terrorist organisations that operate in Kashmir like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Hizbul Mujahideen.
Firstly, the name itself. While the names of the other three above mentioned terror groups translate to Army of the Pure, Army of Mohammed, and the Party of Holy Fighters respectively, the TRF's title is distinct because it makes absolutely no reference to Islam or Jihad.
As a police offer explained, “the name TRF was an attempt to secularise the idea of jihad to present the Kashmir insurgency as a political cause rather than a religious war," The Hindu reported.
Another distinguishing feature of TRF is maintaining strict secrecy about the identity of its members.
Unlike Hizbul Mujahideen's Burhan Wani, whose identity and face was extensively used to build support for the group, TRF neither reveals the faces of its militants, nor the existing chain of command.
However, that does mean that TRF does not use social media to disseminate information about its terrorist activities.
TRF has used body cameras in the past to film their assaults on the CRPF and the Indian Army.
These snippets help in motivating their viewers, especially youngsters, to join TRF as fresh recruits.
Furthermore, in November last year, TRF militants recorded two soldiers being shot dead from close range, added The Hindu.
TRF also uses online microblogging platform Twitter to claim responsibility for its attacks.
However, one other way in which TRF seems to have departed from orthodox terrorist attacks in Kashmir is how it categorically owns its attacks and provides a justification for it.
According to the senior police officer, “TRF is perhaps the only group which gives an explanation behind every killing, irrespective of (whether there is) any semblance of truth in it or not,” reported Scroll.
For instance, in December 2020, TRF had murdered a jeweller named Satpal Nischal, and justified the killing in a Facebook post in which it accused him of aiding the “settler-colonial project” in Kashmir, and of being an RSS agent, Hindustan Times reported.
Similarly, after the killing of well-known chemist Makhan Lal Bindroo, TRF released a statement in which it accused him of “posing as a medical professional” and “conducting secret seminars” organised by the RSS.
Finally, according to the same senior police officer, "a new breed of workers has been created."
He claims that TRF and its recruits don't engage in suicide attacks and use "overground workers" (ordinary people who perform violent acts for terrorist groups) to carry out their activities.
The police calls such people "hybrid militants", and because of their ordinary nature, they are not on the police's radar, and are hence hard to track.
TRF is accused of using this style of terrorism, in which it tasks "people who aren’t listed as militants in police records", to carry out "soft killings".
Magnified Focus on Minorities
While the majority of civilian casualties in the last two years that have fallen victim to terrorism in Kashmir are Muslim, the number of targeted attacks on minorities have risen after the abrogation of Article 370 .
Vijay Kumar, the Inspector-General of Police in Kashmir, explains this trend by pointing out the success of the police and the army in suppressing terrorist activities.
He claims that the inability of terrorists to succeed against armed soldiers and policemen have led to a modification in their strategy, according to which they now target "unarmed policemen, innocent civilians, politicians and now innocent civilians from minority communities," as quoted by Scroll.
The last part of Inspector Kumar's comments referred to the murders of Makhan Lal Bindroo, Virender Paswan, Deepak Chand of Kashmir's Hindu community and Supinder Kaur, one of Kashmir's Sikh community.
In response to these killings, the police have detained hundreds of people for questioning in an attempt to obstruct the momentum of TRF.
(With inputs from South Asia Terrorism Portal, The Hindu, Scroll, and Hindustan Times.)