‘Global Terrorist’ or ‘Rightful Rebel’, Who is Salahuddin?

Salahuddin’s supporters protested US sanctions on him, shouting anti-Indian slogans and burning the Indian flag.

6 min read
Hindi Female

Hours before the United States designated Kashmiri rebel 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 US State Department's announcement on Monday 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’s supporters protested US sanctions on him, shouting anti-Indian slogans and burning the Indian flag.
Supporters of Pasban-e-Hurriyat Jammu Kashmir burn a representation of an Indian flag in Muzaffarabad, the capital of PoK, to condemn sanctions imposed on Syed Salahuddin by the US State Department.
(Photo: AP/MD Mughal)

Salahuddin is now based on the Pakistani side of the divided territory, where he leads Kashmir's largest indigenous rebel group fighting India’s rule across a heavily militarised 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.
Salahuddin’s supporters protested US sanctions on him, shouting anti-Indian slogans and burning the Indian flag.
An Indian paramilitary soldier stands guard during a curfew in Srinagar on 9 June, 2017.

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 criticised 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 militarisation 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 organisations 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.

Salahuddin’s supporters protested US sanctions on him, shouting anti-Indian slogans and burning the Indian flag.
People attend funeral procession of militant Burhan Wani at his village in Tral of Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district on 9 July 2016. 
(Photo: IANS) 

On Monday, Salahuddin called for a week of resistance, including two days of strikes, starting 8 July, 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 US 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 US or other far-off nations.

The US 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 US 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 US 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 antagonising Pakistan, which "can further push the country closer to the emerging China-Russia alignment." It could also complicate US 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 US policy," and so may not change much.

Staniland, who teaches political science at the University of Chicago, said:

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.

Others questioned why the US would designate someone an alleged terrorist who posed no threat to the West.

"It is significant because the US 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 US attention.

Villager Mohammed Akbar said:

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. Our misery continues.

India Cheers, Pakistan Assails

India welcomed the US State Department announcement, delivered just hours before Prime Minister Modi met with US President Donald Trump in Washington.

Also Read: Salahuddin’s ‘Global Terrorist’ Tag a Strong US Signal: Jaishankar

Indian Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi said in New Delhi:

What the US did is correct. This declaration by the U.S. may probably help in impacting his movements and funding.
Salahuddin’s supporters protested US sanctions on him, shouting anti-Indian slogans and burning the Indian flag.
Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said that issues related to terrorism took centre-stage during the Modi-Trump meeting.
(Photo: IANS)

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 US decision.

"Syed Salahuddin is the symbol of the Kashmir Freedom movement," spokesman Syed Sadaqat Hussain said in a statement.

"The freedom struggle of Kashmiri 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."

(This article has been published in an arrangement with AP)

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