YOUNG GUNS IN THE VALLEY
THE CENTRE’S MUSCULAR OFFENSIVE ISN’T WORKING, MORE AND MORE YOUTH ARE JOINING INSURGENT RANKS
As more and more Valley youth join insurgent groups, the army chief concedes the crackdown is not working
ON April 1, in one of the fiercest encounters in recent years, a joint army, paramilitary and police operation gunned down 13 militants 60 kilometres south of Srinagar in Shopian district. Not far from the encounter site, Padderpora, a tiny hamlet of some 150 households, suffered the most casualties. Three of the slain militants were from the village.
The deaths should have ended Padderpora’s tryst with Kashmir’s three-decade-long insurgency. But 17 days later, Abid Nazir, a 20-year-old civil engineering student who had just returned from his college in Jalandhar (Punjab), went missing. Abid, who at one point was hoping to join the army (he had cleared the National Defence Academy or NDA qualifying exam in 2016), belongs to a family of staunch CPI(M) supporters. He had been to the funerals for the slain militants. A day after he disappeared, pictures posted on Facebook and WhatsApp showed him in battle fatigues brandishing a rifle. They also put out Abid’s new address: the Hizbul Mujahideen.
“Only God knows what was going through his mind,” says Imran Nazir, Abid’s elder brother and also a CPI(M) activist. Insisting his brother had never shown the slightest inclination towards militancy, Imran describes how the family would routinely turn in early because of the threat from local insurgents. “Even our father often stayed away from home to avoid being targeted,” he says.
It’s a story that has become distressingly commonplace in the Kashmir Valley: young men, even boys, wilfully deserting their homes and families to sign up as militants. The numbers have been steadily rising since the killing of Burhan Wani, the widely admired Hizb commander, in July 2016. Local recruitment to militant tanzeems has swelled following Operation Allout, the muscular security force offensive—including night-time cordon-andsearch operations—launched early last year.
The rising number of slain militants and the massive public funerals they receive are inspiring more and more young Kashmiris to take up the gun. Consider this: from the 66 youth who joined militancy in the first year of the People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party government, the number rose to 88 in 2016; 2017 saw 126 local youth joining the ranks of insurgents, and some 48
have joined in the first four months of this year. As many as 16, including Abid, have gone AWOL since the April 1 Shopian encounter.
Abid’s story will be familiar to several families whose boys have joined the militants. When mainstream political parties, particularly the ruling PDP, presented the BJP as a bogey in 2014, Mohammad Afzal Wani in Anantnag’s Dehruna village stood his ground and defied the boycott called by militants. Wani even joined the BJP, opposing the predominantly Jamaat-e-Islami strains in his village. On polling day, Wani’s family cast five of the 11 votes in Dehruna. His son Zubair, though, was unhappy with the decision.
On April 21 this year, Zubair left his village home, ostensibly to take the state-level teachers’ recruitment exam in Srinagar. But soon after, his mobile phone became ‘unreachable’. Twenty-four hours on, he showed up on social media gripping a Kalashnikov rifle. Zubair’s anger was apparently driven by the funeral of Rouf Khanday, a Hizb fighter ‘martyred’ on April 1 in Anantnag.
His mother says Zubair is a most unlikely militant. “He was preparing for the naib tehsildar teachers’ exam to get a job. I would see him studying all the time. In fact, he would only leave home for prayers,” she says despairingly. His father isn’t shy talking about his association with the BJP: “I made my younger son a polling agent for the BJP candidate to help my elder son get a job,” Wani admits. “But we only got dhokha,” he says, the sense of betrayal writ on his face.
Zubair’s friends say he was an “orthodox Muslim who always advocated that Kashmir needed a political solution”. Fearing reprisals, they wouldn’t divulge names, but they still can’t believe he has “taken up arms”.
Not far from the revered Dastgeer sahib shrine in downtown Srinagar, 18-year-old Fahad Mushtaq Waza, a regular of late at the stone pelting protests, left home to join the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) on March 23. He was from a family of National Conference workers, traditionally engaged in preparing the wazwan, the customary meal at Kashmiri weddings. Elder brother Umar Mushtaq had been thinking of switching allegiances to the Congress but Fahad’s departure has put that on hold. “It would be wrong to do this now. Fahad always fought with me for being part of the mainstream,” Umar says wearily, taking a break from the kitchen.
Their anxious mother even recorded a video appealing to her son to return home. But unlike the much-written-about Majid Khan, the footballer-turned-militant who returned home after his mother’s plea, Fahad has not responded. His lack of a reaction, police officers say, is also probably consequent to the massive social media trolling Majid had faced.
Meanwhile, among Padderpora’s dead was also Ishfaq Majeed Thoker, a high-ranking Hizb commander allegedly involved in the killing of Lt Ummer Fayaz, the young army officer abducted and killed while he was attending a cousin’s wedding in Batapora village in Shopian in May 2017. His father Abdul Majeed had been a proud PDP worker till Ishfaq left home in 2015. The past three years, though, have pushed the family to the edges of extremism. “I will not vote now. Humne khoon diya hai, iska byopar nahin karenge (We sacrificed our blood, we will not trade on it),” Majeed says.
A senior J&K police officer describes the situation as “alarming”, and no longer confined to the restive south Kashmir region. “Militancy is spread across the Valley now,” he says, pointing to the encounters in Srinagar and elsewhere. On May 5, three LeT militants were killed in an encounter that lasted more than four hours in Srinagar’s Chattabal area, on the banks of the Jhelum river. Among the dead was Fayyaz Ahmad Hammal, a young resident of downtown Srinagar who’d been active as a militant for a little over a year. That evening, the ‘martyrs’ graveyard’ at Srinagar’s Eidgah was teeming with mourners, many of them visibly angry youth. Spotting some police and CRPF vehicles, the enraged youngsters began pelting stones. As darkness spread and Fayyaz’s body was lowered into a grave, a group of militants rather fearlessly showed up to offer their slain comrade a gun salute.
The ground is shifting fast. In the past four months, security forces killed 34 Kashmiri militants, but some 48 have taken to arms. Police officers say the new recruits only have rudimentary training in the use of firearms from the LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militants present in the Valley, one reason why most Hizb recruits don’t last long
in the encounters. So why then are they turning militant? State DGP Shesh Paul Vaid’s contention: “It’s because today everyone in Kashmir is glamourising terrorism.”
But there is clearly more to it. PDP youth wing president Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra believes the Kashmiri youth are sending out a message to the rest of the country. He points to the rising assault cases on Kashmiris as a central cause of the alienation. “Earlier, it was the Delhi police special cell, police, CRPF and army suspecting Kashmiris and arresting them. Today, you have people thrashing Kashmiris [students] in Mewar University, Lucknow University etc,” he says.
“A feeling of being unwanted is rising among the youth. The trust deficit is not in Kashmir but the country. They don’t need an interlocutor to talk to Kashmiris but a larger interlocutor to talk to the country itself. Emotionally insulting people who have lost a lot in their lives can’t create peace, negotiation or dialogue,” says the PDP functionary.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq says the present impasse is a cumulative consequence of the state pushing the younger generation into a corner. He cites the crackdown on the Hurriyat, the continuing ban on student politics and the rapidly shrinking space for youngsters to engage in normal youth pursuits as causes for the uptick in recruitments. “The PDP and NC are responsible because they misled public opinion in India by claiming everything is normal. The pellet guns and other ruthless means have also created lot of anger against the state,” says the Mirwaiz.
The unabated rise in local militant recruitments, despite the continuing military crackdown, appears to have somewhat unnerved the security establishment too. In an unexpected statement last month, army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat acknowledged that “the time is not far when even they (the Kashmiri youth) will be convinced that neither the [security] forces nor the terrorists would achieve their goals”. Peace, the general said, was the only way to improve things in Kashmir. Whether the army chief’s words are a signal of a rollback of Delhi’s ‘muscular’ policy in the Valley is still not known but, for the moment, the cycle of violence rages on.
In fact, the space for mainstream politics may be in serious peril. Back in April, militants in Pulwama shot dead a PDP worker, Ghulam Nabi Patil, triggering a fresh wave of fear and an exodus of political workers from the hinterland. The Anantnag parliamentary seat has remained vacant since Mehbooba Mufti became chief minister in 2016, with no political party willing to risk campaigning in the south Kashmir constituency. Just how the governments in Delhi and Srinagar plan on holding elections in the Valley’s three parliamentary seats in 2019 is still a mystery.
Army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat admits the crackdown hasn’t worked, and that peace is the only way forward
LOST INNOCENCE Mymoona, mother of 18-year-old militant Fahad Waza, with a picture of her son