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

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