Rage Against The Killing Machine

Why are so many young, educated Kashmiris taking up arms against the state? Bilal Kuchay finds out.

He was a diehard fan of Shahid Afridi,” his father says. “As a kid, he would say that I want to become an army officer.” Today, he is neither a cricketer nor an Army officer, but the most wanted militant in the Kashmir Valley. Burhan-ud-din Wani, a 21-year-old militant commander from Kashmir’s southern town, Tral, has become an icon and the face of a new generation of militants in Kashmir.

Burhan’s father Muzaffar Wani, a principal in a higher secondary school, says his son’s life was changed by a single incident. In the summer of 2010, Burhan was riding a bike along with his brother Khalid and a friend, when they were harassed and beaten up by a team of the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s Special Operations Group. Before leaving the place, Burhan shouted at the cops that he would take revenge for this. “This was the moment which changed Burhan’s life,” says Muzaffar Wani. “Soon after the incident, he joined militancy.”

At the time, Burhan was 15, about to appear in the Class X board exams. “He was very intelligent, would always score over 90 percent,” his father says, “but the harassment and police beating, in which his thumb got fractured, changed everything. In order to take revenge, he became a militant.” Burhan’s popularity was initially confined to Tral and its adjoining areas, until photographs and videos of him and fellow militants wearing army fatigues and carrying assault rifles became viral on social media in July last year.

“He was very intelligent, would always score over 90 percent,” his father says, “but the harassment and police beating, in which his thumb got fractured, changed everything. In order to take revenge, he became a militant.”

The visuals grabbed headlines in the local and national media; some Indian news channels showed the footage repeatedly for days. On social media, they got thousands of likes and shares. Many called them the “real heroes” of Kashmir’s freedom struggle. It was something new for both the people and the security agencies. It was also the first glimpse for many in the Valley of a resurgence in militancy in the state, which began in 1989.

In the last week of August, 2015, another video of this militant commander surfaced on social media. In the video, he made an appeal to the Kashmiri youth, asking them to join the armed movement. “We want to send a message to the people of Kashmir, especially youth, they should come and join us. If they can’t join us, they should help us in whatever way they can,” he said, adding that “We have left our families so that the chastity of our mothers and sisters is safeguarded. We are here so that Khilafah is established in Kashmir.”

The wide circulation and the content of the video was a serious concern for security agencies, who believe such statements could influence more youth towards militancy. “It is a matter of concern for us because it can influence more people towards gun which we do not want,” a senior Army officer had said. “We do not want our children to pick up guns.”

Once a bright student and a passionate cricketer, Burhan, is today the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, carrying a bounty of more than one million Indian rupees on his head.

Once a bright student and a passionate cricketer, Burhan, is today the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, carrying a bounty of more than one million Indian rupees on his head. However, he is by no means the only one whose parents allege that he joined the militancy after being harassed by security agencies.

 

The remote village of Laribal lies a 15-minute drive away from Tral. In June 2014, 22-year-old Tariq Ahmad Parray, a resident of this village, was killed in an encounter with security forces.

Aspiring to join the civil services, Parray was pursuing a Masters in South Asian Studies at Kashmir University, but quit his studies in August 2013 to join the Hizbul Mujahideen. “The exams of his MA first semester were in progress,” says his father, Ghulam Mohammad Parray. “But he only appeared in the first paper on 19 August, and after that he went missing. Later, we came to know that Tariq had joined the militants.”

“Soon after Tariq came home, I took him to the police station. For eight consecutive days, my son was ruthlessly tortured. I paid a huge sum of money to the police for his release. They even kept his laptop.”

Tariq’s father wanted to make him an officer, keeping in mind the respect a high official always receives. “I would even scold him at times to work hard, concentrate more on his studies, as you have to become an officer. Tariq took a different path and joined the militancy. This was never expected by any of us, but we don’t have any regrets.”

Ghulam Mohammad says that a police team visited their house in 2012, ransacked the place and asked him to bring his son, who was in college at the time, to the police station. “Soon after Tariq came home, I took him to the police station. For eight consecutive days, my son was ruthlessly tortured. I paid a huge sum of money to the police for his release. They even kept his laptop.”

After the incident, the family tried to forget what had happened in the police station. Tariq completed his graduation and enrolled for the masters’ programme, giving everyone the impression that he had moved on. “We were wrong,” his father says. “He had not forgotten anything. The incident has struck his core and I not only believe but I’m sure that this was the incident that motivated him to join the militancy, though he never revealed it to me.”

“This is the new generation of educated Kashmiris. They read, discuss and analyse things, and yes, their fight is against oppression and for azadi.”

Tariq was a keen reader of history and would often discuss Kashmiri separatist politics as well as the changing geopolitical situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, says Ghulam Mohammad. “This is the new generation of educated Kashmiris. They read, discuss and analyse things, and yes, their fight is against oppression and for azadi.”

Ten months after he joined the Hizbul Mujahideen, Tariq was killed in an encounter with security forces in the Buchoo village of Tral, along with two of his colleagues, both college students before they joined the armed movement.

On 4 March, Ishfaq Ahmad, a distant cousin of Tariq, was killed in an encounter along with two others in Dadsara, Tral, little more than four years after he scored 98.4 percent in his Class X boards, earning the sobriquet “Newton”.

 

The new generation of militants, most of them between 18 and 25 years of age, were not even born when the armed rebellion against Indian rule erupted in Kashmir in 1989. They were introduced to the ongoing conflict in the state by the three successive summer uprisings between 2008 and 2010.

Their families allege continuous harassment by police and other security agencies. “Whether there is an election in any part of the Kashmir Valley or a high-profile minister from New Delhi is scheduled to visit Kashmir,” says the brother of a former militant who was killed in a gun battle with the army in 2010, “I would be kept in police lockup for days just because my brother was a militant some five years ago. I am fed up with this continuous harassment, and at times, I too think of joining militancy, but I have family. I have responsibilities.”

The state’s top politicians, including former chief minister Omar Abdullah and the person expected to be the next CM, Mehbooba Mufti, have raised serious concerns in the past over the educated youth joining the militancy. “Kashmir is being turned into a breeding ground for violence, with its young population being pushed to the wall,” Mehbooba Mufti had said.

“Kashmir is being turned into a breeding ground for violence, with its young population being pushed to the wall,” Mehbooba Mufti had said.

The police and other security agencies, however, claim that it’s the other way around, that these youths are being apprehended or interrogated because of their involvement with militant outfits. “We have looked into many cases of alleged harassment of youth related to militancy,” a senior Army official says, “but most of those who were being apprehended and interrogated were either overground workers or were involved in militancy in one or the other way.”

Yasin Malik, the militant turned nonviolent separatist leader who is the chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), says that excessive force is being used to “crush” the voices of people, closing the space for nonviolent means of struggle. “When we analyse the background of those educated youth who had joined different militant organisations in the recent past,” he says, “they were well-educated, actively working in the nonviolent freedom movement, but their voices were choked. They were suppressed like what happened in 1988, and the result is the same—they join militancy. It is the role of the international community to analyse what went wrong that nonviolent movements in almost all the world’s disputes have failed to deliver.”

 

Observers believe that though there is nothing new about educated youth joining militancy in Kashmir, the phenomenon was rarer earlier, because of the expectations that the peace initiatives taken by the Indian and Pakistani governments would lead to a resolution of the Kashmir problem, which did not happen.

“Right from the inception of militancy, educated youth have been receptive to it,” says Dr Sheikh Showkat, political observer and professor of law at the Central University of Kashmir. “We can see the examples of Ashfaq Majeed (an engineering graduate), Syed Salahuddin (postgraduate), Dr Abu Bakar and hundreds of others joining militancy after completion of degrees or while pursuing their professional degrees. Some even joined it while they were going for higher degrees overseas. Nadeem Khateep is one such example who joined militancy when he was a flight instructor in United States.”

The Indian Army operating in Kashmir also believes that there is nothing new in educated youth joining militancy here. “In general, when we go through the history of Kashmir, it is the educated youth who have shown keen interest in militancy in Kashmir,” said a senior Army official. “Compared to many other states, J&K has a high literacy rate, so the probability of educated youth joining militancy also remains more.”

Yasin Malik says that excessive force is being used to “crush” the voices of people, closing the space for nonviolent means of struggle.

The armed insurgency erupted in Kashmir in 1989, when hundreds of youths crossed the Line of Control (LoC) for arms training in Muzaffarabad-based camps. Today, the training happens within Kashmir because of the increased surveillance along the LoC and the international border. The number of militants operating in the Valley is without doubt very low compared to the 1990s, but they are relatively more educated and motivated than their forebears. According to the police, at least 60 people have joined militant ranks in 2015.

After the videos of Burhan went viral last year, Lt Gen Subrata Saha, General Officer-in-Command of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, expressed his concern. “See, to my mind, more important than the number is that any youth joining the militancy is a cause of concern. It is a collective responsibility of all the agencies to make sure that the youth is effectively engaged, so that they don’t end up taking guns.”

Since its historical win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has said many times that it wants to “win the hearts of Kashmiris” with development, but the question a Kashmiri asks every day while picking up a stone in his hand or getting killed in an encounter can’t be answered with a macadamised road or flyover. News anchors on Indian TV channels might shout very loud that “terrorists” have been killed in an encounter in Kashmir, but the heroic farewells these “terrorists” get during their funerals tells a different story.

Since its historical win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has said many times that it wants to “win the hearts of Kashmiris” with development, but the question a Kashmiri asks every day while picking up a stone in his hand or getting killed in an encounter can’t be answered with a macadamised road or flyover.

Whether it is through protests in the streets or by throwing stones at security forces or chanting pro-freedom slogans or a teenager who has scored 98.4 percent in his board exams becoming a militant and a martyr, Kashmiris risk their lives every day only to tell India, and the world, that Kashmir is not a development issue but a political one, one that needs to be resolved politically.

Bilal Kuchay is a freelance journalist, who has been featured in Express Tribune, Himal Southasian and The Kashmir Monitor. He tweets as @BilalKuchayj

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