It was at age 19 that Shahid Sheikh (not his real name) first fell in love with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. And soon after finishing college in Anantnag, he found a new address — a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.
Armed with deadly skills, he organised a series of bloody terror strikes in Jammu and Kashmir in the 1990s, and became a high-value target for the security forces. But they never could get him — until he decided to lay down his gun eight years ago.
The surrender marked a turning point in Sheikh’s life. Some years later, he had donned the battle fatigues of the Indian army, stalking the jungles in a hunt for the same extremists he had once led.
“I understand the psyche of terrorists. I know their mind. I have that advantage,” he says.
Once identified as cold-blooded enemies of the Indian state, many former terrorists like Sheikh are today among the army’s most potent weapons against militancy in Jammu and Kashmir.
The ‘Ikhwanis’ — former militants — are with the 162 Infantry Battalion (Territorial Army) that is part of the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry. It is no ordinary fighting unit — when it was raised four years ago, no one could have imagined that the scores of ex-militants drawn together for an experiment would end up rewriting the rules of the battle in Kashmir.
The battalion, which has around 300 former militants, has capitalised on its intelligence specialism, and killed 288 terrorists so far. The Ikhwanis have also nabbed more than 40 terrorists and supervised scores of surrenders.
"The ex-militants in our ranks have proved their mettle. Their ground knowledge has led to several successful operations. Some of them are being assigned to regular units to strengthen the intelligence gathering system," said a senior army officer.
The army has to protect the Ikhwanis from terrorist retribution as they are seen as betrayers. Rotating them across units guarantees safety and secrecy.
Para-military forces have also experimented with engaging surrendered terrorists to fight terror, but with varying degrees of success. They were given a free hand but lacked discipline and became a law unto themselves, indulging in extortion, rape and intimidation. A senior officer said the army had fared better because it could discipline the surrendered terrorists and instill "soldier-pride" in them.
Major General SS Ahlawat (retd), who headed the Territorial Army when the battalion was raised, told HT that the Ikhwanis were a powerful intelligence tool for the army. “They can easily recognise terrorists and have first-hand knowledge about their movement."
The army has acknowledged the valour and contribution of these former terrorists with military decorations. The awards won by the unit include one Shaurya Chakra, four Sena Medals, one Vishisht Seva Medal, 13 commendation cards from the Army chief and 23 commendation cards from the Northern Army commander.
"We have worked hard to earn the confidence of the army. Life has been a roller coaster ride for us but it appears we have finally found our calling,” says Sheikh.