A new breed of militants is rising in Kashmir – young, educated, tech-savvy. HT travelled to the valley to find out what is fuelling these young men to take up arms against the state.
aseer Ahmed Pandit, a young Jammu and Kashmir Police constable was the first to cast his vote. During an India-Pakistan match, he stood out for being amongst the few who cheered for India. And on polling day, he went out of his way to feed cups of tea to paramilitary forces that fanned out across villages to provide security to polling staff.
Yet, one sudden day, Pandit disappeared and took his service weapons with him. His father realised he’d joined the ranks of terrorists after a press release issued by the Hizbul Mujahideen claimed him as a trophy.
Pandit's father Ghulam Rasool describes his son as a social worker, a crusader who took action against drug peddlers and is still at a loss to fathom why the 29-year-old, who loved his police uniform, disappeared into the high mountains that ring his village in South Kashmir.
Rasool has not heard from his son since March 28, the day the cop reinvented himself into a terrorist. He’s seen him though – posing in pictures that have gone viral on social media.
Scores of homes – mostly in South Kashmir which is also the stronghold of the ruling PDP – scout the net for posts that may bring some news of their sons. Like Pandit, these sons have melted into the dense forests in South Kashmir’s Tral area, adding muscle to a new trend in which young Kashmiri boys are giving up jobs and the comfort of their classrooms and choosing the path of violence.
The ground reality in Kashmir is changing slowly but surely and it can be gauged even from plain statistics. If in 2013, 31 local youths joined militancy, the number for 2015 (till September-end) jumped to 66, according to police records.
Among the 66 is 21-year-old Zakir Rashid Bhat, a Chandigarh-based civil engineering student. Zakir came to his village home in Noorpura, Pulwama, for a brief vacation with his friends. The young student took them to the snow-clad picture towns of Gulmarg and Pahalgam and while his friends went back to Chandigarh, Zakir never returned.
His father, Engineer Rashid woke up to a note that said, “Don’t try and look for me. Jehad is the only way forward. It is the only way to deal with the atrocities faced by Kashmiris."
Rashid, a senior engineer with a government job, had heaved a sigh of relief when his youngest son Zakir had got admission in an engineering college. The older son was a practising doctor and his daughter an MSc in botany.
The over two-decade-old insurgency had not touched the family till 2010 when the Valley went through an intense stone-pelting phase. Then, youngsters used to take to the streets and pelt stones to protest human right violations and in Noorpura, Zakir was amongst those who shouted slogans.
Don’t try and look for me. Jehad is the only way forward. It is the only way to deal with the atrocities faced by Kashmiris.
- Zakir Rashid Bhat
Young Zakir, rememebered in Noorpura as a boy who loved driving his Yamaha motorcycle at high speeds, finally joined the ranks of the Hizbul Mujahideen and is now part of a video that shows his transformation: A boy fond of clothes and chocolates grows into a new role in which he is sporting a long beard and is seen caressing an automatic weapon.
Zakir joined the ranks of Burhan Wani, a young Robin Hood-like figure who has become a role model for Kashmiri youth and appears to be firing their imagination. Burhan dropped out of class 10 and literally knocked on the doors of the Hizbul Mujahideen at the young age of 15 after his brother Khalid was beaten up by security forces. Khalid was subsequently killed on allegations that he was recruiting militant cadre.
Why are Kashmiri youth – who made way for Pakistani-trained terrorists – coming into the forefront once again? After the first rush in 1989, when insurgency took root, the locals are once again outnumbering what the security establishment refers to as ‘foreign terrorists’. According to official figures, north Kashmir has 66 local and 44 foreign terrorists and in south Kashmir, locals number 109 and foreign terrorists are a mere seven.
Lt Gen Satish Dua, Corps Commander, 15 Corps, and the most senior army officer in the Valley, says, “The new strategy is to recruit locals and give them rudimentary training in the hinterland because the adversary (Pakistan) is not able to push terrorists across the line of control.’’
Is the trend worrying? Says Dua, “60% of the Valley’s population is below the age of 30 and we have to ensure engagement with the youth, especially with shrinking job avenues.”
The demographic bulge comprising the youth is hyperactive on social media and for Dua, this is a grave concern. The new militant brigade led by Burhan – unlike the youth who took to gun in 1989 – is unafraid of revealing their identity.
“They make their names and faces known and their outreach is wide," says Dua, implying that the social media has become a fertile recruitment ground. Agrees Tejinder Singh, Pulwama’s Superintendent of Police, who says, “The videos are affecting the psychology of Kashmiri youth who spend hours watching videos uploaded by local militants and by Islamic State. Their only role models are militants with guns like Burhan. We haven’t been able to provide them with alternative role models."
The new strategy is to recruit locals and give them rudimentary training in the hinterland.
- Lt Gen Satish Dua
There is another crucial factor as pointed out by former chief minister and National Conference (NC) patron, Farooq Abdullah. “Everyone is feeling choked because the political system has failed to deliver. The youth are looking at the nation very carefully and because they are educated, they first become militant in their minds."
Farooq points directly to how the beef debate and the cow protection movement are dividing the nation and how the youth are reacting to the rise of the Right wing.
His son and former chief minister Omar Abdullah goes a step further to link the new trend of locals becoming militants to the alliance between the PDP and the BJP in the state.
“The PDP with its slogan of self-rule filled a gap that existed between the NC and the separatists but after they tied up with the ultra-nationalist BJP, the space has shrunk even more for the youngsters who have gravitated towards militancy.”
In several villages across South Kashmir that HT visited, people expressed their reservations about the alliance and were apprehensive about the dilution of Article 370 which gives the state special powers.
Mohammad Ikhlaq, lynched in Dadri on mere suspicion of consuming beef and Zahid Ahmed, a Kashmiri trucker who was attacked in Udhampur, again on mere suspicion, have become household names across the Valley.
Warned a senior police officer who did not want to be named, “The utterances of senior BJP leaders are having a direct impact on the ground situation here. Beef was never an issue here and is hardly consumed but after the Haryana chief minister told Muslims they could live in India provided they stopped eating it, anger is growing and people are fearing the rise of the BJP."
He became a militant not only because he was oppressed but because he saw so many others being oppressed by the army. He couldn’t take it anymore
- Muzaffar Wani, Burhan's father
The officer pointed to a survey the local police has undertaken in which it was found that the locality mosques were becoming congregation points in which Maulvis were holding animated discussions on the threat to Islam and Kashmiriyat.
The ground beneath Kashmir’s feet is indeed slipping.
Families of youth who have opted to wage a battle to ‘liberate’ Kashmir are either openly supportive of their sons or have found a way to justify it. Muzaffar Wani, Burhan’s father is proud – very proud – that his son has become a rallying point. “He became a militant not only because he was oppressed but because he saw so many others being oppressed by the army. He couldn’t take it anymore…"
A conversation with Muzaffar Wani in his village home in Sharifabad, a 90-minute drive from Srinagar, could’ve been a chat with most common Kashmiris:
So what is the main motto of Burhan and young boys like him?
Freedom from India. It’s not only his motto but everybody’s. Even mine… Look at the current incident of beef ban where a truck driver was lynched in Jammu only because he was a Kashmiri, a Muslim. This has happened so many times before also. Beef is halal for us (Muslims), we sacrifice it, and they have banned it.
But isn’t it hard to win against the might of Indian army? The insurgency is now 26 years old.
Yes, it’s very hard. Everyone knows it. It is a hard task, but a Muslim has his faith in God. He knows if he dies in the path of God, he goes to God. In our religion, whosoever dies because of the oppression from India, or by an Indian bullet, doesn’t die. He goes from this world to the other world (as promised in the Quran); there will be no disease in that world, no oppression. This is what our Islam tells. That’s why Muslims don’t fear that. We prefer dying with honour rather than living a life of shame under oppression.
You know Burhan will be killed one day… That is the outcome of the path he has chosen.
Yes, I do get a bit disturbed but our Islam says that God, Quran and the Prophet are bigger than anything, even bigger and more important than our sons. It’s not the other way round. If our God is not happy with us then we don’t need our sons. Our God should be happy with us even if my son’s or my sacrifice is needed for that.
Muzaffar Wani’s words ring true the very next day. Two new-age militants are killed in an encounter and thousands join the funeral procession. For someone who has tracked Kashmir since 1989, this is a disturbing new reality. The common Kashmiri had stopped bothering about militant deaths after the mid-90s. The new reality is reinforced a few days later when Abu Qasim, a much-wanted commander of the Lashkar-e-Toiba is killed.
Qasim was a big catch and even as the security establishment celebrated the death, thousands streamed out of their homes to join his funeral procession. Corps Commander Dua talked of another death, that of Lashkar’s Adil Pathan. Two villages fought over where to bury him despite the knowledge that Pathan was behind a terror attack that had killed five Kashmiris.
Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed concedes that Burhan has fired young imaginations and that the trucker’s burning is a setback. “You may imprison him (Burhan) but you cannot imprison his mind. According to me they are fringe elements but we have to fight the idea… People pelted stones after Zahid’s (the trucker) death. It was an outburst. You can’t use bullets to contain protests. We have to fight it politically.”
You may imprison him (Burhan) but you cannot imprison his mind. According to me they are fringe elements but we have to fight the idea.
- Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed
Mufti knows the problem is essentially political. He also knows, deep in his heart, that financial packages like the one announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 7 are not the balm his people need. Omar Abdullah is perhaps right – and he knows from experience – that “you cannot throw money at the problem. If you think Modi will come here and announce a package and people will forget Burhan, that’s not going to happen…”
On the ground in Kashmir, it is definitely not happening. Hemmed in by bunkers, curfews and frequent internet bans, people are searching for dignity and justice. The tragedy is that like in the past over two decades, neither Srinagar nor New Delhi is wising up to the new reality and looking beyond security perspectives.
(This is a revised version. It corrects an error. Burhan joined HM after his brother was beaten up, not killed, by security forces. His brother Khalid died subsequently.)