Let’s Talk About Kashmir: Number of homegrown militants swells after Burhan Wani’s death
When 16-year-old Ubaid Shafi Malla got distinction in class 10 and 12, his parents saw a future doctor in him. Tuitions were arranged in Srinagar, a studio apartment booked, and the teenager from Trenz Baba Khider, Shopian, was all set for a bright future.
Two months later however, Ubaid (who turned 17 in March) figured in the Jammu and Kashmir police’s militants’ list. The Malla family, upper middle class fruit dealers, found out only when they saw a picture of him holding a gun. They maintained that Ubaid was not driven by lack of good life or coercion.
But the police also failed to point out any trigger — not even involvement in stone pelting. “He was scolded by his father and went missing the next day,” is all that the police records say.
Ubaid had left home on February 23 to join Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant organisation that had become a cult after local boy from Tral, Burhan Wani emerged as its commander about four years back.
Ubaid is one of several Facebook warriors who has been inspired by Wani, who became the poster-boy of new-age militancy after he posted photographs of him and 10 gun-toting youths on social media in June 2015. Wani was the first Kashmiri militant who was unafraid of revealing his identity and was credited with the surge of local militancy while alive, and even after his killing by security forces on July 8 last year.
The number of Kashmir’s Facebook warriors has swelled since Wani’s killing. They are all tech-savvy and make effective use of social media to propagate themselves, like Wani did. After his death, another photograph emerged. This time, the numbers had more than doubled to 24, from the ten Wani posed with.
Wani’s death is changing Kashmir’s ground reality. 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, Ubaid, is among 29 youths who have joined militants this year. Last year, the number was 88, according to a report tabled in Parliament, the highest in six years, and which has been growing since the Narendra Modi-led BJP stormed to power in 2014.
Now, as per police records, there are 282 active militants, 112 of whom are from south Kashmir. As many as 99 are local Kashmiris and the rest are suspected to have sneaked in from Pakistan.
Going to the Roots: HT Visits Militants’ Families
Just a little ahead of Ubaid’s village is Heff-Shirmal village, a militant hotbed and home to five active militants, including Saddam Padder, a category A militant and district commander of Hizbul, and Waseem Shah, another category A militant now with Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Both, in their 20s and having more than Rs 10 lakh bounty on their heads, had appeared in the first photograph with Wani. Their families have different stories to tell on their joining the ultras. Saddam joined by conviction, Waseem by coercion. “Saddam was a religious person. Like other youths of his age, he could not stand the oppression his people (Kashmiris) are facing,’’ says father Ghulam Mohuddin Padder.
A class 10 dropout, he helped his father in the apple orchards, which gives an annual turnover of Rs 10-15 lakhs, before taking up arms.
Waseem Shah was a well-known all-rounder in cricket. According to his father Ghulam Mohammad Shah, he was only 19 when his closest friend Setha Parrey became a militant.
“The local police constantly harassed him seeking information about Parrey. In desperation, he went and joined a foreign militant Abu Hunzla, but I somehow managed to get him back,’’ Shah said.
But police harassed him again and detained him for months without charges, forcing the boy to flee. Police records, however, say he was an over-ground worker of militant affiliations.
Harassment also led a 36-year-old PHE employee and father of two daughters, Bilal Mohammed to join militants in October 2016. However, Jammu and Kashmir director general of police (DGP), S P Vaid says police are trying hard to dissuade youths from joining militants.
We are working on all fronts. Those arrested are counselled. Many a times, we get in touch with families of militants. If we get to know some youth is joining militant groups, we try and counsel them,” Vaid said.
Efforts have shown results in some cases, but failed in others.
Recently, a youth from Srinagar was handed back to his family following his surrender, three days after he became a militant. Another youth from south Kashmir, a student in a college outside the state, also reportedly surrendered after his photos at a slain militant’s funeral went viral.
But surrender is not an option favoured by most militants’ families. Saima, sister of Arif, a 13-year-old class 8 student who was the youngest in the Valley to join militants (LeT) in August 2015, said she would not want her brother to surrender. “Woh Allah ke raah mein hain. Woh kyun surrender karega? (He is going in the path shown by Allah. Why will he surrender?” she asks.
The new breed of homegrown militants are distinctly different from the hardened, well-trained militants of the nineties who all crossed the border into Pakistan for training. Ubaid and company are given basic weapons-training in the dense jungles of South Kashmir and these Facebook warriors are no patch on the fidayeen who cross the line of control to attack army camps from time to time.
Not a single local Kashmiri militant has yet been involved in a suicide operation but they present the authorities with their own set of challenges mainly because they have a lot of acceptability within the deeply-alienated populace. They are welcome in most homes and find it easy to take shelter. Sabzar Bhat, one of Wani’s successors, who was killed last month was not far from home when he got trapped in an encounter.
The new breed of militants – hero-worshipped by the local population – are driven by local issues, unlike in the nineties when accession to Pakistan was an important goal. They are also asked to arrange their own weapons and finances, evident from the increasing number of bank robberies and weapon-snatchings. HT met a stone-pelter turned militant in May, who was arrested while he tried to snatch a weapon from a CRPF official. He revealed that the Hizbul Mujahideen bosses had told him he could join their ranks after he procured a weapon for himself. The process of snatching a weapon and thus breaking the law ensures the transformation from a militant sympathizer to militant.
After Wani’s killing, the police found it hard to dig out cases incriminating him in any real terror action. Yet, Wani had fired the imagination and become a role model for scores who continue to disappear into the jungles, a year after his death. Stopping young boys, who announce their arrival into the militant fold, by posing with a gun is the new real challenge.