Kashmiri youths risk lives to join army
On a chilly winter morning, hundreds of bare-chested Kashmiri youths in shorts are being put through their paces inside a heavily guarded Indian army camp. They say they are desperate for a job to help their families.Updated: Jan 06, 2008 14:18 IST
On a chilly winter morning, hundreds of bare-chested Kashmiri youths in shorts are being put through their paces inside a heavily guarded Indian army camp.
The young Kashmiris are hoping to qualify for a job with India's military -- defying militant death threats against joining the "infidel" army.
Muslim rebels are waging a deadly separatist revolt against Indian rule in this Himalayan state, and those young people at a recent recruiting session in Anantnag, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Kashmir's main city of Srinagar, are only too aware of threats against them.
But they said they were desperate for a job to help their families.
"I have to support my family come what may. There are no openings elsewhere so this (the army) is the best choice," said Bilal, 18, after performing the long jump, sailing through the air and landing in a sandpit.
"I am not afraid of threats. Life and death are in the hands of Allah," said Bilal, who goes by one name.
During the early years of the insurgency, only a few young people used to show up at army recruitment rallies. But now hundreds are crowding the rallies, officials say.
They are also joining other Indian forces, such as the paramilitary Border Security Force and Central Reserve Police Force.
The army says the hefty turnout at the recruitment rallies is a sign of normality returning to the region as violence recedes against the backdrop of a slow-moving peace process between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
The neighbours have fought two of their three wars over the region divided between them and claimed by both.
"It's a very positive development," army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Anil Kumar Mathur said. "It's also a respectable and challenging job."
Nineteen-year-old army hopeful Iqbal Mohammed agreed.
"The army offers a lot of adventure and challenges -- besides you get a decent salary," Mohammed said as a recruiting officer measured his chest.
Still, the young men are braving militant threats by joining the army.
Kashmir's leading rebel group, the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahedin, issued death threats last year against recruits and said their property would be "confiscated."
Rebels have killed or maimed locals recruited by the army or police as well as their relatives. They have also slain those they believed were army informants.
Politicians say the success of the army recruitment drive reflects high unemployment.
The insurgency, which has left more than 42,000 dead by official count, has shattered Kashmir's economy. It has driven away tourists, who are vital to the region's economy, and discouraged business investment.
"Unemployment is a big problem. Kashmiris are desperate -- taking up whatever opportunities come their way," said Ghulam Hassan Mir, a senior leader with the pro-India ruling People's Democratic Party.
"Unemployment is driving our youth to join the Indian forces -- it's not love for the Indian army," added Javed Mir, a former rebel who gave up arms to pursue separatism through political means.
More than 300,000 youths are registered as unemployed at the state's employment exchange, government officials say.
Twenty-one-year-old Ghulam Ahmed said he had no option but to join the army to support his three sisters and mother after a road accident killed his father.
"I've no job and this recruitment rally has given me hope," Ahmed said, struggling to recover his breath after being put through a gruelling physical endurance test by recruiters.