Conflict: Rich Kashmiri boys take to guns and the deep woods
The new tide of militancy is attributable to the absent India-Pakistan dialogue process and is also a fallout of the 2010 civil uprising
Asem Mohiuddin Srinagar
When Pakistan pulled out of the scheduled National Security Advisor-level talks with India – after the latter refused to allow Islamabad to have consultations with Kashmiri separatists – a video message was broadcast from the deep and treacherous woods of south Kashmir by Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the youngest divisional commander of the Hizbul Mujahidin.
“We have left our families...our mothers and sisters… so that the chastity of your mothers and sisters is safeguarded,” said a military fatigues-clad Burhan, holding his Kalashnikov in one hand and a Quran in the other and flanked by two armed associates. “We are here so that Khilafah is established in Kashmir.”
The tech-savvy 21-year-old has drawn much international media attention lately for being the youngest and longest-surviving top militant commander. He wields considerable influence among the local populace and his video message urged Kashmiri youth to join ranks with him, in what observers say is a new brand of militancy. So far, Burhan’s efforts appear successful and as many as 200-250 young Kashmiris across the Valley have joined forces with him. From Burhan’s district alone, almost a dozen well-educated young men from well-off families have opted for his form of militancy.
Political observers and the intelligentsia attribute the new tide of militancy to the missing dialogue process between India and Pakistan, started by former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002. This new breed also has its roots in the massive civil uprising of 2008, when the government attempted to transfer thousands of acres of state forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. “In Kashmir, ideologically, militancy seems more motivated now than in the 1990s. The profile of these boys suggests that neither poverty nor any luxury prompts them to turn militants. Everything is luxurious back home (but) they leave for this path of violence,” says Noor Mohammad Baba, a political science professor at Central University in Kashmir.
“When the doors for dialogue are shut, the youth sees no hope and turns violent,” says Baba. Burhan became a militant in 2010 when he was in Class X. His family says that around that time he was badly beaten one day by counter-insurgency forces while returning home after visiting relatives along with his elder brother, Khalid Muzaffer Wani, on his motorcycle.
“They (the forces) asked them to buy a packet of cigarettes. After handing over the packet to them, they beat Burhan and Khalid without any justification, triggering anger in him,” says Muzaffer Ahmad Wani, their father. “On their return home, we tried to pacify him but on the very same day he left along with his cousin, Adil Ramzan, and joined the outfit.” Adil was killed in an encounter last year with the security forces. Khalid, a post-graduate in economics, was killed on April 13 in an encounter with the army in the forests of Tral.
“We contest the claims of the forces that Khalid was a militant,” says the father. Wani is the principal of a local Government Higher Secondary School and, along with his brother, a second-generation senior officer in the family. Their father, Ghulam Mohammad Wani, had also been a senior administrative officer.
Abdul Rashid, Assistant Executive Engineer in the Jammu and Kashmir government, endorses the observations of Baba, as he oversees the construction of an orthopaedic clinic for his elder son in Noorpora village of militancy-infested Tral. His daughter has recently been appointed a banking officer in Jammu and Kashmir Bank. The affluent and well-educated family is shell-shocked since their younger son, an aspiring civil engineer, Zakir Rashid, left to join the group led by Burhan. The 19-year-old Zakir, who was pursuing an undergraduate civil engineering course in Chandigarh, had returned home for the summer holidays. One day, Zakir skipped lunch with the family and disappeared without informing anybody.
When dusk fell, the family became worried. When Rashid returned from office, he discovered a note in the corner of the verandah. “Dad, please don’t try to trace me. If possible, pray to Almighty Allah and ask Him to accept my endeavour of joining his pious path against the falsehood,” the note said. Rashid refused to believe the note was from his son and sought the help of the police to trace his whereabouts.
“The police confirmed that Zakir had joined the Hizbul Mujahidin and he had been spotted with the Divisional Commander, Burhan,” Rashid says.
Zakir, like Burhan, felt compelled to opt for arms following constant harassment by the armed forces for participating in the 2010 mass uprising to protest against the staged encounter that saw three young men killed by the Rajput Rifles in Machil sector.
Both Zakir and Burhan have left the comfort of wealth. Photographs on cellphones they left behind show the lifestyle they led. Both were passionate about riding motorbikes and performing stunts on them. They wore branded jeans and T-shirts. They owned the latest gadgets, iPhones and luxury cars. And now, instead of being in their luxurious homes, the boys spend days and nights in the harshest possible way in the deep woods and high mountains. Their parents are unable to understand why this luxurious life and parental affection could not prevent these boys from taking up arms.
Burhan’s father says that three months after his son joined the militant movement, he came home one night to meet them. He was wearing military fatigues and carried a Kalashnikov on his shoulder. “I was glad to see him. I thought he must be fed up with this tough life in the forests and fields, even sometimes without a morsel. I pleaded with him to give up arms and said I would, on his behalf, appeal to the government to forgive him and to let him live a normal life,” says Wani. His son’s reply shocked him.
“I regret wasting the earlier 14 years of my life. I wish I could have joined militancy long back,” Burhan told his shaken father who has now given up hope of ever seeing him alive. After the death of Khalid, Wani accepts the bitter reality that his second son is also not going to live long.
Rashid, too, says he’s waiting for the day he will get his son back, in a coffin. “I can only weep for him now. Had he not been harassed by men in uniform, I don’t think Zakir would have ever thought of joining militancy,” he says, tears trickling down his cheeks. Rashid last met his militant son six months ago when his own father died. “Zakir came and wept for five minutes over the demise of his grandfather, since he was very attached to him from childhood. He lamented not joining the funeral prayers and departed for some unknown location with moist eyes.”
In January 2010, at Lal Chowk in Srinagar, two militants were killed by police during frisking. One was later identified as 24-year-old Manzoor Ahmad of Sopore town in north Kashmir. The militants had planned to strike at a Republic Day function after entering the fortified Bakshi Stadium where the function was scheduled to be held. Manzoor’s family later told the media that troops’ “highhandedness” during the 2008 uprising pushed their son towards militancy.
Scores of youth in Kashmir have followed Manzoor’s path and it continues today with more educated men joining the armed resistance. Various initiatives taken by the government to neutralise radical thoughts among the young have been unsuccessful.
Harsh measures taken by the armed forces in the 1990s are not adoptable today, observers say. “The new entrants to this armed rebellion are not potentially dangerous because they have poor training skills and are short of arms. But they seem very influential and the killing of every militant gives birth to another one,” said an intelligence officer, requesting anonymity.
“Militarily, the sentiments can be suppressed, not addressed. There is need for political engagement from New Delhi for lasting peace in the region,” suggests a senior army officer. Temporarily, as part of operational strategy to thwart the growing influence of militancy, security agencies are removing militants’ pages on social networking sites, including Facebook and YouTube. The government believes giving space to these people on social networking sites only glorifies militancy. However, until the page or video is removed it has already been viewed or downloaded by hundreds of people and later circulated on social apps
“We might not be beating drums but you can’t deny the reality that New Delhi is actively engaged in the process of restoring peace in the Valley. The BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking strong and sustainable measures to reach out to the youth in Jammu and Kashmir for their involvement in the peace process,” says the BJP’s Member of the Legislative Council, Churander Amberdar.
Hardcore separatist and Hurriyat Conference (G) chairman Syed Ali Geelani also rules out any short-term measures being able to stop the youth from joining militancy. According to Geelani, the prevailing situation is an outcome of the continuous trust deficit between New Delhi and the people of Jammu and Kashmir since 1947, when they were assured a plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations in 1947. Geelani, however, was not sure if the new trend of militancy can survive.
“We will continue our peaceful struggle in all possible ways to mount pressure on the international community to stress to India the need for a political settlement of the Kashmir dispute,” he said.