Note: All names of Kashmiri youth mentioned in the article have been changed to protect identity.
What has made young and educated Kashmiri men pick up the gun to register their protest against the Indian establishment? The army says it is radicalisation, want for recognition, existing relations with militants and even failed love affairs.
However, a sizeable section of the youth we went out and spoke to, feel that the resurgence of militancy is because the space which is provided by every democratic country for dissenters is missing in Kashmir. The best examples, they say, are the ‘failed peaceful protests’ of 2008, ’09 and ’10 which were “crushed brutally” by the Indian state.
Moreover, many feel that the alleged rape and murder of Asiya and Neelofar and the attempts made to pass it off as deaths by drowning is also one of the reasons behind youngsters taking up arms. The two women, who were sisters-in-law, went missing from their orchard on their way home in Bongam, in the district of Shopian, on 29th May, 2009. The next morning, their bodies were found near a nullah, both allegedly raped and murdered.
This ‘new -age militancy’ has affected south Kashmir the most, especially Shopian, Kulgam, Tral, and Pulwama. One of the possible reasons could be that Burhan Wani, the new ‘hero’ for the insurgency. He hails from Tral.
We visited these places to speak directly to the youth to solicit their views on what they think is the reason behind an increasing number of young people opting for an armed rebellion.
While on the way to Tral, we met a doctor, Umer Khan. He belonged to Srinagar and was going to meet some friends there. When we asked him about his views on the issue, he said, “What else can they do? We all saw what kind of force was used to the crush the protests of 2008, 2009 and 2010. Youth have only pelted stones at armed forces and in return they were always shot at, mostly above their chests,” said Umer.
The doctor, who has also spent time in the Middle-East mentioned that he was personally very disturbed when the case of Asiya and Neelofar took place. “The worst part was not the rape and the murder. They have done it in Kunan and Poshpora also. It was the way they tried to cover it up. I mean, they take us as complete idiots. Those investigators tried to tell us that they both drowned in a stream which is not even knee-deep,” said Khan.
The incident the doctor mentioned, just to remind readers, occurred on February 23, 1991, when units of the Indian army launched a search and interrogation operation in the twin villages of Kunan-Poshpora, district Kupwara. Reports suggest, that on that day, over 40 women from all age-groups were allegedly raped in the two villages by members of 4 Rashtriya Rifles of the Indian army.
Surrounded by mountains, Tral, where we finally arrive, is a town of small hamlets. Dardsar is one among them. Upon reaching Dardsar, graffiti stating “Welcome to Land of Burhan”, and “We love Pakistan” was visible everywhere.
Many in the Tral town view Burhan as a leader; some even greeted us saying, “welcome to Burhan’s town”.
Women and girls showered praises on Burhan before taking his name. The elderly felt that he was a ‘success’in this world and had reserved his ‘Aakirrat’(hereafter) too. He had secured a place in ‘Jannat’ (heaven) by choosing the path of ‘Jihad’ (struggle), we were told.
A 16-year-old boy, Qamar, wearing a pheran with a red sweater underneath and oily hair met us at a local bus stand. He asked, “Have you read about Robin Hood?” We answered in the affirmative. He shot back, “He (Burhan) is ours.”
21- year-old Wani, who is also referred to as Burhan Bhai (brother), Bhaijana (elder brother) and Burhan Saeb (sahib in Kashmiri) by the people, is also popularly known as the Robin Hood of Tral.
At Dardsar, a research scholar, Tamheed Dar, in his late 20s, spoke to us while sitting in the verandah of his house. He feels that the mass detentions, torture and humiliation during ‘peaceful protests’ of 2008, 2009 and 2010 are some of the main reasons that the youth in the valley have decided to pick up the gun again.
“Boys who threw stones were obviously detained and tortured. But hundreds were detained for no reason. Their families were punished. Their life was made a living hell. It was almost impossible for them to lead a normal life and police used to pick them up every now and then,” Dar told us.
18-year-old Majid Lone felt that pelting stones was not going to change anything now. “The only way to answer back is what Burhan Bhai has done,” he claimed. Lone added that boys who were joining militant ranks were fully aware of the repercussions. “You might have heard that the Army says these people are doing it in order to get famous. That is so ridiculous. We all know what happens to the kith and kin of the boy who becomes a militant. But still they don’t hesitate. Why? It’s all because of the blood on the streets; innocent blood.”
Mohammad Shabir, a gardener working in the orchards of the area, in his 50s, speculated that in the 1990s, scores picked up the gun because they loved the weapon, not the cause. It’s different now, he believes. “Boys have now understood the true meaning of Jihad. They have picked the gun for Jihad, not for showing off, like many did in the ‘90s. They know that it’s the need of the hour,” he asserted.
In Shopian, we met Fahim Ali, a young man in his early twenties. The sober and well-spoken Ali made it clear that he could not join the ranks as he wanted to study further; he was pursuing science from Shopian College. He told us that physically he might not be able to support Burhan but otherwise, he agreed with his actions. “You can say that I am not as brave as Burhan and many like him. I am not physically with him, but he is in our hearts and minds. He is fighting our war,” Ali told us, with a touch of pride in his voice.
Upon reaching Kulgam, we met youngsters who recalled the moment when Burhan’s first video (a five-minute video surfaced on social media in the month of August 2015 in which Burhan was accompanied by two other militants and he appealed to people to resist Indian occupation. The video has been taken down since) came out.
According to Ayub Mir, an engineering student, the ‘best part’ about the video was that Indian news channels had to translate what Burhan was saying in the video and that conveyed his message to mainland India. “It was a wonderful feeling,” Mir told us.
Some also rate Burhan better than the Hurriyat leaders. “They never talk about Islam, except (Syed Ali Shah) Geelani sahib. Burhan, at the age of just 21 has understood what we need. They just keep talking about politics,” said Khurshid Bhat, who was preparing for the common entrance test for medicine.
Ghulam Qadir, a middle-aged man and a government teacher felt that extreme surveillance on boys after the 2008, ‘09 and ‘10 protests had added to the already present alienation. “That disturbed the youth to a great extent. Boys were kept under constant watch which affected their day-to-day lives. Their studies were affected. Many missed their exams due to detention. That caused a lot of frustration,” said Qadir.
Pulwama district, which was our next destination, has been a hotbed of militant activity in the recent past. Youth here seemed to lose their cool just by talking about the alleged atrocities of the police and the CRPF. “They are the main reason that people are resorting to violence again. They don’t understand peace. They just know how to kill. So if some gharaitmand (self-respecting) picks up arms and speaks to them in their own language, what is the problem in that?” asked Amir Nabi, a 22-year-old.
Nabi has been detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA) twice for stone pelting. “They came to my home a couple of times and didn’t find me. Then they used to insult my father, my mother and my siblings. What kind of law allows them to do so? My father has never even spoken in a high tone, leave aside stone pelting. For them (forces), I am the culprit. So in what capacity they dare touch my father? If they continue to do so and if I pick up arms, who will be responsible?” said a visibly angry Nabi.
Mohammad Yousuf, a 2nd-year student of political science asked us, “What if, God forbid, the same happens to your mother or sister? What are you going to do? Wave the Indian flag? If that happens to me, I am clear what option lies in front of me.”
Khurram Parvez, whom we met later, is a human rights activist and presently serves as the Chairperson of the Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD). He feels that calling the protests of 2008,‘09, and ‘10 ‘failed’ is ‘baseless’. “They had their own impact,” he reasoned.
Parvez pointed out that people who feel that the protests were a ‘failure’ are those who expected ‘Azadi’ as an immediate result. He said that the 90s saw protests which were more powerful than any other protests which have happened in Kashmir. “Ladkon ko lagta tha azadi aa jayegi (Boys thought they will get freedom). However, they forgot that during the 90s also protests used to take place. In 2008, around 60 people were killed. In 2010, around 142 were killed. In 1990, in just three to four massacres, more people were killed. In January 1990, we saw the Gaw Kadal massacre, another in Kupwara and then in Zakura area. And then we saw valley-wide protests in March that year. This generation has not seen those protests. If a comparison is made, then the recent protests were nothing in front of the 90s. Everyone held their own protests-lawyers, doctors, students, even auto-rickshaw drivers,” Khurram explained.
Khurram, who organised the musical meet ‘Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir‘ against the state-sponsored ‘Ehsas-e-Kashmir‘ conducted by Zubin Mehta, also felt that the protests were one of the reasons behind why India offered to hold a dialogue with Pakistan. “The kind of protests which take place everywhere and every now and then in the valley, don’t you think that it’s one of the reasons that the government of India offered dialogue to Pakistan? Did that pressure not act? Otherwise, I don’t see any great international pressure on India right now. There is limited pressure from the US and China.”
Former Mayor of Srinagar and the current provincial President of the Youth National Conference, Salman Ali Sagar, feels that the PDP facilitated the entry of certain elements– right-wing forces – into Kashmir’s socio-political life who did not have the mandate of the people. He blamed the PDP-BJP alliance in the state as a possible factor behind the recent surge in militancy.
Sagar feels the phenomenon of educated and young boys joining militancy has to be taken seriously across party lines.
“Boys from educated backgrounds, well-off families, toppers, are joining militant ranks. This is a moment of concern for all of us, particularly the people in the mainstream. Also, we genuinely need to work on how the aspirations of the youth can be taken care of,” Sagar maintained.
When asked about the protests of 2008,‘09, and ‘10 which were crushed with an iron hand in his own party’s tenure, Sagar claimed that those protests were hardly ‘peaceful’.
“Most of the time the protests were not peaceful. I am not saying that protests should not be given space. In a democratic setup, everybody has the space to protest peacefully. There is no compromise on that. On the other hand, everyone has the right to defend themselves. The forces have the right to defend themselves. However, if force is used on peaceful dissenters and innocent people, we have to fight that tooth and nail,” Sagar said.
Despite repeated attempts, former youth president PDP and political adviser to former C.M. Mufti Sayeed, Waheed Para didn’t respond to our calls.
We spoke to Lt. Colonel N. N. Joshi, spokesman of the Indian Army’s Srinagar-based 15thCorps. Joshi claimed that the army was “alert” and “vigilant”. “Militancy is not a one-day affair. It will take time to curb it. We are trying our best,” he claimed.
He told us that not just the army, but all government agencies in Kashmir dealing with security issues were tracking the new surge in militancy. “Army has its own intelligence network. We also work with other agencies to track the militants. There is also good synergy between various security agencies operating in Kashmir valley and the Indian Army.”
The army was employing softer means, he told us. “Radicalization is a problem but the Army is also organising various tours and programs to mainstream the youth in Kashmir. There are schemes to empower them for better jobs. Not only youth but we are also organising women empowerment programs and girl education programs to mainstream every youth. So there are lots of programs which are covered under Operation Sadbhavana to bring youth in mainstream and keep them occupied and engaged in day-to-day affairs and I must say we have been successful so far in carrying out these programs,” said Joshi.
Some say that the sound of the ocean that you hear when you put a seashell to your ear is actually the echo of blood rushing inside your own blood vessels. A sort of echo of what is already inside.
In the accounts we heard of what is driving the youth in Kashmir to pick up guns, there seemed a similar echo. Of dissent and frustration, that already exists within.
But the question remains, who will listen to this sound before it is too late and we end up losing an entire generation?