Young and educated, the new face of militancy in Kashmir

Young and educated, the new face of militancy in Kashmir

Young, educated and tech-savvy — these are some of the striking features that define the new breed of militants in Kashmir. Identifying themselves with the prominent characters of jihadi literature, these young people publicly express their desire for rewards in afterlife, and insist with the family members that their ‘martyrdom’ should not be mourned.

Many of these slain militants, between mid-teens and mid-twenties, had a pan-Islamic agenda and their fight, according to their families, was not restricted to the ‘freedom’ of Kashmir alone. Most of them were unmarried and had seen so many killings in their neighbourhood that they had no fear of death.

Many of them were stone-pelters who had been arrested and were allegedly subjected to torture by the police in recent years. They were slapped with case upon case and were allegedly hounded and humiliated and, in some cases, forced to become informers by the police and the Army. South Kashmir’s Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama districts have become the new hunting ground for militant groups. This is where the youngsters, mostly once stone-pelters meet the recruiters.

According to the police, militant handlers also recruit youths through social networking sites and through a network of over-ground workers (OGWs).

However, the police say, after Operation All Out (OAO) was launched in 2017, militants are now wary of new recruits. OAO is a joint offensive by the Indian security forces to flush out terrorists in Kashmir until there is complete peace in the state. As a result, now the militant groups prefer youngsters with ideological conviction. Those who have either multiple cases of stone-pelting lodged against them or can snatch away weapons from forces to prove their ‘loyalty’ get entry into these radical groups.

Sameer Tiger, the long-haired militant whose picture with an American M4 carbine went viral on social media last year, had started out as a stone-pelter. The Class 8 dropout was picked up by the police in March 2016 after he was caught pelting stones on security personnel. He was just 18 years old then.

He was then let off, but he fled into the jungles of adjoining Tral area and joined the Hizbul Mujahideen outfit. He was killed in April, but not before he stimulated dozens of stone-pelters to become militants.

Family had no clue

Junaid Matoo, a top commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) who was killed last June in an encounter with the, was one of the New Age militants, who picked up gun to wage ‘jihad’ against India when he was a teenager. On a spring afternoon in 2015, Matoo, a native of Khudwani village of southern Kulgam, a hub of anti-India protests and militancy, left his home to never return alive.

His elder brother, Parvaiz, who runs a bakery in the area, says they had no clue that Junaid, who was the youngest among the six siblings, would become a militant one day. “During the 2010 unrest, he would sometimes participate in protests and stone-pelting like most of the boys of his age. From 2013, he started taking deep interest in religion. He would read a lot of books on jihad and we discovered it only after searching his room after he left home in 2015,” he told DH.

Like most of his contemporary militants, he had made a ‘will’ asking his family not to mourn his ‘martyrdom’. “When we tried to convince him to give up arms, he refused saying ‘even after freedom of Kashmir, jihad will continue in other parts of the world,’” Parvaiz revealed.

The story of another slain LeT commander Majid Zarger, who hailed from the neighbouring Qaimoh area, is more or less the same. But one day in 2013, after giving 10th standard exams, Majid left home to join the militant ranks.

Majid, who was a student of a missionary school in Anantnag town, didn’t heed to the advice of his father Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din Zarger to wait for some years before he could make the right decision.

“He (Majid) would often discuss about injustice being done to the Kashmiris and would say someday he would choose the path of armed struggle. I would ask him to complete studies before making a move,” the senior Zarger, a businessman, said. But he didn’t heed to the advice of his father. Majid and Matoo were top strategists and main recruiters of LeT in south Kashmir. Majid was killed in an encounter with security forces on December 9, 2016.

This new crop of militants, who kill and die in the name of religion and not politics, is growing in numbers in Kashmir. Eisa Fazili, an engineering college dropout affiliated with an Al-Qaeda group, who was killed by security forces earlier this year, was one such person.

Fazili, who lived in the posh Ahmednagar area, a Srinagar suburb, left his engineering degree midway in last August to take up arms against the state. His father, Naeem Fazili, principal at a government higher secondary school, was always wary of the influence that Kashmir’s turbulence might have on his children. So he had enrolled Eisa in a prestigious missionary school in Srinagar and given Quran lessons at home to prevent him from coming in contact with extremist ideas.

Houses burnt by mob in Bamdaroo village, where Burhan was killed in an encounter in July 2016.

Pawns or poster boys?

But that didn’t help. A few days after Eisa, in his early 20s, joined militancy, his father penned a Facebook post which read: “Eisa, your innocence is being exploited by some vested interests. You are being used as a pawn or a poster boy. I swear you are not on the right track in the light of Quran and Sunnah (sayings of Prophet Muhammad). Please don’t play with fire. Return as early as possible.”

Subsequently, Eisa was killed in March 2018 and during Eisa’s funeral, a black-and-white Islamic flag, commonly used by the global terror outfit, Islamic State, was laid on the body. A few days after his death, Eisa’s school classmate, Aamir Ahmad Amin penned down a passionate letter grieving his friend’s death and accusing Wahabi preachers and separatist leaders for leading him in the wrong path.

In an appeal, he also urged all the youths of Kashmir to stay away from such influence and to not get carried away by radical teaching. In the footnote, he urged Kashmiri parents to keep a track of what their son is surfing or reading online and that who is influencing him.

But regardless of the presence of militants allied with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, the ongoing conflict in Kashmir is as devastating as ever to the region’s people. In Rampur village of Kulgam, the recalcitrant family of Sheikhs has lost 15 members of its extended clan since militancy erupted in the Valley in the 1990s.

Naseema Bano (52), whose two militant brothers were killed by the security forces earlier, lost her 21-year-old son Touseef Sheikh, a commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen outfit, earlier this year. As this report was being filed, Bano’s third brother, Abbass Sheikh, a Hizbul commander, whom police blamed for the killing of a young Army officer, Lt Omar Fayaz, last year, was killed in an encounter with the security forces in Shopian.

Hoouse of Farooq Wani, uncle of Sartaj Sheikh which was burnt by mob after Burhan's killing.

Trapped in cordon

“When any member of our family is killed, we don’t mourn the death. Instead we celebrate his martyrdom,” Bano told DH. Recounting her last conversation with her slain son, she said, Touseef told her that he was trapped in cordon and there was no chance to escape. “He had promised to meet me on Eid but that didn’t come true,” she said.

A senior police officer, who has been involved in counter-insurgency for the last two decades, said, during the late 1980s, the Afghan ‘jihad’ and the Iranian Revolution were the global events that served as an inspiration to many militants in Kashmir.

“But today, Al-Qaeda and ISIS motivate youngsters in Kashmir, like in other parts of the Muslim world. The ideology has taken roots and the failure of indigenous militant groups to effect change seems to be pushing the youth closer to other ideologies. But there are also militants who see Kashmir as a political issue,” he said.

The officer, however, admitted that, on occasions, personnel cross the limits during anti-militancy operations, which could force some into militancy.

The family members of the slain militants DH spoke to say they believe that, in the current context of surging violence and growing frustration, more young men in the region will be drawn into armed struggle.

They fear that unless situation changes for the better, extremism will not stop, and more people would die.

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Young and educated, the new face of militancy in Kashmir

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