Kashmir’s Vicious Cycle: Militant Ranks Swell With Every Encounter

“If there were job opportunities around, he would have not picked up a gun,” said the mother of a militant.

5 min read
Kashmiri Muslims carry the body of Burhan Wani, a separatist militant leader, during his funeral in Tral, south of Srinagar on 9 July. 

Tensions were building in south Kashmir’s Dehruna village. At the start of April, a local youth, Rouf Khandey, influenced by Jamaat-e-Islami ideology, was gunned down by forces in Shopian. Rouf had joined Hizbul Mujahideen, the purported armed wing of the Jamaat, in February this year.

In subsequent weeks, as more civilian and militant killings and separatist-sponsored shutdown calls brought life to a standstill, restive south Kashmir reeled under protests and curfew.

In Rouf’s neighbourhood, Zubair Ahmad, 27, an MPhil in sociology, left home on 19 April, telling parents that he was staying at a friend’s place in Srinagar and would return after writing exams for multiple job openings in J&K government for which he had applied months ago.

In a shocking turn of events that has left his family devastated, Zubair surfaced in a changed avatar on Facebook soon after his departure from home. In a signature style popularised by Hizbul’s Burhan Wani, a photo showed Zubair posing with an AK-47 rifle, pledging allegiance to the Pakistan-based outfit.

Sons Take Flight

The village of Dehruna – a Jamaat-e-Islami stronghold and home to some 200 families – is made up of mud-and-brick houses built idyllically along the banks of a water stream which criss-crosses its thick green landscape, irrigating the lush paddy fields and dense apple orchards in its way.

We are guided to the home of Zubair by a local shopkeeper. As we sit in a dimly-lit room, a middle-aged woman with expectant eyes enters. She greets us with a smile. Nothing in her demeanour betrays the tragedy she has been enduring since her son joined militants.

“He is the walking stick of our old age,” said the woman, Rashida Bano, Zubair’s mother. “But I can’t tell him to surrender now,” she added, nonchalantly, when asked if she wants her son to return to normal life.

She took out a small, red velvet pouch from her pheran pocket to show a passport photo of her son, folded in transparent polythene that she carries with herself all the time. Rashida’s husband is jobless but the family owns a ‘decent’ apple orchard, a major portion of earnings from which have gone into the marriages of their three daughters and constructing a double-storied house in an otherwise poor Dehruna. Only a minor son is left with them now. Broken but exuding hope, Rashida’s wrinkled face portrays the tragedy of dozens of anguished fathers and mothers who are seeing their sons plunge into the deadly world of Kashmir insurgency only to return in body-bags.

Fertile Ground of Grief

A report drafted by the J&K Police has comprehensively pointed out the links between militant killings and the spur in fresh recruitment of Kashmiri youth into militant ranks from the past three years. According to the report, in 43 encounters that took place between 5 November 2016 and 26 April this year, 77 militants were killed while 104 youth living within 10 km radius of the residences of killed militants were recruited into militant outfits.

Zubair is one of them.

Was it the April violence during which a local militant or a civilian was killed almost every day in Kashmir that shaped the decision of Zubair to join militancy? Rashida says her son looked upset after he returned home from Rouf’s funeral.

I told him to call me upon reaching Srinagar but the call never came. His phone has been switched off since. His younger brother broke the news to us after seeing his photo on Facebook. I was shocked. No one knew he was going to join militancy.

In the three encounters on 3 April across south Kashmir, three militants among the 13 gunned down hailed from Padderpora of Shopian. So when the village was swarmed by thousands of people, including women and children, who had come from far-flung areas to participate in militants’ funerals, fertile ground for new militant recruitment according to security forces, Aadil Nazir Chopan, an engineering undergraduate at St Soldier College in Jalandhar, who was home to attend a family wedding, also joined the crowds.

‘Bright Stars’ Burning Out

Aadil had cleared the written test of the National Defence Academy in 2015 but took up a graduate course in engineering instead. The deceased militants’ houses are located barely few hundred metres from the Chopans’ in Padderpora. The funerals “changed” him.

On 19 April, Aadil left home without telling anyone where he was going. In a standard practice employed by militants, the news of his “shocking” embrace of militancy surfaced on Facebook.

Nazir Chopan, Aadil’s father, who has been associated with CPI(M) in a predominant Jamaat-e-Islami village, said:

His decision to join militancy has left us in deep shock. All his life he wanted to pursue good education. He is my brightest star but even I could not make out what was going on in his mind. Had I known this was going to happen, I would have never asked him to attend the wedding.

According to a senior J&K police officer who has studied the past three years of turmoil, local militants in Kashmir depend on an over-ground network of workers and sympathisers who actively work to find new recruits; be it the victims of state high-handedness or those inspired by a puritanical strain of Islam which makes war against infidels a necessity and an obligation for Muslims.

The Common Thread

Each new recruit has his own reasons for joining militancy, from harassment by security forces to a turmoil-linked death in the family or neighbourhood. But a common thread that runs as inspiration for today’s militants is – they are drawn to violence due to a void caused by hopelessness and unending political turmoil where religion provides solace and adds meaning to their lives.
Senior J&K Police Officer

In Hawoora village of Kulgam, the home of Hizbul’s commander for Kulgam district popularly known as Altaf Kachroo, a science graduate who joined the outfit in 2011, is a popular address. His mother, Saleema Bano, is tending to her vegetable garden. Judging by the sarcastic look on her face, she seems to know the motive of a journalist’s cliched appearance at her home.

Narrating the long ordeal of her son’s alleged harassment at the hands of security agencies, Saleema is confident the “mistreatment” “forced” her son to join the Hizb.

“Earlier, police wanted us to wrongly admit that Altaf works for Hizb when he was only trying to earn a decent livelihood. Today, I proudly say he is a militant, a commander at that. Had they left him alone and if there were job opportunities around, maybe he would have never picked up gun”.

At the double-storied house in poor Dehruna, Rashida’s sunken eyes cast a sad glance at her son Zubair’s photo which she frees from the polythene wrapping. The pale woman heaves a deep sigh, thinking up, perhaps, not-so-old memories when her son was a normal young man aiming for stability in life. Then she drops her head, closes her eyes, tears welling up, and breaks down.

“You think I will tell him to sacrifice his life? Never. I am a mother. He is the flesh of my flesh. I will put my life at stake to get him back,” Rashida said, amid sobs.

Liked this story? We'll send you more. Subscribe to The Quint's newsletter and get selected stories delivered to your inbox every day. Click to get started.

The Quint is available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, click to join.

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!