J&K Teens: From Loving Film & Football to Choosing Jehad & Jannat
In three days of the killing of three militants, including two teenage recruits of Hajin, Bandipora, last week, a 35-second video appeared in the social media. It showed a four-year-old child, wearing a green cloak made of the Pakistani flag and Kalima painted on his black headgear. With a golden toy pistol in his hands, the toddler in Urdu vows to become Riyaz Naikoo – Hizbul Mujahideen’s chief of operations and the Valley’s most wanted militant. He pledges to “throw India out”, attain “martyrdom” and meet Burhan Wani in Jannat. While chanting the famous ISIS slogan Takbeer, the ecstatic infant pulls the trigger.
The chilling video gives an idea of the indoctrination and heroism that has proliferated phenomenally in the last few years in Kashmir through organised networks and intractable social media.
Saqib Bilal Sheikh was 17 years old and Mudasir Parray just 14 when they died in the 18-hour-long fierce gunfight along with their Pakistani commander ‘Ali Bhai’ at Mujgund, in close periphery of Srinagar, on 9 December.
Records at Morning Star Public School Hajin mention Saqib’s date of birth as 13 August 2003 – exactly one month before the pioneer of counterinsurgency Kukka Parray was ambushed and shot dead by militants in his hometown of Hajin.
The Turning Point
Parray’s counterinsurgency militia Ikhwanul Muslimoon, with the support of Army, had dealt a severe blow to the separatist militancy while killing hundreds of the Hizbul Mujahideen militants and their Jamaat-e-Islami supporters for around seven years. His death on 13 September 2003 proved to be a turning point as pro-Pakistan guerrillas reclaimed their base and influence. Within years, Hajin emerged as a fortress for Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, that eliminated men and women suspected of a liaison with police or security forces.
After passing the 8th standard at Morning Star, Saqib finished class 9 and 10 at Government Higher Secondary School Hajin. For class 11 and 12, he was admitted to New Greenland Higher Secondary School, Sumbal. While preparing for his class 11 exam, Saqib disappeared, along with his younger friend, Mudasir, on 31 August 2018. Their family members and residents insist that a day after an encounter in the village, Saqib and Mudasir sat on the pillion of a Pakistani militant’s motorcycle. They never returned home.
“We left no stone unturned to trace them. We never believed that either of them would pick up a gun. We went to faith healers, got amulets, prayed for their safety. But they neither returned nor called the families over phone for 100 days till we got their bodies for burial. We didn’t trust the photographs in social media that showed them wielding weapons,” Saqib’s father, Bilal Ahmad Sheikh (42), who works as a tax collector at Municipal Committee of Hajin, narrated to The Quint.
Bilal’s elder son Aaqib (19) is in class 12 at Jawahar Novodaya Vidhyalaya at Shahkoot Baramulla. His 9-year-old daughter Nazima is enrolled in class 4 at Morning Star.
Crestfallen and traumatised, Saqib’s mother Mehbooba puts up a brave face on television cameras. “He had chosen the path of righteousness from his childhood. He laid his life for Allah and Islam. We pray Allah accepts his sacrifice and puts him in Jannat”, says Mehbooba.
The parents claim that Saqib had no inclination for violence or militancy.
“At his school, he was interested in theatre, taekwondo, kabbadi and football. For a local theatre group, he played a role in the Kashmiri stage drama ‘Wath chhe yehai’ (This is the way) which bagged a prize in a competition in Kerala. When he was in class 6, his maternal uncle, who is President of District Football Association Bandipora, took him to Srinagar and got him a cameo in the film Haider.
Set and shot in Kashmir, Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Haider’ is a modern day adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. The story is woven around confrontations between militants, Ikhwani counterinsurgents and security forces. Scriptwriter Basharat Peer, now an editor with The New York Times based in Istanbul, and the local line producers have no idea about Saqib or his role.
“Hundreds of young boys and girls used to come in buses. Some of them used to get small extra roles. That was in 2014. We have no idea about some boy of this name,” said someone who was associated with the shooting of Haider.
Mudasir’s photograph, showing him with the Pakistani commander Ali Bhai’s AK-56 rifle in one hand and an ISIS-type knife in scabbard in another hand, went viral in social media days after the duo disappeared. His father, Abdul Rashid Parray (45), works as a labourer and mother, Fareeda (43), is a housewife. Both have undergone surgeries in the last one year. Their elder son, Rashid Rasheed, is physically challenged. He lives with his maternal uncle at Amargarh, Sopore. Their 11-year-old daughter, Khushbu, is a class 5 student at Government Primary School Hajin.
Living in a shack, frequented by hundreds of people every day after Mudasir’s killing, his family continues to be in shock and reluctant to speak to the media. Their relative, Tariq Ahmad, who works in the state government’s Social Welfare Department, told The Quint that Mudasir was never showed any inclination towards a separatist demonstration or encounter.
“At 13 and 14, he used to support his family while working as labourer. He used to load sand stacks on trucks and earn some bucks. He had interest in sports and studies. We don’t how he chose this way,” Tariq said.
Fortress of Terror
After its metamorphosis into a sanctuary for LeT, Hajin has witnessed either encounters or killing of civilians. Commanding Officer of CRPF 45 Battalion, Chetan Cheetah, was critically injured here in a fierce encounter on 14 February 2017 when at least six LeT militants escaped. Three soldiers and the dreaded LeT commander Abu Haris got killed in that gunbattle. With seven brutal killings, last 16 months have been the worst for the town, which, for years, had the distinction of being North Kashmir’s cultural and intellectual capital.
- 26 August 2017: Muzaffar Ahmad Parray was kidnapped and decapitated. His headless body was recovered from the river Jhelum
- 2 April 2018: Muzaffar Parray’s brother-in-law Naseer Ahmad Sheikh (32) aka Muntazar Parray, a driver, was kidnapped from his in-laws’ house. His wife Neelofar (26), mother-in-law Rafeeqa (65) and brother-in-law Hilal Ahmad Parray were attacked with knives and guns and left critically injured. After severe torture, Naseer was shot dead on the outskirts of Hajin
- 4 April 2018: Manzoor Ahmad Bhat (22), a shepherd, was kidnapped and beheaded
- 4 May 2018: Bashir Ahmad Dar was kidnapped and shot dead. His uncle Ghulam Hassan Dar was left injured with a gunshot wound
- 17 May 2018: Hilal Ahmad Parray was kidnapped and hanged to death
- 24 May 2018: Mohammad Yaqoob Wagay (35) was captured and slaughtered with a meat cleaver at his home in presence of his wife and 8-year-old son
- 8 July 2018: Shakeela (45), mother of four children and wife of PDP worker Abdul Majid Dar was attacked at her home with knives. With a part of her throat slit, she later died at a hospital in Srinagar
Even as LeT claimed in a statement that Hilal Parray and Yaqoob Wagay had not been killed by its militants, police held a 6-member group of Pakistani militants and their local commander Saleem Parray responsible for most of such killings. A police spokesman identified the assassins as Abu Muslim, Hubaib, Khalid, Abu Hamza and Haider, besides Saleem Parray.
In the last one year, police and security forces have killed 14 LeT militants, including the two teenage recruits, who had been operating in Hajin, in four different gunbattles.
- 18 November 2017: Six militants and one soldier killed
- 13 July 2018: Two militants and two soldiers killed
- 30 August 2018: Three militants and one soldier killed
- 9 December 2018: Three militants killed
Families of both the slain teenagers maintained that Saquib and Mudasir had deserted their homes on 31 August, a day after three Pakistani cadres of LeT – Rizwan, Abu Zarar and Ali alias Maaz – were killed in an encounter in the village.
Several politicians, organisations, activists and mediapersons have lashed out at police and security forces over their failure to de-radicalise the teenagers and catch them alive in the encounter.
Indoctrination and De-radicalisation
A senior police official in North Kashmir said some of the Pakistani militants of LeT, particularly two, who were both known as Ali Bhai, had indoctrinated and inducted a large number of youths into their organisation. Lashkar chief Zakiur Rehamn Lakhvi’s nephew, Abu Owaid, who was among the six militants killed in an encounter on 18 November 2017, had also inducted a number of youngsters.
Superintendent of Police in Bandipora, Sheikh Zulfikar Azad, said that police and army had successfully de-radicalised dozens of such youths with sustained counselling. According to him, Commander of Army’s Sector-3, Brig Syed Usman, had tremendous contribution in such initiatives. “His troops use shot guns or rifles only in extremely hostile conditions”, SP Bandipora said.
Zulfikar is confident that the militants are on the run and Hajin would be peaceful in the next few months. “We have neutralised most of those Pakistani militants. Now our key target is Saleem Parray. If we get him dead or alive, Hajin will be soon a different town”, Zulfikar asserted. He revealed how he and his subordinate officers, in coordination with the families, had made sustained attempts to get back both the teenage militants. “They held weapons for just a month and did not kill anybody. It was shocking to get them dead”.
Inspector General of Police, Swayam Prakash Pani, however, has no hesitation to admit that the police has not launched any “professional counselling and de-radicalisation initiative”.
“We are not properly trained and equipped in this job but still a number of stone pelters and youths inclined to insurgency have been counselled and put on the right track. Fortunately, we are now getting Juvenile Justice Boards which would go a long way to de-radicalise these teenagers,” Pani asserted. According to him, police and forces had retrieved seven youths alive from different encounters in the current year.
‘Nobody Contesting Separatists’
Director General of Police, Dilbag Singh, told The Quint that the primary responsibility of counselling and de-radicalisation was of the parents, the families, the civil society, the clergy and the politicians.
“Unfortunately, almost all of them have been mute spectators. They have been selectively issuing statements which are palatable to terrorists. Who among them questioned the LeT when it justified its recruitment of these two teenagers and said in a statement that the killers of Abu Jehal (Maooz and Maaz) were also teenagers?”, DGP said. He said that the Education and Social Welfare Departments should also help and introduce measures to contain the problem.
“Everything must not be left to the police. We have other major tasks to handle. Politicians should contest (Syed Ali Shah) Geelani and other separatists when they glorify killers and encourage teenagers to pick up guns and stones,” the DGP added.