For twenty-two years, Saja Shah, her husband, and their three children have lived in a two-room rented apartment. Saja, a homemaker in her early 50s, was in the process of shifting to their newly built mud-brick house, which they had begun constructing years ago. A day before moving in, on 21 October 2012, she sat drinking tea at her brother-in-law’s house when she heard gunshots. As she sat bewildered by the proximity of the firing, she heard footsteps – as someone walking in the floor above her. The gunshots were an exchange of fire between two young militants and the police in a nearby street, close to the Police Station. The police had opened fire at the militants upon spotting them. In the rain, the militants were chased until they took refuge in a house. The moment they stepped into the two-storey house, dozens of police and army men cordoned it, and a volley of bullets converged on it. The troops told the inhabitants to vacate the premises. Amidst the exchange of fire between the militants and troops, Saja and her extended family evacuated the house.
I met Saja in May of 2013 at the rented apartment in Sopore – 50 kilometres north of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar. Resting against the distempered wall of the room, she sat glancing from the window at a Chinaar tree shadowing the ruins of her new house. In a voice haunted by loss and despair, she told me of the destruction of her home: “First the army opened fire, and then the boys in the house started firing. They had entered from a window on the second floor. We were sitting in this room and could see the flames, hear the gunshots and blasts.” In the gun-battle, which lasted for twenty-four hours, three houses were damaged. One of them was Saja’s new home. She believed that her struggle to live in the rented apartment was over. Yet, she could never step into her new home to live. When word of the gunfight spread in the village, the youth started leaving for other villages, as the troops use young men as human shield during gun-battles. After dusk, there were brief halts in firing, but at night it reached fatality. The forces were firing aimlessly at the house because they could not locate the exact position of the militants.
One of the boys fighting in the house was, Muzamil Amin Dar, alias Urfi, a theater assistant from a government hospital. His life had changed since 16 November 2010, when two men came running into the compound of his house and threw in “a bag full of arms and ammunition” while he was at work. “I saw them throwing the bag. I picked up the bag and threw it in our well,” Muzamil’s mother, Dilshada told me. In a few minutes, the army cordoned the house to fish out the bag. Born on 1 April 1987, Muzamil arrived home and was arrested near the gate. All five family members, Dilshada, her husband and their three sons, were beaten up by the police and army. The next day, on Eid, Muzamil was released. After a day, for the next eight days, police would detain and torture him. Police then arrested Muzamil’s father and his two brothers. Both the brothers were released after a month, and his father was released after five months. Muzamil was held under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA) – which allows for detention without trial for a minimum of six months and a maximum of one year – and was released eleven months later.
During his time in jail, Muzamil applied for a job in a government hospital. After being released, he went back to his life of working from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the SMHS hospital and sometimes night shifts too. “His attendance at the hospital was regular, not missing a day,” his mother said. Still, he couldn’t continue his normal life, as the then Superintendent of Police in the district, Altaf Khan, would often summon him and his family members to the police station. Once, after returning from a five-day arrest, Muzamil told his mother that the police were intimidating him to work as an informer. “Police told me, ‘you are living on the busy road, so we want you to spy on your neighbourhood. We will provide you a cell phone too,’” he had told his mother. His house is situated on a road that connects the Sopore Town with the Sopore Fruit Market, passing through a cluster of houses.
After living several months under police scrutiny and pressure, Muzamil and his family’s life was extremely disturbed. But the real jolt came on 29 February 2012, when the then Home Minister of India, P. Chidambaram, mentioned Muzamil’s name in a press conference in Delhi – the capital of India. The minister announced that the Delhi Police’s Special Cell, with the help of Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand Police, had foiled a major terror attack and arrested two Lashkar-e-Toiba men, Ehtisham Malik and Tauseef Peer, naming Muzamil as “the mastermind behind the planned attack.” While the news channels were flashing it as breaking news, the police in Sopore raided Muzamil’s house a few times. He was not there and came home at evening. He changed his clothes and left. “I asked him where he was going and he replied, ‘The police will do to me what they did to Afzal Guru. I don’t want to decay in jail,’” Dilshada told me.
Situated in the Himalayan mountain range, Kashmir has been a conflict zone since the late 80s, when the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) started the armed militancy. It was the first time in the history of Kashmir that people saw guns and blasts fuming in the Muslim-majority Valley. Before that, there had been strong political resistance movements, led by various people, demanding the right to self-determination. The assembly election of 1987 was reportedly rigged, and post that the youth started crossing the de facto border or the Line of Control (LoC), to reach Pakistan-administered Kashmir. They returned as trained armed militants, and from then after, the fights between the Indian forces and the militants have never stopped, though the valley had seen a steep decline until recently.
It has been twenty-five years of armed resistance in the valley. Since the downfall of the earlier militant movement, there have been two major protests in the region, in 2008 and 2010. Thousands of people turned to the streets, raising anti-India and pro-freedom slogans, protesting, throwing stones, and facing bullets. Dozens would get injured and killed in single day. In 2008, protests started after the Amarnath Land Transfer row, during which around eighty people were killed by the troops. Just two years after this, the mass protests started again, in which around 120 people, mostly teenagers, were killed. By now, the stone-throwing had become the face of the fight against the Indian rule. Youth would come out in the streets to throw stones and the troops would fire bullets, pellets, and tear gas shells. These two major protesting years were seen as a shift in the resistance movement of Kashmiris, where now the youth were leading. Stones replaced the guns, but nothing stopped the flux of bullet-ridden bodies. Graveyards were still filled. As this continued, there was no change in Indian policy toward Kashmir. After every protest the government, both central and regional, would say that the region was returning to peace, and people were fed up of protests. This didn’t seem a reality on the ground.
At Muzamil’s home, as the sunlight slowly seeped into the house through the windows, I went to his room and found a collection of books he would tell his mother to get while he was in jail. On his personal diary, he had written, “Give comfort and security to others, and you will always receive it in return.” Lying on the bookshelf was his Indian passport application form, filled a few weeks before he left home.
The police had identified Muzamil as the “Divisional Commander of a militant outfit, Lashkar-e-Toiba”, a Pakistan-based militant organization. The Deputy Superintendent of the police’s Special Operations Group, Riyaz Ahmed Tantray told me, at his office in Sopore, that Muzamil had been with militants for a very long time. He said that the police cracked his involvement in militant activities with the help of a cell phone number traced from another arrested militant. The family counters the police’s story. It was, his mother said, torture by the police that forced him to take such a big step. His mother or anyone in the family argue that he took up arms only because the police named him a mastermind behind attacks of which he was never a part. His mother believes that Muzamil was forced to become militant only so that the police would get promotions and monetary benefits. “The police had put a thirty lac [three million] reward on him and had pasted reward posters in other districts also. We have a photograph of one such poster from Pulwama district,” Dilshada told me, showing a blurry photograph of the poster on her cell phone.
Afzal Guru was in jail when Muzamil mentioned his name to his mother, but a year later he was hanged. He was arrested in 2001 after the attack on Indian parliament on 13 December 2001, in which five attackers and nine policemen were killed. The Indian courts sentenced him to death. On 9 February 2013, at 8 a.m., he was secretly hanged in the Tihar Jail of India, where he had been imprisoned since his arrest. His family, much of the public, and several politicians believe that Guru was framed in the case and made a scapegoat. After the hanging, to stop any major backlash in Kashmir, the authorities imposed a curfew forcing people to stay indoors. Despite this, there were protests in several areas, and around 350 civilians were injured and 5 were killed by the troops in one month.
The hanging of Guru has been one convincing factor for some youth to shift toward the gun again. Several stone-throwers have joined militants now, as they feel that India has not been honest in solving the conflict peacefully. The hanging, for militant organizations also, has helped to get new recruits. The Indian government, on 6 August 2013, said that there has been a rise in militant attacks on government forces after the hanging. “The reason for increase in terror attacks is due to stepping up of the attack on security forces planned by the militant groups in the aftermath of Afzal Guru’s execution in February, 2013,” Minister of State for Home R.P.N. Singh told the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian parliament). He gave the statistics that in 2012 there were 50 encounters between militants and government forces in the state, in which 15 government forces were killed and 65 were injured. “In 2013, up to July 28, there were 16 encounters, in which 35 government forces were killed and 29 were injured.”
The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS)– a human rights defenders group, released a year review report this month, saying that in 2013 a total of 204 people lost their lives in several violent incidents in the state. “Out of 204 persons, 48 were civilians, 73 were alleged militants, 82 armed forces and police personnel and 1 was an unidentified person,” the report said. Comparing the two years, the report said that 2013 saw more killings then the past one. In 2012, 148 people were killed as compared to 204 deaths in the year 2013. “In the year 2012, 75 alleged militants were killed, while as in 2013, 73 alleged militants have been killed. In the year 2012, 36 armed forces and police personnel were killed while as in 2013, the figure has almost doubled with 82 deaths of armed forces and police personnel. The civilian killings have also increased from 35 in 2012 to 48 in the year 2013,” it said. It also mentioned that since 2008 and 2010 civilian uprisings the government for the fear of non-repetition of the uprisings continues to detain youths from different districts on different pretexts. “Torture, intimidation and illegal detentions are regularly being meted out to a very huge number of boys who in the past or recent times may have participated in protest demonstrations.
The situation for minors in Kashmir has ben worsening too. In May 2013, in an interview advocate Babar Qadri told The Kashmir Walla, that thousands of minors are being arrested and it is a continuous process. Commenting to the situation of arrested minors in Kashmir, Qadri said, “[Police] detain the minors and do not show their arrest on papers resulting in whatever they want to do with them they do. […] The juvenile justice system is abused as these minors are treated as war criminals. They are put in that SOG camp juvenile home. Now when a minor is to be punished they put him in a solitary confinement. He is put in a cell alone with no electricity and other standards of living.”
Two days after Guru’s hanging, when I was on the way to his home in Sopore, we passed through Palhallan. It was sealed by the troops and there was no civilian movement. Thirty kilometers north of Srinagar, hundreds of youth from this village would throw stones during 2008 and 2010 and in the following years also. Some of them later shifted from stones to guns. One such transformation was Hilal Ahmad Rather, alias Hilal Molvi. He was a mufti, a scholar in Islamic law, from Deoband Seminary. During the 2010 protests he was a stone-thrower and joined Laskhar-e-Toiba (LeT) in October 2012. A video of his speech, recorded during a demonstration between 2008 and 2010, shows him addressing a large gathering of youth. In the speech, he says: “Let India’s dark empire listen to this, let the agents listen to this. We will say this until we die: it will be either martyrdom or Sharia [Islamic rule].”
At 5 a.m. on 23 May 2013, a fellow journalist told me over phone that a gunfight had started in Srinagar’s downtown area and one militant has been killed. I went to the spot and found that Hilal was killed. He was in his early thirties. Later, I travelled to Hilal’s village for his funeral in the evening. The troops had cordoned the village, and traffic was stopped on the Srinagar-Varmul highway, at least 10 kilometers before one could reach the village. After taking a rough link road, passing through the paddy fields, I found thousands of people – men, women and children, chanting anti-India and pro-freedom slogans. The body, on a wooden plank, was being taken to the village’s prayer ground for funeral prayers and from there to the martyrs’ graveyard, where more than a hundred have been buried so far. The funeral followed in a routine way, one of the boys among them told me, “We have been seeing this for years now. We follow the procedure of moving in rows, making a human chain around the body to avoid any disruption.”
Like most of the militants killed in 2013, Hilal too had transformed to militancy. There have been several young militants whose families believe that the situations for young men are created such that they find no way other than picking up arms. They are being pushed against the wall. Another such person was a nineteen-year-old college student. After facing humiliation by the troops, Atir Yusuf Dar, born on 13 March 1993, chose a gun over his life as a student.
During the mass protests of 2010, Atir was occasionally throwing stones, joining protest demonstrations like Hilal or anyone else. His mother says the turning point in his life was when the police arrested him from home. “They came here and he was arrested in the orchard, rear side of the house. That day, the police abused his sisters, and he couldn’t forget that,” his mother Sara Begum told me, in their three-storey house in Sopore.
After the continuous harassment and arrests, Atir’s behaviour started changing. He wanted to go for higher studies abroad but would say that the police wouldn’t let him. He would sit in his room, switching off the lights, drawing the curtains. “He would eat less food and then on being asked, he would say I am preparing myself for something. At night or early in the morning he would go and walk through the rice fields and on the banks of the stream to follow the footprints [of militants],” Begum said.
Four months before he was killed in a fierce gunfight with troops in a nearby village, he had left home. At his funeral, fellow militants fired half a dozen times in his tribute. His family accuses the police and the troops for forcing him to take this path. “Police, army, and STF (Special Task Force) force people to become militants to earn promotions and rewards. The boys whom they torture pick up guns. The Station House Officer [of the Sopore Police Station] used to threaten us, saying that he will murder Atir,” his mother told me. Despite losing her youngest son among her six children, she says: “The way people are tortured and suffer, I think every mother should sacrifice a son. I have no sad feelings or regrets.”
Another reason for government to worry is that the young boys who join the militants come from well-off families with good education. In June 2013, the state chief minister, Omar Abdullah, expressed concern over the issue. He told reporters that it has become a serious concern. “We have found that this time the militants killed in recent encounters were educated as most of them were the products of Islamic University, Awantipora, and Kashmir University. And the lesser educated among them was Class 12th passout. Why had they joined militancy and what had they thought before joining militancy? There is a need to analyze this thing and we are looking into it,” he said. Earlier, in past during uprisings the government had been asserting that the stone-throwers and the new recruits in militancy are those who are unemployed and are vulnerable to be motivated for anything. But this argument of the government machinery changed, with time, as the number of young militants started increasing. As can be seen from the profiles of the young militants, almost all of them are from colleges – some studying professional courses and some quit their jobs.
On May 24 2013, three militants ambushed a party of the Indian army in South Kashmir’s Tral, 40 kilometers south of Srinagar. In the gunfight, four army men and one militant were killed. Three militants, Burhan, Saif Ullah and another unidentified were involved in the attack, of which the Hizbul Mujahideen took responsibility. An engineering graduate-turned-militant, Saif Ullah, was killed and the two fled from the spot, never to be traced, despite the cordon for around a week. Before leaving Saif, Burhan and another militant had conversation with him, asking him if he has any food and asked him to pray. This conversation was recorded by unknown person and appeared on YouTube, in which uniformed Saif is lying under a wooden shed with gun and tells them he has some chocolates.
Before leaving him, the duo took away the ammunition and uniforms of the killed army men. All this happened in just a few minutes after they had exchanged fire with the troops. When I traveled to the spot on the same day, crossing dozens of barricades and heavy army deployment, no journalist was allowed to reach the exact location. We were stopped a mile before we could reach on the spot. A policeman on duty told me that the militants decamped with three service rifles, left the slain army men naked, taking away even the socks and shoes. Later, from Srinagar, I telephoned the Srinagar-based Defence PRO, Col. Naresh Shuhab. He said, “A local unit of Rashtriya Rifles had a tip of some militants hiding in the village… We cordoned off the area and began search operations, during which our party came under heavy fire from militants hiding in nearby forest, resulting in the on-spot death of three jawans, whereas one more jawan later died in the hospital.”
Twenty-one-year-old Saif Ullah Ahanger, the militant killed in the incident, was the son of a retired government employee, Mohammad Rafiq Ahanger, from Hariparigam village, a few kilometres away from the encounter site. Ahanger had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen four months earlier, after leaving home on March 24. He had completed his three-year diploma in civil engineering. The inclusion of educated youths in the armed resistance inspires others too. When the media coverage of the Tral encounter showed a photograph of Burhan, holding two rifles. The photograph went viral on the social media with messages of support. People were praying for his safety, as the rumour was that he had been engaging with the troops during the encounter, not Ahanger. The spectacular crowd at the funerals of militants has also showed how much public support they receive. If a militant is killed, it is both mourned and celebrated that one more has been “martyred” fighting Indian rule. Tral town was shut for days after the gunfight. Even three days the gunfight the army had cordoned the whole area as I was stopped and questioned at five times before entering Saif’s home.
His father, Rafiq Ahmad, a retired government employee, never knew that his son had joined rebels. “I had told him to go for higher studies. But on March 24 he left home to have tea but never returned back. We approached the police and filed the missing report at Awantipora [South Kashmir] police station. Though police assured to help us in tracing my son, I started looking for him on my own. I looked for him everywhere. I went to relatives’ places and his friends but couldn’t find him,” Ahmad told me, and a few other journalists who were in the room. “The Army and Police came our house a few times and assured us to locate him but it was a shock to find out he was with rebels. Nobody ever told us that he had joined the militant ranks,” he says.
A day before the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh’s visit to the state, two militants ambushed an Army convoy on the national highway leading to North Kashmir, in June 2013. The Prime Minister and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, were coming on a two-day visit, during which they also launched train service on a railway section between Qazigund in Kashmir and Banihal in the Jammu region to further strengthen the link to the Valley. Eight men were killed in the lethal attack, despite the huge security arrangements. The deadliest attack of the year sent a message that the militants in the region could still give major causalities to the forces. Such attacks were common during the 90s militancy. The Hizbul Mujahideen claimed the responsibility for the attack, in which nineteen others were injured. Militants were armed with AK-47 rifles and fled from the scene on a two-wheeler and then in a car. This refreshed the memories of peak militancy period.
Experts and observers believe that the reason for inclusion of youth in armed rebellion again, is the choking of political space in the valley. As the arrests and crackdown on pro-freedom leaders continue, day-by-day, the voices of dissent feel forced to take the path of gun. “Young people feel pushed to wall. India’s denial of space for political dissent or non-violent initiatives is motivating young people to change their expression from political uprising to armed uprising. India is in love with violence therefore chokes space for political initiatives,” says Khurram Parvez, a human rights defender with the JKCCS.
Back at Saja’s home, when the troops are showering bullets and grenades at the house, one of the militants is injured at night. Blood is oozing from his leg, and he is struggling to walk. He takes out his cell phone and dials a number. At 2:35 a.m., a cell phone buzzes at his home, where his whole family and a few relatives have huddled together in a room, praying for his safety. He talks to his crying mother and tells her not to cry but pray for him. His mother asks him can’t he leave from the house, but he tells her, “I can’t leave. My leg is injured.” The phone runs out of battery and the call gets disconnected. He limps to find a phone charger in the house. He charges it and dials home again. His sister-in-law answers the call and he tells her of meeting in heaven and that the world is not permanent. “Do offer prayers,” he says.
For the whole night, there was heavy firing and blasts. By morning, it got heavier, such that the people living hundreds of meters away left their houses, as the structures were shaking. Around 8:30 a.m. the militants chanted slogans, “Nare takbeer Allah hu akbar (God is great),” amid heavy firing that lasted for an hour and then went silent. It was in that one hour on 21 October 2012 when Muzamil Amin Dar was killed, after seven months and twenty days since he had left his home fearing that the police will do same to him as done to Afzal Guru. In a photograph of his body, he is wearing a pink sweatshirt and jeans and sporting a trimmed beard. At home, his family and relatives remained gathered around the phone, waiting for him to call, but he never called again.
Photograph (Top) by Faisal Khan