Ten-year-old Zahan pulls out his “gun” from the folds of cloth kept next to his school bag. Cleaning it thoroughly, Shameema, his mother, puts her hand on his head.
Zahan steps out of his house and walks through the dusky lanes of dense willows to meet his companions. Zahan, “commander” of his “rebel” group, is 10.
As he reaches, he is warmly welcomed by his friends–the “guns” slugging over their shoulders and some held firm with their soft hands, pointed upwards. The famous willow of Kashmir seems to manufacture, Toy Guns—unbelievably akin to the real assault rifle—rather than the celebrated cricket bats. It looks like the games have changed.
In Zahan’s village, Tachlu of south Kashmir’s Anantnag District, a pro-freedom rally will be held, in which thousands of people of nearby villages from all Islamic sects will participate. These are sort of unification rallies against the Indian rule in Kashmir. Zahan’s group of nine friends will be ‘guarding’ the rally or in other words, add a different mood to it.
“I am the commander of my village,” says Zahan, who has now put a green fabric over his forehead, with a six-letter word ‘Burhan’ written on it. Walking towards the rally ground, he deploys his friends along the way.
“I don’t feel free here, had there been a real gun I would have picked that, I feel a sense of protection through this,” he says to me, while he gets a word of blessing from the people pouring into the rally ground.
The people, young and old are fascinated by the scene of these ‘gun kids’ and appreciate them.
“We are Inspired by the Burhan bhai,” he says referring to the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, who was killed on July 8 in Kokernag area of South Kashmir. Since Wani’s killing, Kashmir is shut and more than 90 people, mostly youth have been killed by the government forces. “He is our hero, we want to look like him and we want to tell world that he is dead but they should see there are more Burhans in Kashmir,” he adds.
Kids in Kashmir have not seen their schools for the last three months. First, it was ten days summer break and then complete shutdown after Wani’s killing in an encounter, now reaching to 100 days mark.
After four hours, of raising pro-freedom slogans in the rally along with the thousands of people and raising their “rifles,” the group meets and poses for a photograph. They pose like the same as Wani and his associates did in the popular photograph that took the Internet by a storm last year.
“I know nothing is going to happen with my gun, but it will surely send the message that if we are not liberated, I can pick a real one once I grow older, says Hameem, a 10-year-old chubby face boy with deep black eyes.
“Maybe after I finish my class 10 exams,” he adds, holding his well tapped black AK-47 imitation.
The gun toys in their hands are not product of market, instead, local carpenters these days are busy manufacturing them.
“My eight year old son didn’t have lunch till I fulfilled his demand and brought him a toy gun,” says Shabir Ahmad, a government employee and father of two children.
Though schools are off they have joined temporary tuition classes at Madrasa building in the village. Few educated local youth teach them in these temporary schools, but on a rally day, for Zahan and company, it is a holiday.
Despite being young they are well aware of the politics around and can deliver lecture on the dimensions and cause of Kashmir problem.
“Tell Modi,” referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Zahan, surrounded by his group with raised rifles says, “He should give us freedom. That is why we have picked up guns and Inshallah (God willingly) we will get it.” Replicating, the tone of Burhan Wani, he says, “the youth that are being killed shouldn’t be.”
In Kashmir, children who are yet to learn alphabets have memorized slogans that reverberate in the streets here. As the Kashmir situation is turning ugly day by day, children seem to have created their own world out of this conflict. In fact, they have chosen their hero and that too not any cartoon character, but a militant commander. Their imitation reflects a larger crises prevailing in the Valley.
There is Zahan in every village now, with his “rebel” friends and their favorite game is Army–Millitant, not cricket or football.
“The kids have imitating characteristic. What they see around them they copy and want to be like those characters,” says, Dr Maqbool Ahmed, a psychiatrist at the Governmental Medical College, Srinagar. “They enjoy being in power and waving toy guns they feel authoritative. In most of these cases, children copy the movie characters. But in conflict zones like Kashmir, their heroes are different.”
Dr. Maqbool, now with decades of experience in Kashmir dealing with the psychological disorders due to conflict, says, “This has long run affects on their psyche and we have started receiving children with different psychological impediments. ”
Children like Zahan are the future of Kashmir and the politics of the region will decide whether they will live in violence or peace.
(Names of some characters have been changed on request.)