“Recite Kalima and fire! … remember the Jihad that [Zakir] Musa talked about … That’s the only path onto the truth,” a man asked his militant brother, who was trapped inside a house surrounded by the government forces in Shopian on 11 April, in the last phone call. “Musa’s idea of Jihad is the Jihad, nothing else.”
In the call, moments before Asif Ahmad Ganaie, a militant for nine months with Al-Badr, was killed, he pledged his allegiance to the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), an outfit founded by Musa. “I’ve joined Ansar, I’m with Ansar,” Ganaie replied to his brother in a low-pitched voice. “Tell the companions in Ansar that I’ve joined them, and they shall take in my men too [after my killing].”
“Oh, what’s the issue then,” the brother said. “Musa shall come himself to receive you [in Heaven].”
This conversation between the Al-Badr militant and his brother happened two days after the Jammu and Kashmir police chief claimed that the AGH had been “wiped out, again” when the government forces killed seven militants of the group in south Kashmir on 9 April.
The conversation, however, reveals the extent to which the Islamist ideology of the AGH has penetrated at the societal level.
It wasn’t the first instance when the government forces claimed that the AGH has been rooted up from Kashmir Valley. The Jammu and Kashmir police chief on 23 October 2019, after the killing of then AGH commander Hamid Lelhari, had said that the group had been “wiped out”.
Since its formation in May 2017, the militant group has suffered many deadly blows, including instances when a chunk of its cadres gets trapped in cordons and loses in men to gunbattles.
Unlinking itself from the politics of Pakistan-backed militant groups, the AGH struck a chord with the Kashmiri youth. But the challenges for the group have widened as they fight perpetual battles of ideology, identity, and survival.
Rising in rebellion
When Zakir Musa, a Tral boy turned an archetypal leader and founder of the AGH, threatened to behead the veteran Hurriyat leadership, and hang their heads in the Lal Chowk, if they continued to change the course of Kashmir’s jihad from the goal of Nizam-e-Mustafa, or implementation of Shariat in post-azadi Kashmir, to elsewhere, he essentially challenged the political lens of the Kashmir insurgency.
“We have to achieve azadi to establish Islamic rule and not for a secular state,” he had said in an audio statement. “If we are fighting for a secular state then my blood won’t be spilled for that purpose.”
India has long blamed Pakistan for radicalising the Kashmiri youth to join militant ranks and stocking the peace. But Musa’s stance brought the differences between the indigenous militants and the Pakistan-based leadership to the fore — long brushed under the carpet, discussed in whispers for nearly half a decade.
The differences had been breeding since the start of the 2010s, when Adil Mir, another militant from Tral headed south Kashmir for Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest indigenous group of militants, fighting for the annexation of Kashmir to Pakistan since the 1990s. Mir had reportedly taken actions against the approval from Pakistan-administered-Kashmir-based leaders.
While the divide widened, Mir, who had lost his elder brother — also a militant affiliated with the Hizbul Mujahideen — to a gunfight in 2010, acted as a mentor to his cousin Burhan Wani and also brought Musa and other youth into the ranks.
Simultaneously, Al-Qaeda released statements in long gaps, calling on Kashmiris “to follow the example of brothers in Syria and Iraq and wage a jihad against Indian rule”.
People close to Burhan Wani, who went on to become the face of Kashmir’s new-age militancy post the killing of Adil Mir, believed he was anti-Pakistan too, believing “we had to implement the Shariah, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda way”.
In a video statement released by the AGH in July 2019, the group claimed Wani had wanted to establish an “independent Jihadi movement”. It also released an excerpt of his conversation: “You should directly contact people across [the border] and tell them that I’m not agreeing, so what? I won’t stay, what can you do? … tell them to appoint a new commander. Whosoever they will appoint, shall be the commander. Everyone left in the path of Allah. … Neither I left for you, nor you did for me. So have faith in God.”
After the killing of Wani on 8 July 2016, the power dynamics of the Hizbul Mujahideen changed as Musa took over the reign. His continuous statements to continue the civilian uprising after Wani’s killing took a sharper shape as the new Hizb commander criticised the Pakistani leadership and Hurriyat for playing petty politics.
The people across the border denounced the statement, labelling Musa’s calls for the establishment of Islamic rule his personal views.
“Stage of awakening”
In May 2017, Musa called it quits from the Hizb, stating: “If Hizbul Mujahideen doesn’t represent me then I also don’t represent them.”
Two months later, on 27 July 2017, Musa founded the AGH, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda. In a statement, Al-Qaeda said that after Wani’s killing, “the jihad in Kashmir has entered a stage of awakening … a new movement of jihad has been founded by the companions of martyr Burhan Wani under the leadership of mujahid Zakir Musa.”
Back at home, the rift only got uglier. The United Jihad Council, an umbrella group of over three dozen militant outfits from Pakistan, called Musa an “Indian agent” and warned against the designs by the agencies “playing a dangerous game in the name of Islamic State and Al Qaeda using the façade of Zakir Musa … trying to use the paid agents and stooges to weaken the ongoing Freedom Struggle in Kashmir.”
In a joint statement, Kashmir-based Hurriyat leadership said that Musa’s ideas were “very dangerous” for the Kashmiri struggle, describing Al Qaeda and ISIS as “terrorist organisations”. The Kashmir police saw Musa as a “dead man walking”, running low on arms and supplies.
There was Musa — despised by every other militant outfit, isolated in Kashmir.
A few prominent militants, including Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters Abu Dujana and Arif Lelhari, and their cadres, joined Musa even as he became the center of a massive smear campaign.
In one of the exchanges between Dujana and Musa, widely circulated on social media platforms, marked a remarkable shift that in many ways provides a perspective in the AGH’s functioning. Musa can be heard telling Dujana: “Brother, remember one thing – never walk with the Pakistani outfits. Even if you are alone … alone … you are on the right path, you are an outfit on your own. Just stay on the right path.”
While the group was caught up in the politics of India, Pakistan, separatists and secessionists, the government forces kept on hunting the premier names associated with Musa.
In August 2017, most-wanted Dujana was killed in a gunfight in Pulwama district. Musa, in another audio statement, claimed Dujana to be “the first martyr” of the AGH. Then in December 2018, Musa’s confidante and deputy commander Sauleh Mohammad Akhoon was killed with five other militants in a deadly gunfight in Tral’s Arampura area.
It was a big blow to the AGH, already reportedly low on recruitment.
A lonely walk
Before the AGH tactically made a dent in the Kashmir insurgency, Musa’s time came too. In a long overnight gunfight in May 2019, Musa was killed by the government forces in Dadsara village of Tral, barely kilometers away from his home.
Five months on, his successor, Hamid Lelhari, who joined the insurgency in 2016 was killed too along with two associates on 24 October 2019. The chief of Jammu and Kashmir Police had said: “AGH group has been wiped out for now. But then they have an overground workers network from whom some people emerge to become terrorists.”
A lot changed in the geopolitics in regards to Kashmir too. In August 2019, New Delhi unilaterally revoked the region’s promised limited autonomy, invoking sharp criticism from Pakistan. But nearly two years down the line, the stance has softened as the hands of peace are extended. The cross-border infiltration has dropped to a record low while the militants in Kashmir run on low supplies.
The AGH, in fact, spun out of the discourse with the new militant outfits, including The Resistance Front and People’s Anti-Fascist Front — that India says are Pakistan-backed, self-styled as the indigenous struggle for freedom of Kashmir — propelling ideas poles apart from the Musa legacy.
However, they found themselves back in the news this month with the killing of its commander Imtiyaz Shah, another resident of Tral, and six other militants. The repeated big blows to the AGH have hallowed the outfit.
Unlike the ‘spectacle of mourning’ that were the funerals of Mir, Wani, and Musa, these seven AGH affiliates were buried in the silence of the night as per the new anti-militancy policy.