Young footballer Majid Khan realised within days of his joining the Lashkar-e-Toiba that militancy isn’t the field suited for him. On November 17, the striking-looking college student returned to his Anantnag town in south Kashmir, much to the joy of his household—especially his mother Ayesha, whose passionate appeal (in a video which went viral) had prompted the 20-year-old to quit the outfit engaged in attacking army and civilian targets.
That is only one part of the story, though. Its happy end is also the result of a new strategy by the J&K Police, which is keen to create an atmosphere where the youths who stray into militancy feel safe enough—even eager—to return. The cops would, far from acting against them, facilitate their rejoining the social mainstream.
Thus Majid, as a district-level goalkeeper, is set to resume his leisure-time position under the crossbar. Far away in Bandipora district, that prospect makes Abdul Hameed Mir strangely happy. It’s not that the middle-aged pharmacist in Hajin is related to Majid’s family. In fact, Hameed came to know of the footballer’s return through social media. “I felt as if my son is back home,” says the resident of Hajin, wiping tears from his face.
Hameed had actually lost his son two-and-a-half months ago. Abid Ahmad Mir, 19, was killed on September 5 in a gunfight with the security forces in Sopore. Some 60 km away from there, another boy who had been missing since September duly returned to his home in Kulgam, south Kashmir, on November 20. Naseer Ahmed, 16, of Chimmar village, too had shunned the violent path onto which the LeT wooed him.
Majid and Naseer are not the only ones of their kind. The police say several youth have returned in the past several months after joining militancy—silently, away from media hype. The conflicted responses to hard-core militancy used to make their comeback to the mainstream tough in the Valley where people once tended to shun them, but society’s response today has changed, primarily after locals again started rejoining militancy in the plains of the Valley this year.
It took a toll too. According to officials, gunfights in 2017 have so far killed around 190 militants—110 of them foreigners (66 of them on the Line of Control). The other encounter deaths happened in the hinterland and villages across the Valley. Particularly explosive has been the situation in south Kashmir’s four districts, where thousands of people would participate in the last rites of slain local militants. Gun salutes by fellow ultras would mark the occasion steeped in emotional scenes, where the mother would offer milk to the ‘martyr’ ahead of his burial. Intelligence sources in the police say 94 local youths have joined militancy this year. Of them, 11 have been arrested and 21 killed in encounters. The separatists dispute the definitions and look askance at it. “A national tragedy,” says hardline Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani about the killings. “It shows India is continuing the occupation through its military might. It’s a war waged on innocent civilians,” adds the 88-year-old Geelani. The police, intelligence and army disagree vehemently.
Hameed only sees hope for the Valley’s parents. “If anyone had to die, it should have been me, not my son,” the 55-year-old says from his home, 30 km northwest of Srinagar. His son Abid Ahmad was ironically a student once at the local Army Goodwill School. He later studied in Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Baramulla’s Uri—a garrison town close to the LoC where people usually are distant from the happenings in the Valley. Abid was good in studies and sports. It was at Ganderbal Degree College that he was, inevitably, caught up in Kashmir’s fraught politics. It was during his undergraduate days that separatist Afzal Guru was hanged in early 2013 as a convict in the Parliament attack case. It triggered Valley-wide protests. Then, in summer 2016, security forces killed militant Burhan Wani, again leading to a wave of civil unrest.
Hameed, who himself has studied from Ganderbal Sainik School and later did B.Pharm from the University of Kashmir, saw his son turning silent after Burhan’s end, taking little interest in studies. The father naturally feared that his son too may be drawn to the gun, given a spurt that time in militant activities around Hajin—once known for Kukka Parray’s infamous counter-insurgent band. Abid would hear stories about the pro-India Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon that Parray founded and ran with the army’s support in the late 1990s. Hameed used to explain to his son the layered contours of the Kashmir issue and his belief in a political solution as the only option. “Abid would listen. He would never argue,” Hameed recalls. Feigned compliance, perhaps.
Burhan, who was killed on July 8 last year at age 21, pioneered the use of social media, gaining a new kind of popularity for militancy. The impact was tremendous in the south Kashmir districts of Kulgam, Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag, where youths became attracted to militancy. On May 12, Abid, then a sophomore at college, disappeared. He was the second boy from the area to vanish so. (The first was Nasrullah Amir, who joined the LeT and, on October 11, died along with a foreigner in a gunfight that also killed two IAF commandos.)
Hameed tried his best to locate Abid. “The police used to tell me, ‘If you can get your son back, we will help him out (in repatriation),” he says. On September 5, the father came to know that Abid was affiliated with the LeT and was killed in a Sopore gunfight with the police. “I believe my son could have done great things had he continued with his education,” he says. Hameed’s tragedy has spurred fellow Kashmiri parents to stop the young generation from leaning towards militancy.
Kashmiri protestors at a Srinagar funeral on November 18
For this to succeed, the police say, militancy has to be deglamorised and shorn of its ‘romance’. Imtiyaz Hussain, SSP (Baramulla), says Majid’s return will motivate more parents to appeal to their sons to come back. “The episode mirrors society’s responses towards militancy. The social media campaign for Majid’s return shows people may have political issues with the government, but they don’t approve of violence,” he adds.
Majid was the second one from Anantnag town to have joined militancy of late. Yawar Nissar, 20, had joined the Hizb this July. A fortnight later, on August 4, he was killed in an encounter. Majid, as part of the crowds at Yawar’s funeral, draped Yawar’s body with an ISIS flag. “Majid was very high-profile, tall and handsome, and capable of further glamorising militancy, and encouraging others to join,” says SSP Hussain. The intelligence wing believes the killing of militants actually motivates their friends to sign up too. “The cycle would thus continue,” says an official. “A militant’s return, by contrast, has to have a sobering effect on errant youths.”
So believe the army, police and the political establishment led by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). “In our view, Majid deserved a compliment for having realised his folly. We want him to get back to normal life at the earliest,” says GOC (Victor Force) Major General B.S. Raju. The Victor Force, which looks after south Kashmir and Budgam district, facilitated Majid’s return. “All those youths who had gone astray and have not committed any crime can follow Majid’s footsteps.” Inspector general of police Munir Ahmad Khan says Majid neither surrendered nor was he apprehended. “He has rejoined his family. We welcome him with open arms,” he says. “This is anyway not the first such case. We have seen thousands such since the 1990s.”
None of this, of course, means things are hunky-dory now. Two days after Majid’s return, the army and police carried out an operation in Hajin area, killing six militants. One among the six foreign militants slain on November 18 was a nephew of Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, alleged to be the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The army claims Osama Jangi, 25, son of Lakhvi’s brother Zaki-ur-Rehman Makki, had entered the Valley last year through Gurez Valley, with a group of militants. Jangi wasn’t the only Lakhvi clansman to join the LeT and be part of its Kashmir operations. His elder brother Musaib was killed in an encounter in Hajin area this January. And in 2007, Lakhvi’s 20-year-old son Mohammed Qasim was killed in a gunbattle with the army and police. The first week of November also saw a nephew of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar getting killed in south Kashmir’s Shopian district along with a local militant.
These incidents, a senior police official fears, might prompt militants to up the offensive, lest they be seen as “fence-sitters” like the separatists. SSP Hussain disagrees. “Militant organisations come up with bogus statements just to give an impression that their leaders are not neutral on Kashmir,” he says. “In Pakistan, none has access to their families. So no one knows.”
On the political front, there has been a parallel drama simmering of late. It all began with ex-chief minister Farooq Abdullah, president of the Opposition National Conference (NC), declaring that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is part of Pakistan and India better accept that. Soon, his party’s state spokesman Junaid Azim Mattu accused separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani of hobnobbing with the PDP-BJP government to save his family from the National Investigation Agency.
Dr Abdullah had on November 11 said PoK belonged to Pakistan and “this won’t change no matter how many wars India and Pakistan fight”. While Dr Abdullah is facing a sedition case for his comment and has been condemned by political parties like the BJP, Mattu chooses to deride Geelani as an “ex-MLA”—just to deflate his criticism of the NC.
Mattu holds Geelani accountable to the people of Kashmir for his “failure to convert thousands of sacrifices into a concrete and acceptable resolution”. He notes that Geelani’s political history as a legislator belied his moral sermons about the mainstream. Mattu further accuses Geelani of entering into covert, quid pro quo deals with the establishment and the PDP-BJP alliance against the National Conference. “We understand instructions have been passed to conceal the PDP’s sellouts as a price for the NIA taking it easy on ex-MLA Geelani’s family, but you can’t fool the people of Kashmir anymore,” he says.
Moderate separatist Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’s Mohammed Yasin Malik, in response, snub Mattu, who was earlier with the People’s Conference of Sajjad Gani Lone. Describing Geelani as a respected and senior resistance leader, they say fielding a “junior turncoat” like Mattu to hurl invectives on Geelani shows the NC’s moral bankruptcy. Yasin says the NC wants to gain sympathy in Delhi for “abusing separatists” to return to power in J&K.
Mattu is unfazed. With some families of militants appealing to the boys to return, Mattu says the “troika keeps waiting for them to die so they can issue press statements and pay glowing tributes”. The troika he alludes to is Geelani, Mirwaiz and Yasin, who had joined hands last year, during the civil unrest, to put up a rare showcasing of unity among separatists. As the rhetorical battle simmers, the ruling PDP prefers to watch from distance. “It’s good if the Opposition is doing the government’s job,” says a PDP leader.
On their part, the police rule out any presence of the ISIS or Al Qaeda in Kashmir. “Even the errant boys are our own people,” says director-general of police Shesh Paul Vaid. “To save their lives is our responsibility.”
By Naseer Ganai in Hajin and Srinagar