Fathers of the Gun: Former Militants on Kashmir’s ‘New-Age’ Militancy

Thousands of young men joined the Kashmir militancy in the 1990s, but those who survived see a new generation as more ‘potent and committed’ to Islamism, and more ready to die.

Srinagar: Sitting in a corner of a chai shop in Batamaloo, Sajad Khan (name changed) has no airs about him. His mild persona is no reflection of his past, and the part he may have played in altering the Kashmir conflict.

Khan was a close follower of the ideologue Maqbool Bhat and became an early member of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the outfit that kicked off the armed insurgency in the Valley. When the group’s militant wing was formed 1988, he helped to galvanise men to cross to Pakistan to train in arms. The first poster boys of the Kashmir militancy, Ashfaq Majeed Wani and Yaseen Malik, were in the fourth group he helped over the Line of Control (LoC). Upon their return in 1988, they formed HAJY, the core group of the JKLF, along with Hamid Sheikh and Javid Mir.

Khan later crossed the LoC himself, and met Pakistan-based JKLF leader Amanullah Khan and then PoK President Sardar Khan. By the early 1990s, thousands of Kashmiri men had made the crossing. Ten years later, most had either been killed or quit fighting in the hope of a political solution. “After witnessing the armed struggle fall apart,” Khan decided to return to normal life in 1996.

Twenty years later, surveying Kashmir’s ‘new-age militancy’, he says that its fighters today are much fewer but more ‘potent and committed’ to the cause than his generation in the ’90s.

‘‘Back then everyone was picking a gun,” Khan said. “By ’92, over 10,000 men were part of active militancy in Kashmir. Some of them never fired a bullet. Today, only those who are committed come forward. I see a lot of anger among the youth today against the Indian state. They are politically more mature than their peers in the ’90s. And they’re quick to grasp the fallout of world events.”

Also read: Why Kashmir’s Millennials Are Risking Their Lives to Save Militants

Majeed Wani was killed in an encounter with forces in March 1990. Malik was arrested in August the same year. Upon his release in 1994, Malik disbanded JKLF’s militant wing and sought political recourse for his struggle.

Shabbir Ahmed (name changed), a former militant from Srinagar, went to Pakistan in 1992. The abysmal condition of his fellow Kashmiris in the camps made him want to return, but he stuck it out and returned to the Valley as a member of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. By then the rifts among militant groups were out in the open: JKLF proposed an armed struggle in Kashmir as political, while the Hizb believed in it for religious reasons.

“There was more chance of getting killed by a rival group than in an encounter,” Ahmed recalled. “In one of my few interactions with Hurriyat leaders, I asked Shabbir Shah to find a way to get hold of things but they never took a clear stand.”

After a year with Hizb, Ahmed joined the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. He was arrested in Srinagar’s Lal Bazar six months later. After the encounter-killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani last July, he saw dozens of young men disappearing from home and resurfacing on social media holding firearms and and expressing their will to fight Indian rule.

Also read: A Year After Burhan Wani’s Death, the End of Militancy Is Still Elusive

These militants, Ahmed says, prefer to go down Majeed Wani’s way. “The young militants today have found dignity in death. They don’t see surrender as an option.”

According to police officials, not more than 220 militants, both foreign and local, are currently operating in the Valley. Official figures say 136 have been killed by security forces this year. Yet there is no shortage of new recruits. More worryingly, since Burhan’s death, the new-age militancy is developing an increasingly radical outlook.

In May, Burhan’s successor, 23-year-old Zakir ‘Musa’ Bhat released a video in which he openly threatened to behead Hurriyat leaders. Musa accused the separatist leadership of exploiting the sentiments of Islam for a political agenda. “Why do you use masjids if your cause is just political?” The struggle of young militants was not political, he retorted, but aimed at establishing sharia rule in Kashmir. This was a tectonic shift in the nature of the 28-year-old militancy.

Indian army soldiers take their positions near the site of a gun battle between Indian security forces and militants on the outskirts of Srinagar February 21, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Indian army soldiers take their positions near the site of a gun battle between Indian security forces and militants on the outskirts of Srinagar February 21, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

The former militants are not surprised. Musa’s outburst and his growing popularity with the young seem reasonable to them. “The dialogue process has been futile. Something had to give,” says Sajad Khan. Religion was always a part of militancy, he adds, but it has been brought to the front by the political scenario in the Muslim world and rise of an Indian right-wing with an aggressive ‘anti-Kashmir’ agenda. He sees it as part of ‘ebb and flow’ of the movement.

Musa was disowned by Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, but did not change his stance. In fact, he released a second statement denouncing both Hizb and Pakistan. His bravado gained him many new, young admirers. In July, an Al Qaeda-affiliated media channel announced the formation of a new cell in India, Ansar Ghawzat Ul Hind. Musa is its commander, making him head of the first pan-Islamist outfit in Kashmir.

“In the ’90s, all the groups other than JKLF were pro-Pakistan Islamists,” Ahmed says. Harkat-ul Mujahideen had an even more rigid religious outlook then Hizb. Their members were mostly foreign nationals with battle expertise from the Soviet-Afghan war. “I was enchanted by them. Unlike most other militant outfits at the time, they were well behaved and spent most of the time praying.”

“When you look at the Hizb, Harkat or Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Islam formed the core of their ideology, but their slant was towards Pakistan.”

Also read: Stepping Into Harm’s Way, Civilians Are the New Player in Kashmir’s Deadly Encounters

For Mohammad Ayub, a former militant who operated in Soura area of Srinagar before his arrest in 1994, the only surprising thing about Musa’s recent statements is the traction it has received in the media. “This is nothing new, other than the claim of being an Al Qaeda operative,” he says.

Even in the 1990s, militant groups were not always in sync with the separatist leadership. Militants assassinated a number of separatist leaders, Ayub says. “Who killed Nayeem Khan’s brother? Or Maulvi Farooq? Or even Qazi Nissar? It was all done by militants. When it was felt necessary they didn’t hesitate.” Harkat was wiped out by 1999, when the group’s commander Sajjad Afghani was killed in an encounter with the BSF.

Shabbir Ahmed today runs a grocery store in downtown Srinagar. He sees the conflict as managed by interests on both sides. “Here you only survive till you are allowed to,” he said. “He [Musa] is young and is trying to do things, but Al Qaeda doesn’t have a ground network in Kashmir. Let’s see how long he survives.”

Adnan Bhat is an independent journalist who travels between Kashmir and Delhi.