Srinagar: It was a typically warm July evening in Kashmir. I was at my home in Zaldagar, a tightly-packed neighbourhood in downtown Srinagar. I was about five years old. My cousins had come over that day, there were a lot of people in the house. We were playing outside underneath a chinar tree. That’s when the distinct – but not unusual, in those days – sound of gunfire changed the mood all of a sudden. Within a few seconds, my uncle rushed out and carted us kids back inside. Everyone had been bundled together in the kitchen. Nobody knew what was going on, but everyone seemed very scared.
It didn’t take long for murmurs of what was happening to pass through the windows. An encounter had started in the neighbourhood, a frequent occurrence in Kashmir in the 1990s. A local militant, who went by the nom de guerre of ‘Alu’ve’ (potato), had been cornered by government forces inside a house nearby. I overheard the elders saying that his family lived in the same area, but I never found out what his real name was. As the gunfight started raging and additional forces started laying a second cordon of the site, all the men in house and the neighbourhood – even the teenagers – fled, fearful of either being killed, harassed or picked up by the forces. As it grew dark, the only man left in the house was my grandfather, everyone else was either a child or a woman. This was 1995. Armed militants were in almost every corner of the Valley. There was a popular sympathy for them. But there also was a deep-rooted fear of retaliation from the state.
Fast forward 22 years, and armed militancy has been largely restricted. Now only a handful of predominantly local young armed rebels (around 200 according to police) are operating, mostly in villages and in the forests. But the fear, it seems, has almost completely disappeared among the people, especially the young.
Instead of running away from gun battles, young men and boys are thronging encounter sites to take on the heavily armed forces with taunts and stones. This trend first started around 2015. Since then, there have been dozens of such instances. Locals crowd around to create enough distraction to help the militants escape and this has worked numerous times. But it has also led to civilians getting killed. This year alone, nine civilians have been killed in clashes with government forces at various encounter sites in Kashmir.
In February, army chief Bipin Rawat had warned Kashmiris that civilian protestors obstructing encounters would be treated as “over ground workers of militants” and dealt with “harshly”, adding that the army could go “helter skelter”. This was after four soldiers, including a major, and four militants were killed in two gunfights in Bandipora and Handwara areas on February 15. Both the encounters had seen protestors clashing with government forces to help the militants escape. A civilian was also injured. Rawat had said that he was concerned as the army was suffering higher casualties as it was having to deal with protestors and militants at the same time.
But the army chief’s warning had no impact. On March 9, an encounter at Padgampora village in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district witnessed massive clashes between civilians and government forces. Thousands of people marched towards the encounter site in an attempt to break the security cordon. Two protesters, Amir Nazir, a 15-year-old-student, and 22-year-old Jalal-u-din of Tahab village, were killed as security forces opened fire to quell the protests. Since then, seven other civilians have been killed in subsequent encounters, most of them youngsters, including a girl.
Understanding the support
On the morning of March 28, when a search operation by security forces in Durbugh area of Chadoora in district Budgam led to an encounter, Shahid, 17, who lives a few villages away from the encounter site, was still in bed. He got up and headed straight to the main road, while the gunfire got louder and more intense. “There were a lot of people on the road already and I saw my friends there. Without knowing where the encounter was going on exactly, I started walking with them. We were joined by others too and by the time we reached the security cordon, there were hundreds of people. Each village we passed by added more people.”
By the time the encounter ended and a local militant from south Kashmir was cornered in a house and killed, three civilian protesters had also died in firing by security forces. Dozen others had suffered pellet or bullet injuries. “We were not exactly at the front but there was police and army on the sides too. They would charge at us. But one of the guys died while we were walking,” said Shahid.
Shahid has just joined college. He says he has a lot of friends. I asked him whether he was scared of putting his life in danger. “There is danger but I’m not scared,” he replied. “They are going to kill us anyway, even if don’t resist. There was only one militant inside with one pistol and they (security forces) were there in the hundreds. If there is another encounter, I will also go there.”
His “neighborhood” friend, Majid, who is a year older than him, was also with Shahid on the day of the encounter. He added, “If we are not allowed to live the way we want to, we have to keep protesting. We have to fight with what we have. We have nothing to fear.”
I got an identical response from another young boy who had been a part of protests at Padgamapora in Pulwama on March 9. He believes that the time has come for people in Kashmir to take a stand and end “this uncertainty of life in Kashmir, whatever the cost may be.”
The genesis of this attitude among the youth in Kashmir, and even parts of the popular new age of militancy itself, can be traced back to the 2008 mass civilian uprising. It was unprecedented: for the first time, unarmed civilians, mostly young boys, took to the streets to protest against the government. The state responded with overwhelming force; over 100 people were killed by the security forces and thousands left injured. Since then, Kashmir has witnessed two more such mass uprisings and the government has only responded with force. The latest was in 2016, after militant commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces in south Kashmir. Over 80 people were killed and hundreds injured by pellet guns in the months of unrest that followed.
Noted Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez believes the willingness of many young people to put themselves in harm’s way is a direct result of the extensive force used by the state to quell any opposition. He says, “The ’90s were worse, but clashes with civilians were not so common. Crackdowns have been replaced with pellet guns. The tactic of fear has been overused.”
“This culture of going to funerals was started by the Hurriyat back in the ’90s when they would come out to claim the bodies of unidentified militants. [Syed Ali Shah] Geelani sahib would be at almost every funeral. In those days there would be only a few people who attended such funerals. Today, it has been picked up by the youth. They see every encounter, every funeral as a stage to express themselves. And whatever they find irritates the state most, they try to replicate it just for the sake of annoying the state, if nothing else,” Parvez added.
The political impasse that has possessed Kashmir over the decades has added to the anger of Kashmir’s millennials.
This anger has been on display in the recent student protests. Young boys and girls in school uniform have been clashing with security forces. There is other evidence of this urge among the youth to take control of their lives as well. In a widely-shared video on social media, a young man can be seen arguing with a CRPF man over parking at a petrol station. The young man tells him to “do his job and not to give orders to him.” In another video, a local trucker is seen arguing with an army driver after he allegedly hit his vehicle. A large crowd can be seen supporting the man and demanding that the army pay him damages.
Caught in the middle of separatists and the government
The youth in Kashmir have been disenchanted with mainstream politics for a while. It’s viewed as nothing more than a smokescreen through which the Centre pushes through its agenda. But at the same time, there is also a growing disaffection with the Hurriyat and other separatists. This sentiment has grown over the past few years in the valley, particularly after the uprising following Burhan Wani’s death fizzled out.
Irshad, from Redwani, a resistive village that has thrown up a few young militants in the Kulgam district in south Kashmir, has been at a number of encounter sites. He says that if he can’t join the militants in furthering their cause, he can at least help them when they need it the most. One of his friends was injured by a bullet during clashes with the security forces at Frisal village, in which eight people including four militants, three soldiers and a civilian were killed. One of the militants killed was from the same village.
He says he was also at the encounter in Arwani village last December, where two militants, Majid Zargar and Rahil Amin Dar, were killed in a 48-hour encounter. He says, “There were others trapped inside too but they managed to escape. Majid fought bravely against hundreds of army men. If only our leaders could show the same resolve, we would have achieved azaadi.” Irshad was particularly unhappy with how the Hurriyat and other separatists failed to hold their stance in 2010, and last year. He blamed them partly for the impasse that Kashmir is in.
Dissatisfied with both the government and the separatists, local young militants, many of whom are well educated and have given up comfortable lives, are seen as the only people fighting for the Kashmiri youth. So attempting to help them escape death at an encounter, even if it might cost them their own lives, seems like the right thing to do.
Since last year, popular support for militancy increased immensely, something many police officials have acknowledged. “I would say things have changed tremendously since last year, especially in south Kashmir. We have some intel that a few youth have joined militant ranks. And a big part of it is how social media is being used to charge up these youth,” a senior police official told The Wire. But a number of these young militants also have stories of being booked by the police or being continuously harassed after the protests.
Whatever their reasons, the decision of young militants to make the ultimate sacrifice for their cause has earned them great admiration among people in Kashmir, especially the youth. In Anantnag district, I met 14-year-old Sameer. A class 10 student, Sameer’s new smartphone is filled with videos and picture of militants. He even has videos of some of the encounters that have taken place recently.
“I get these from friends in school. The reason I keep them on my phone is we should know these brave men and remember them,” said Sameer. He has memorised the names of most of the militants operating in south Kashmir and say it will be a “great honour to help them”.
Adnan Bhat is an independent journalist who travels between Kashmir and Delhi.