Why Educated Kashmiri Youth Continue to Join Militancy

The government's 'offensive' Kashmir policy and the shrinking political space, among other things, have led to 'new-age rebels' trading books for guns, analysts say.

Srinagar: Last week, for the first time in the three-decade militancy in Kashmir, a rebel group which is a key constituent of Syed Salah-ud-Din-led United Jehad Council (UJC) asked students in Kashmir to “stay away” from armed struggle and concentrate on studies.

The statement from Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TuM) chief Sheikh Jameel-ur-Rehman, who is also general secretary of UJC, came two days after scholar-turned-rebel Manan Wani was killed in a gunfight with forces in Kupwara district on October 12.

Wani, who was pursuing a PhD at the Aligarh Muslim University, left his research program in January this year to join militancy. He was, in fact, one among the many educated Kashmir youth who gave up studies to pick up the gun in the past two years.

Why the statement?

In his October 13 statement, Rehman said students were “our valuable asset,” and if they don’t concentrate on studies, then “those pro-India elements will find it easy to stretch the period of our subjugation.”

“I appeal to the students to concentrate on studies first and stay away from the armed struggle. The militant commanders should also desist from giving training to budding students,” Rehman said in a statement e-mailed to local news agencies. “The pace India has adopted to kill youth has backfired as more and more educated and qualified youth are joining militant ranks.”

A day later, there was a statement from the outfit in which its unnamed spokesperson said Rehman’s remarks have been “misunderstood.” The spokesperson, however, reiterated the suggestion made by the TuM chief that students and children should concentrate on studies “because if they join armed struggle without proper discipline, training and preparation, India and her ‘occupied forces’ will try to take advantage of it.”

The TuM, which was active during the early phase of militancy and drew its cadre mainly from Alhi Hadith school of thought, had vanished from the militancy landscape in the region. But it made a comeback in 2015 when a Srinagar youth Mugais Ahmad Mir joined the outfit. However, he, along with his group of rebels, later announced allegiance to the Islamic State. They have been killed in gunfights with forces during the past 12 to 18 months.

Also read: New Age Militancy – Kashmir Youth Need Policies Encouraging Change, Not Surrender

Today, the outfit has a few rebels in its ranks, including a teenager Faizaan Majeed and Showkat bin Yusuf, a pharmacy student, who joined the outfit on October 13, barely few days before Rehman’s statement.

Educated youth joining militancy not new

Ajai Sahani, founding member and executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management said, educated youth joining militancy in the Valley was not a new phenomenon. “If you look at the trend in the past, it is not that this (militancy) comprised of illiterates. There is an atmosphere in Kashmir, and if some educated people get influenced by it, this is n othing surprising,” Sahani said.

For Sahani, the TuM statement was “one-off” and “contradictory” from point of view of any revolutionary and anti-state organisation which would always encourage educated people to come in their ranks. “The leadership comes from the educated class,” he said while describing militancy in Kashmir as “sustained movement.”

In a paper titled “Education and armed conflict: the Kashmir insurgency in the nineties“, Anton Parlow has categorised the Kashmir insurgency in three phases: first, from 1990 to 1996 when militancy focused on urban areas; second, from the late 1990s to 2002 when it moved to rural areas and districts of Jammu; and third, the ‘low-intensity insurgency’ from 2002 onwards.

Manan Wani. Credit: YouTube screengrab

Parlow writes that violent events took place in urban areas of Kashmir in the first phase, but by the mid 1990s, security forces controlled cities and militancy moved to more rural areas. The militancy then became more violent in targeting security forces, Parlow writes, adding that it was the period when Hizbul-Muhajideen became the driving force behind the insurgency.

During the second phase, foreign groups with ‘own agendas’ like Lashkar-e-Taiba entered the Kashmir militancy, and it became a ‘jihad’ against India and moved beyond Kashmir to Jammu, states Parlow.

During all these phases, there was a “slow but consistent” trickle of “highly educated to educated” youth in militant ranks, said a Kashmiri scholar who wishes to remain anonymous. But, he said, since the number of youth picking up the gun was in thousands, particularly throughout the 1990s, the “highly qualified category” of rebels remained invisible.

He pointed to case of a militant, Nadeem Khatib, who was killed in the late 1990s. Son of a chief engineer, Nadeem studied at a well-known missionary school in Srinagar before realising his dream of completing pilot training in America. Then, in 1999, his family received a message that he had been killed in a gunfight with forces in Jammu’s Udhampur district. “They had no idea about it. He had left his luxurious life, gone to Pakistan and joined the Al Badr militant organisation,” the scholar said. Khatib was in early 30s.

“Then there are cases of militants like Ghulam Mohammad Mir, Masood Ahmad Tantray and Maqbool Ilahi, among many others, who were postgraduates. There are many such instances,” the scholar said.

According to him, at one point prior to the 1990s, when the valley was about to erupt, there were several student wings actively propagating separatist politics. And when the armed rebellion broke out, the rebel groups drew their cadre from these students’ unions like the Islamic Students league and the Muslim Students Federation.

“Some known militants like Ashfaq Majeed Wani, Muhammad Yasin Malik and Javaid Mir, who were among the first to pick up guns, were part of the Islamic Students’ League,” said the scholar. “It is the mind – not anything else – that prompts educated youth to embrace this world where you know the end can come anytime. These youth fall in love with the chosen path, adapt it and die for it,” he said.

New-age rebels

Addressing the media in Kupwara on October 6, Indian Army’s 15 Corps lieutenant general AK Bhatt said over 300 militants were active in Kashmir. This is for the first time in more than a decade that the number of rebels including foreign militants active in Kashmir has gone past the 300 mark. Out of these, a majority 181 militants are operating in south Kashmir, as per a report compiled by the J&K police.

Assistant professor-turned-militant Muhammad Rafi, who was killed in encounter on Sunday morning in a Shopian village less than 40 hours after he had gone missing.

These new-age militants are young and well educated. A senior police official posted in south Kashmir said a number of these militants have engineering background while some others are graduates. There are scholars in their ranks as well. While Muhammad Rafi Bhat, an assistant professor from Ganderbal, was killed in an encounter in Pulwama just 40 hours after joining militancy, scholar-turned-rebel Manan Wani was killed in gunfight with forces last week.

“Three more scholars from south Kashmir are active at present, including one from Sangam area and another from an area adjoining Anantnag town. There are school dropouts as well, and their number is also quite good,” said the police official.

The present operational chief of Hizb Riyaz Naikoo is a non-medical graduate; Zakir Moosa, chief of Al-Qaeda cell Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, was studying engineering, so were Eisa Fazili from Srinagar, Syed Owais Shafi from Kokernang and Aabid Nazir from Shopian.

Both Eisa and Shafi, who owed allegiance to the IS, were killed in a gunfight in March this year. Another militant, 25­-year-old Muzamil Manzoor from Kulgam, a B. Tech pass out from the Banras Hindu University (BHU), was killed in a gun battle with forces in November last year. In March this year, top separatist Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai’s son, Junaid Ahmad, joined Hizbul Mujahideen. Junaid was an MBA from the University of Kashmir.

Another reality of today’s militancy is that the rebels do not come from ordinary households but well-to-do families as well. Moosa’s father is a senior engineer with the government while the father of Hizb militant Basit Rasool (an engineering student), who was killed last December, is a bank manager.

The militancy has even seen some teenagers and bright students leaving their studies to pick up guns. One among them was Ishaq from Laribal village of Tral. He had scored 98.4 percent in class X and 85 percent in class XII and was preparing to be a doctor. He was known among his friends as ‘Newton’ for his sheer brilliance. In March 2016, he disappeared from his home and joined Hizb. A year later, he was killed in a gunfight in his hometown.

Also read: The Kashmir Professor Who Turned Militant and Was Killed, All Within 40 Hours

Likewise, 15-year-old Faizan Ahmad Bhat, also from Tral, the youngest Kashmiri militant, died in gunfight in May 2017, three months after he had picked up gun. He was a class X student. Similarly, Fardeen Ahmad Khanday, another class X student, was part of a fidayeen squad of Jaish-e-Mohammad, which launched a pre-dawn attack on CRPF’s training-cum-induction centre at Lethpora in December last year. He and his two associates were killed in that attack. Fardeen survived as a militant for just three months.

According to the Kashmiri scholar, there were two varying discourses about the Kashmir militancy: one in the virtual world and other one on the ground. To elaborate his point, the scholar mentioned the May 7 gunfight in Badigam Shopian in which five militants were killed. Those five rebels included top Hizb commander Saddam Hussain Paddar, Bilal Ahmad Mohand, Adil Ahmad Malik, Tauseef Ahmad Sheikh and assistant professor Rafi.

“Both Padder and Tauseef had joined militancy more than four years ago while the assistant professor was just two days into militancy. The killing of the assistant professor dominated the discourse on social media. But if you go deep into south Kashmir’s villages, Saddam and Tasueef are household names,” said the scholar. “I am not comparing the two, but these are varying discourses.”

‘Pushed to the wall’

Most of these militants, however, get rudimentary training and end up dying in gunfights without giving a tough fight. “The social media has glamorised the militancy and a narrative has been created wherein these rebels are hero-worshipped. When a militant is killed, he gets a hero’s welcome, and others while trying to give vent to their anger, tread the same path,” said another police official.

Analysts, however, see the Indian government’s ‘offensive’ Kashmir policy as reason for the ‘growing appetite’ for gun among the Kashmiri youth. “Today, CASO (cordon and search operations) is the order of day in the valley. Any kind of dissent is crushed with force. And then the shrinking political space has left the valley’s youth with no choice,” said Noor A. Baba, a political analyst.

He said the events taking place across India were also shaping the situation in Kashmir. “You go on justifying lynching of Muslims in the mainland and then also presume it will have no impact on the only Muslim-majority state of India,” he argued.

In this “boiling atmosphere,” he said, one can’t expect these educated youth to escape “ground realities.” “They are part of our society and feel choked and humiliated in the prevailing atmosphere and hence the results are for everyone to see,” Baba added.