A new death wish in Kashmir

family members of Mudasir
Mourning is never good: The family of Mudasir Ahmad Tantray, who was recently killed in Frisal

When once a month or two, senior Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Mohammad Abbas Sheikh, 40, visits his home at South Kashmir’s Rampur, the village erupts in a silent celebration. The residents turn out to greet him. The men shake his hands and women kiss his forehead, praying for his long life as they do so. But the priority of the youth is different: they take positions at Rampur’s’s boundary, to alert Sheikh just in case they see any sign of security vehicles approaching the village. This gives Sheikh the reassurance to put his Kalashankov down and lose himself in his four children, three of them daughters. Fatima, 3, is his youngest child.

What is more, when after a few hours of family time, he prepares to leave, slinging his Kalashankov back over his shoulder, the entire village assembles to give him a warm send-off, accompanying him up until the distance where it is safe for him to disappear back into his underground existence. Along the way, the residents hand him bottles of milk, freshly slaughtered chicken, dals, dry vegetables, etc as a token of their love and appreciation of his role as a “mujahid”.

“It is a festival like scene in the village when he is home for a brief duration,” said the wife Rasheeda, 38, an anaemic, frail figure who is stoic about what future might have in store for her.

The extended Sheikh family has so far given 13 militants to Kashmir jihad, a fact that the family highlights with some pride and wariness. Before Sheikh joined militancy in 2013, two of his elder brothers Muhammad Ibrahim Sheikh and Muhammad Ashraf Sheikh were militants of Hizbul and Lashker respectively. Both were killed, Ibrahim in 1996 and Ashraf in 2007. Ashraf had also spent time in Kotbilwal jail in Jammu where he had been lodged with the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar, claims the family. Besides, two of Abbas’ cousins Dawood and Majid, the Hizbul militants, were also killed in separate encounters with security forces in recent years. Abbas is now the only living militant in the family along with his cousin Tauseef Ahmad Sheikh who is his senior in militant ranks.

For a majority of the militants across the state, the decision to take up arms has been quite complicated

But Abbas, says Rasheeda, didn’t take up gun out of his own volition. “The repeated jail terms and constant harassment by the fauj (Army) forced him to become a militant. Whenever there was a violent incident in the area, he was picked up for no reason, jailed, tortured and then let off by the courts,” said Rasheeda, some emotion suffusing her matter-of-fact voice. “He was left with no choice”.

In fact Abbas’ decision to join militancy was not his own, but his family’s, reveals Rasheeda. It so happened that one night when he was sleeping at home, his wife heard knocks on the door and windows. It was Army. She woke the Abbas up who let them in. The Army questioned him and searched the house. But when the personnel were about to leave they asked Abbas to accompany them to the nearby security camp where the officer “wanted to see him”.

“Abbas saw it as a signal that he might be killed in a fake encounter. He ran upstairs, jumped from the rear window and fled,” said Rasheeda. “Army chased him for some distance, fired in the air and then gave up. We thought he was dead”.

But the following day Abbas returned. He had spent the night at a nearby swamp. He asked Rasheeda for her suggestion for the next course of action. She asked her father. The family elders sat together to discuss and concluded that it was no longer possible for Abbas to stay home and stay alive.

“They decided that if at all he has to die, he should die waging jihad,” said Rasheeda making thus a case for Abbas’ joining the militancy.”Ever since nobody harasses us. And we know and we are ready for what is going to happen”.

Militants by choice
For a majority of the other militants, the decision to become a militant hasn’t been as complicated. For example, Abbas’ cousin Tauseef joined militancy in consequence of an accumulated “sense of injustice”. Same goes for Inayatullah Khumaini, 18, with a call-sign of Abu Maaz. Like so many other youth, he left home at Chingaum during the tumult of 2010, never to return. Haseena, his frail dark-spectacled mother, partly forced by the police, tried hard to bring him back but Khumaini refused.

“He put gun on my chest. Told me if I keep urging him to give up gun, he will shoot me,” Haseena said. Khumaini was alive for four and a half years, generally the longest time that a militant can possibly hope to be alive in Kashmir. Along the way he had earned the sobriquet of being the “cordon breaker”, having escaped the security cordon for a reported half a dozen times, a feat that has become a common boast in his village. And when he was killed on May 25, 2016, Haseena kept his body for the entire night at home before giving it away for burial.

After going through a period of fatigue, the Valley’s three decade old Azadi struggle is entering a dangerous new phase

“In the four and a half years that he was away, my son had never been home,” she said, weeping dry tears. “In death, he returned home and I wanted his body to spend at least some hours in the house, in his favourite room”.

This was a ritual that just 13 days later was emulated by the mother of Burhan Wani at Sheikhpora Tral, ensuring a “home-coming” for his body before handing over for burial. And day after Kashmir tipped into turmoil, which lingered for six months, leading to killings of nearly a hundred youth, blindings of several hundred and injury to thousands.

Loss of fear
Travel around the adjacent villages of Hawoora, Redwani, Chinguam, Rampora, the discourse is no different. There is little sense of futility of jihad, no recognition of the fact that taking up gun will lead inevitably to death sooner than later and little realization that a renewed militancy in its trail will bring only death and destruction and not possibly Azadi. And that too despite thousands of deaths since 1989 and the widespread suffering during the unrest last year.

“This is almost like the post-truth phase of the Azadi movement where people are ready to suspend rationality to wallow in a fresh illusion of an approaching Azadi,” said a police officer with a long experience of fighting militancy. ‘There is thus a psychological break with the bitter memory of nineties which has dissolved the fatigue and readied people to traverse the same bloody path again”.

A group of teenagers at Hawoora belong to this generation. Standing by a roadside, they talk glowingly about “the sacrifice and martyrdom of mujahideen”. And yes, they would like to be militants too. But they can’t do so as the militants themselves discourage them from doing so. Reason: Lack of sufficient weapons.

“Everybody here would be a militant if there were enough weapons,” says Arsalan Mushtaq, 19, ruefully.

Was he not afraid of death if he becomes a militant? “No. Why should I be? Those who sacrificed their lives, were they afraid? Were they not sons of their parents. They gave their lives in the way of God. They wanted nothing but the glory of Islam and Kashmir’s Azadi,” Mushtaq said. “If you want Islam, jihad is the only solution”.

The boys took pride in “the martyrdom of Younus Ahmad Lone” a local youth killed days before in a drawn encounter at the adjacent Frisal along with three other associates. Lone was doing post graduation in Sociology. He had joined militancy on January 2 and was killed after a short militant life of 40 days on February 13. Soon after forces had cordoned off their house, Lone had called to say goodbye to his parents and siblings.

“He called us around midnight and told us there was no way they could escape. But he was not afraid a bit. Instead he expressed his readiness to die fighting. We received his body later in the day. It had 19 bullet holes,” Mubeen Lone, the brother said.

Mudasir father

Thousands had attended Lone’s funeral. Days after the burial, people continued to visit the family to extend condolences. A packed room of male mourners discussed Lone’s good qualities in between the prayers for the peace of Lone’s soul. Another room is reserved for women. Dressed in pheran and coloured pieces of cloth covering their head, scores of them from the area made a beeline to the house.

Scene was no different at Redwani, the village of Mudasir Ahmad Tantray, another militant killed at Frisal. The father Muhammad Akbar sat stoically in a room filled with mourners as a JKLF activist spoke about the value of Ahmad’s sacrifice. “I have come here not to mourn the martyrdom of Mudasir Ahmad but to congratulate the family. It is a moment of pride, not an occasion to feel sad about,” said the activist who had travelled all the way from Kupwara to visit the family on behalf JKLF supremo Yasin Malik who himself couldn’t do so because of security restrictions. “We are proud of our new generation of mujahids. They may be less in quantity but they have quality. Earlier in our struggle in nineties we had quantity but no quality”.

At Frisal where the encounter took place, the situation, meanwhile, had returned to normal — albeit, a tense hangover from the stand-off still hovered in the air. Four militants including Lone and Mudasir, two soldiers and two civilians were killed in the gunfight. A gigantic Chinar stood unscathed at the place of the encounter, its sprawling leafless branches getting ready for a fresh spring bloom. There is no trace of the hulking two storey house by its side where the militants were holed up.

The encounter had begun in the middle of the night. After inconspicuously taking up positions around the house, the soldiers had asked the family to vacate, leaving militants inside. But by the time the dawn broke, the village had gone up in revolt, chanting anti-India and pro-Azadi slogans. The deafening rattle of gunfire brought more youth from the adjacent villages. Theyappeared from behind the surrounding denuded hillocks and started raining stones on the security personnel. What is more, they started pushing closer to the encounter site to try and help militants flee. In the consequent firing by the forces, sixteen youth sustained bullet injuries, one of them Mushtaq Ahmad Itoo of the nearby Hatigam village later succumbed to the injuries. Several protesters received pellet injuries, two of them in their eyes.

Frisal, the trend
Frisal has become emblematic of the existing situation in Kashmir. Encounter after encounter, similar scenes are replicated across the Valley, especially in South Kashmir which is home to two-third of the local militants, around 200 in number. Frisal gunfight was followed by successive encounters at North Kashmir Hajin and Handwara in which Army lost four personnel prompting Army chief General Bipin Rawat to warn the protesters disrupting encounter sites. At Hajin, the protesters had allegedly helped three of the four militants escape. And two days later at Urivan hamlet of Pulwama district, Army had to abandon an operation after facing resistance from local people who in hundreds hit roads and pelted stones. Three weeks later, similar situation was repeated at Chillipora, Heff village of Shopian. Rebels escaped after being alerted by the people.

Remains of the house at Frisal
House of encounters: Remains of a house in Frisal, which has become emblematic of the existing situation in Kashmir. Left, the father of Mudasir

Early March, two more encounters – one at Tral, another at Padgampora — witnessed predictable turn of events. At Tral, a massive public mobilization was triggered by the encounter followed by a mammoth funeral for the killed militant Aqib Molvi. A viral video from Molvi’s funeral brought home a runaway state of affairs: thousands of people occupied a large ground where his body was placed on a wooden platform. An uninterrupted stream of the local women was passed through a narrow passage to catch a last glimpse of the “martyr”. Some women felt his face and then rubbed the hand on their faces and the chest, in a ritualistic sign of cleansing themselves of all the sins as a result.

Padgampora encounter that followed soon after left two militants and a civilian dead. One of the militants Jahangir Ganai died within minutes of the operation. Another militant Mohammad Shafi Shergujri held out for a longer time. Security forces brought his wife Dilshada to persuade him to surrender. Though she pleaded with him on the loudhailer to give up the gun for the sake of his family, Shergujri didn’t respond. The encounter resumed and he was killed shortly after. The civilian, Amir Nazir Wani, 17, was part of the familiar protest to help militants flee the cordon. His death has taken the toll of civilians killed in bid to rescue militants during encounters to eight over past six months.

A viral video from the scene showed seething groups of youth attacking the security convoy departing from the encounter site. A group manages to halt an armoured vehicle with the personnel wielding automatic rifles sitting inside. Unafraid, one boy gets on its roof, beats it with bare hands and shouts slogans, while others on the road bang away at its iron frame with the stones, undeterred by the firing in the air by the police and paramilitary forces from the other vehicles.

Back to jihad
Though source of frequent death and destruction, this violent state of affairs has become dangerously routinized in Kashmir. The reigning public mood is not to rethink the violent path of resistance but to take the bloody fallout in stride.

A section of Kashmiri population is apparently rallying for jihad, now re-invested with its once lost moral glamour

After going through a period of fatigue, Valley’s three decade old Azadi struggle is entering a dangerous new phase. It is marked by a renewal and deepening of the sentiment and a renewed willingness to take recourse to militant means to achieve the political objective. What is more, a significant section of the population is rallying to the cry for jihad, now re-invested with its once lost moral glamour and practical rationale. “Now, our nation will be freed,” Ghulam Rasool Dar, 70, told Tehelka a day after the encounter at Frisal. Stroking his long white beard, Dar recalled with pride the lack of fear among the youth and the defiance of the security forces in their bid to reach the trapped militants. “Now, our nation will be freed”.