But the waning of the militancy in the last decade had already ceded space to stone pelters, both as a means to prevent a return to normalcy and “to keep the struggle alive”. Everytime, there was a call for a protest or a shutdown, small groups of masked teenagers would hit the streets of Srinagar to lob stones at the police and the paramilitary.
The stone-throwing became a mass phenomenon through the three successive summer revolts to 2010, when it spread from downtown Srinagar to major urban centres in south and north Kashmir and later to the countryside. The endemic nature of these protests can be gauged from the fact that in 2011, around 18,00 youth booked for the stone-throwing were released under an amnesty scheme declared by the state government.
Occasionally though the youth also flew flags of let, Taliban and al Qaeda in keeping with the changing jihadist trends in the neighbourhood and across the globe.
And now with the ascendance of the Islamic State, the flags of the group have become constant with the protests. A few step out from the crowd and wave the flags to the waiting media corps before resuming stone pelting or disappearing into the warren of the by lanes.
“We don’t fly the Islamic State flag to show our support for the group. We fly them to poke India,” says Zahid Rasool, 25. “Anything that New Delhi hates is dear to us. Just as India hates what we love, our Azadi.”
There is, however, an important difference between the priorities of the youth from downtown Srinagar and those from the countryside in south and north. Parts of the south have witnessed a surge in the number of the youth joining militant ranks. According to a police assessment, more than 100 youth joined militancy in 2015, a majority of them from the south Kashmir areas of Tral, Shopian and Pulwama.
For the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered foreigners – last October, 88 of the 142 active militants were Kashmiris. The rest were from Pakistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Sopore has been a hotbed of militant activity for almost a quarter century. But last year, militancy in the northern town received a big jolt following the split in the group of militants working for HM. The group expelled its long-time commander Abdul Qayoom Najar after he allegedly presided over the successive killings of four former militants and separatist sympathisers in the town against the orders of his seniors in POK.
But downtown has resisted the lure of the gun for some time now. How? Few people have credible explanation. If Shabir is to be believed, the choice has been deliberate. “We have transitioned from the violent to peaceful resistance. We want to deny India the argument that we are terrorists,” he says. Shabir, however supports the decision of the youth in the countryside to take up the gun. “Complete elimination of the militancy is also not good. Some militancy is necessary for the Azadi movement to survive.”
However, the security establishment’s view of the state of affairs is entirely contrary to how downtown youth look at it.
“There are two aspects to the situation. One, given the security penetration into Srinagar, it will be tough for militancy to survive in the city,” says a senior police officer wishing anonymity, as he was not authorised to talk to media. “Second, there is no doubt that there is a renewed fascination with gun among a section of the youth but there are no weapons for them. Partly due to the fencing of Line of Control (LOC) and partly due to Pakistan’s disinterest, a fresh full-blown jihad is an unlikely possibility in Kashmir.”
But the officer warns the situation could change anytime. “The soil is ready,” the officer says. “It needs somebody to plough it for the new jihad to sprout again”.
There is no question that the alienation runs deep in old Srinagar. One major factor for this is that the city has stayed stubbornly out of the mainstream democratic process, plunging it into a perpetual political limbo. Years of living in the company of Kalashnikovs and the expanding graveyards have, as it were, associated guilt with any normal political activity. The downtown, is in no mood to forget and move on. Perhaps, it is because the public memory in the urban milieu takes longer to fade than in countryside.
While Azadi and democratic participation have generally gone hand in hand in countryside, Srinagar has continued to be the boycott spearhead for separatists in election after election.
Many a political upheaval notwithstanding, Srinagar has refused to go mainstream. But while gun may not have been the default option of the Srinagar youth, they are not free from the lure for it.
A glimpse into how the recourse to gun is capturing the imagination of the youth in Valley is provided by the scores of pages on Facebook dedicated to the glorification of militancy. A dozen pages have been set up in the name of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, 22-year-old HM commander from south Kashmir town of Tral. Pages such as We Love Burhan, Burhan College, Tral the Land of Martyrs etc put up the latest pictures and videos of Wani in his forest hideout.
In some photographs, Burhan emerges from a lush hilly backdrop or a thick-hanging orchard, dressed in full battle fatigues with a Kalashnikov loosely slung over his shoulders. In others, he is in the company of his armed colleagues staring at the camera with a faint smile. The videos show the group posing with their weapons and engaged in easygoing banter.
The posts attract hundreds of instant likes and long comment threads praising the spirit and the courage of these fresh recruits. Most of the online discourse is centred on Burhan. People praise his alleged role in the revival of the militancy in Kashmir since he took up the gun in 2010 following an alleged beating he received at the hands of the security personnel at a roadside security camp. This fawning admiration has constructed a cult around him.
“I love you Burhan,” reads a comment on the page “Burhan College”. “I want to join your college and be like you”.
The latest post on the page which reads, “Think always +ve about #Jihad (sic)” attracted 300 likes and 62 comments within the first hour of it being uploaded.
Similarly, an account operating under his name, a message attributed to Burhan is addressed to his father Muzaffar Wani, a college principal. “Relax papa your son is on the right path. I am fighting (for) Islam. I am fighting for Khilafat (Caliphate). We will dominate the whole world. We will bring Khilafat,” the post reads alongside a picture of his father. “I love you papa. I am a mujhahid born to die for Islam (sic)”.
Facebook may have become the mainstay of the jihadi propaganda; Burhan’s aggressive public relations (PR) effort has also taken to WhatsApp and street graffiti to widen appeal of jihad. ‘Burhan is Coming,’ is emblazoned at shutter of a shop in Tral. Similarly ‘Tral, Burhan Zindabad’ is scrawled across the walls in Pampore on the outskirts of Srinagar. But this pro-active online charm offensive hasn’t so far trapped the Srinagar youth.
In the 1990s the militancy had spread outwards from Srinagar. It is rearing its head in the hinterland now but hasn’t so far made any inroads into Srinagar. But the thousands of mourners who attend the funerals of militants in south and north Kashmir is a recurrent sight that might be difficult to resist for long. This is imbuing the militancy with a fresh halo and romance.
The militants through their online messaging are only reinforcing it. Recently, the video of the three militants attending the teeming funeral of a colleague Shakir Ahmad at Batapora in Pulwama went viral. This was followed by the militants offering a 21-gun salute to their slain comrade Mufeed Bashir alias Raqib at his graveyard in Zadoora.
“The Islamic State flags may not immediately mean militancy. But they also don’t rule it out,” says a police officer with a long experience of counter-insurgency in north Kashmir. “With some favourable change in regional geo-politics bolstered by more battlefield successes by jihadi outfits like Taliban and the Islamic State, all bets are off.”
(Names of the youth have been changed to protect their identity)