In Kashmir, social media now being used to recall militants home

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For years decried as a tool for radicalization of the Valley’s youth and militant recruitment, social media in Kashmir, for a change, is doing the opposite — bringing a few militants home. Ever since Lashkar militant Majid Khan returned home after his distraught mother’s Facebook appeal, several more families have issued emotional pleas to their militant wards to return.

First was the family of one Ashiq Hussain, also a LeT militant. In a four-minute video posted on social media, his mother flanked by his wife, frail father and other kin urge Hussain to return.  Much like the video message of Majid’s mother, this too went viral racking up hundreds of comments along the process, most of them sympathetic to their plight.

This was followed by the video appeal of the mother of another militant, Irfan. In the short video, the wailing mother appeals to her son with folded hands to quit militancy.“Please Irfan, return for God’s sake. Remember your mother. Remember how I have suffered all my life. I will die without you. If you return, I will do everything for you,” the mother says in the 38second-video shot outside her home.

Similarly, the mother of yet another militant, 24-year-old Sajjad Ahmad Shah, also made an appeal. In the video, the mother is flanked by his young wife and their two month-old-son, his paralytic father and two unmarried sisters, all of them sobbing and making fervent appeals to Shah to return.“I want my son Sajjad Ahmad Shah Sahib to return. He has a young wife and a small child. What will they do without him? My son has not been married even for one year. We want him to come back! His father is ailing. He can’t look after the family,” the mother says in the video.

More such appeals followed. The other video messages hit the social media from the families of militants Malik Asif of Qazigund, Nasir Ahmad Mir of Sopore and Aaquib Iqbal Malik of Kulgam.

On November 23, this clamour for the surrender of the militants from their families travelled from social media to the streets. The family of militant Adil Bilal Ahmad from Malangpora village of Pulwama came down to Srinagar to appeal to him to shun violence and return home.

“We want our son back. On November 7, he went to work and did not return. We called him several times on his phone but he did not respond. The following day his photo with a gun was all over the social media,” Adil’s father told media persons.

Despite the emotional appeals from families, except for one more militant whose identity the police has withheld, none has quit militancy. One militant, Ashiq Hussain, has turned down his mother’s request. “I have chosen the best path and will prefer martyrdom instead of surrender,” he said. “Surrender is the indication of cowardice, hypocrisy. Real <mujahids> never desert their ranks”.

Similarly, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the outfit to which Hussain belongs, has also made it clear that no more militants from its ranks would return home. The outfit said that it had let Majid go as he was the only son of his old parents.

“Majid Khan was allowed to go back in response to the request of his mother,” LeT Chief Mehmood Shah said in a statement. “Now, the Indian Armed forces are compelling the family members of other militants to do the same. But our mothers will not call upon their sons to return to their homes. They are the mothers who consider their martyrs as grooms. From now on, no freedom fighter will ever return to his home”.

Lashkar may have put a stop to the return of the militants, but it hardly detracts from the significance of the medium  being  used by the families and  the state to woo militants back to the mainstream. And this medium is the social media, the alleged site of radicalisation and  militant recruitment in the Valley.

Even the Army chief General Bipin Rawat has blamed social media for  the trouble in the state.”Radicalisation is happening mainly because of the social media.We are trying to ensure that people are being weaned away from this kind of radicalisation,” General Rawat said in Jammu earlier this year.

In April, the state government had imposed a month-long ban on 22 social media and instant messaging services in Kashmir to prevent their “misuse”. But the people soon found ways to circumvent it using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

But with several families coming forward to press for their sons’ return on social media and the videos of the sobbing old mothers going viral, the game seems to have slightly changed. Now, the videos of the wailing mothers wanting their militant sons to return compete with those of the Kalashnikov-wielding youths which glamorise jihad and persuade many more to pick up the gun.

Will this make any major difference? Unlikely. There have been surrenders in Kashmir earlier and on a much bigger scale. For example, in 1993 a significant number of militants from some outfits like Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen changed loyalties and formed the Valley’s first pro-New Delhi counter-insurgency group.

The advent in 1993 of  Kuka Parray, the first major pro-India insurgent leader, altered the landscape of militancy in the Valley. For three years, Parray ruled the Hajin-Bandipore belt of North Kashmir. Hundreds of militants and even civilians with alleged sympathy to secessionist militants were killed by Parray’s men. This drastically increased the level of violence, triggering a massive internal displacement of people from rural to urban areas. The horror played out in abandon for five years until the Kargil war in 1998 when things returned to square one, with militants aided by fresh infiltration across LoC regaining the dominance.

However, at that time the number of militants in the Valley was several thousands. But now it is less than two hundred. So, every youth who chooses to give up the gun matters to the militant groups. And if the trend catches on a bit, it can pose an existential threat to the local militancy.

But that is very unlikely to happen. More so if the reports of the fresh recruitment are anything to go by. According to a recent estimate, around 41 youths have joined various militant outfits between July and October.  Around 80 to 90 youths have joined militancy so far this year. A dozen youths have reportedly joined in November too, even while seven have been arrested and two have given up arms.

“A few families asking their wards to return is a welcome development. But we don’t expect it to make a big difference,” said a police officer who didn’t wish to be named. “Militancy demands a range of responses. We are doing all we can to ensure local youths are protected”.