These taped phone conversations echo across Kashmir’s cyberspace and crackle on mobile devices. Hundreds of people — a large number of them youth in their teens and early 20s — listen to them and discuss; some are looking for a larger inspirational message. But these are no sermons by religious preachers but farewell calls by militants to their families and friends just when they are trapped by security forces and minutes away from dying.
One such call by Lashkar-e-Toiba ‘divisional commander’ Muzamil Amin Dar has been viewed 16,371 times on YouTube, and another by Hizbul Mujahideen militants from Tral — Shabir Ahmad, Shahnawaz Ahmad and Ajaz Ahmad — 37,267 times. Similar calls posted on social networking sites lead to long comment threads and a spate of likes. Whether these calls, as well as an occasional encounter video, lead to more militant recruitment is not easily clear, but the conversations do offer an insight into the mind of the Kashmiri militant.
“Everyone should seek patience from Allah and be steadfast until you are alive and tell daddy to pay the debts,” said 24-year-old Dar to his brother in Sopore, minutes before the police killed him in a neighbouring locality. “There is nothing to worry. Inshaallah, we shall soon meet in Jannah (heaven). The life of this world is very short and it will end soon.”
Being so close to death, the militants generally don’t talk about the political conflict in Kashmir. They also don’t usually mention India or Azadi in their conversation. But they do talk about religion and hereafter and counsel patience to their family members and friends.
“Tell them (my family) not to lose any hope,” said Hizb commander Shabir Ahmad to his friend, when he and his comrades were encircled by troops at Tral in south Kashmir last July. “I am not concerned about anything, just that Allah should accept my seven years of jihad.”
Despite 25 years of relentless violence, there has been no independent study of the psychology of Kashmiri militants and what prompts the youth to pick up the gun. On the contrary, the Kashmir discourse has usually brought in the Pakistan and Afghanistan connection to the detriment of intrinsic local factors. Who is a militant and what drives him is a subject that is yet to be studied outside the prism of Afghan jihad and Pakistan-sponsored violence.
When the jihad began in Kashmir in 1989, the religious landscape of the Valley was predominantly Sufi and the immediate source of mass alienation was rooted in the rigged 1987 polls, albeit the Valley had been a recurrent scene of anti-New Delhi struggle and the attendant political uncertainty since 1947. New studies have pointed to a growing influence of conservative Islam and the radicalisation of a section of the youth, driven in part by the experience of growing up in a conflict situation and also by the State’s attempt to patronise Sufi Islam.
According to the latest J&K Housing Census, the number of places of worship have grown by 53 percent over the past decade, a sign that is being read of the growing religiosity in the Valley, triggered by the psychological need for a spiritual refuge amid the swirling social and political uncertainty. Coupled with the lingering politics of conflict, this has created a largely oppressive environment, which has shaped the outlook of the Kashmiri youth. In the case of militants, this outlook is anchored by faith. This sentiment also comes through in the final phone conversations with their families.
“Inshallah, we are fighting hard. Everyone has to die, no one is going to stay here,” said Ajaz Ahmad, minutes before his death in the encounter. “Pass this message to my family; tell them not to blame anyone and pray for me.”
These phone calls give a sense that together with nationalism and Azadi, it is religion that drives and explains their choices. “In my view, even though the initial entry of youth into militancy might be dictated by political reasons, religion plays an important role in keeping up the motivation in the stark reality of facing death any moment,” says Dr Arshid, a leading psychiatrist in the Valley.
“When that moment arrives, first you conquer the fear of death, which cannot happen without evoking the religion that has been taught to you from childhood as salvation from everything, including death. This makes death a transition to an eternal life. The struggle becomes secondary when death becomes inevitable as freedom from all that you were struggling for.”
For most of the new-generation militants, the path to jihad has been paved with a strong sense of discomfort with the prevalent state of affairs. In several cases, it is the personal insult by security personnel — or even an experience of custodial torture — or that of a friend or acquaintance that confirmed for them the accumulated social narrative of the past two decades. This background persuades them to see their individual grievance as part of the long-running political conflict.
In the case of Burhan Muzaffar, 17, a beating that he received at a roadside army camp in 2010 while running an errand for his family, rankled on his mind before he joined the Hizbul Mujahideen three months later.
“He was furious when he returned home. He wondered why he was beaten up when he had done nothing wrong,” recalls his grandfather Haji Ghulam Mohammad Wani, a grey-bearded former state government employee, who is proud of his grandson’s decision to take up arms. “He has always been a nice boy, who prayed five times, and an obedient son. Now that he has become a militant for a right cause, we stand by him.”
Similarly, Tariq Ahmad Parray of Dadsar Tral, a university student who joined the Lashker-e-Toiba last October, had been arrested twice by the police and allegedly tortured for his alleged links with militants, a charge that his family denies. The police had also confiscated his brand-new laptop. Parray was in the middle of exams when he suddenly disappeared from the university hostel. It was only days later that the family learnt that he had become a militant now.
His father, Ghulam Mohammad Parray, looks at his son’s decision with a resigned acceptance. “I didn’t want him to go. Now that he has gone, I support his choice,” says the tall, dark-complexioned Parray, also a state government servant. He talks of his son’s “pious yet self-effacing” lifestyle. “He was known in the village for his gentle demeanour. But, in recent years, he had begun to exhibit some concern about the prevailing state of affairs. He talked about India’s oppression and wanted to do something.”
Noted psychologist Shobna Sonpar, who has studied the lives of former Kashmiri militants, points at a “generational shift” in the state with the youth who have “grown up knowing violence, fear, loss and humiliation at close quarters”, seeking to deal with the situation.
“The consciousness of social identity, that is, of being Kashmiri and Muslim, was intensified in response to perceived threat and victimisation,” writes Sonpar, whose research spanned 17 months and has been praised by political and social psychologist Ashis Nandy. “The entry into militancy was characterised by a replacement of prior dysphoric feelings of helplessness and humiliation by a sense of purpose, meaning, agency and efficacy. Being in the socially idealised role of the mujahid or holy warrior enhanced their self-worth.”
For Molvi Hilal, whose road to jihad followed an unlikely trajectory from a student at Deoband, through a protester in the 2010 unrest to a Lashkar commander, Kashmir needs the implementation of sharia along with Azadi. Hilal too had been arrested by the police and slapped with a Public Safety Act case for his role in stone-pelting in 2010, which, his father Ali Mohammad Rather insists, forced him to become a militant.
Hilal’s religion-inspired speech delivered to enthusiastic chants of Azadi somewhere near his hometown Palhalan, has been viewed 4,600 times on YouTube.
“With the help of god, we will fight India, and god willing, we will succeed,” thundered the long-bearded Hilal, who was killed last May in an encounter with the police at Fateh Kadal in downtown Srinagar. “Our goal is sharia in Kashmir. Either sharia or martyrdom.”
Hilal’s is a classic case of how the three successive unrests that culminated in the 2010 violence and the attendant police excesses have gone a long way to shape the minds of the new generation of Kashmiri militants.
“The unrests engendered a psyche of grievance against New Delhi, which while inheriting the alienation of the previous generation, imparted it with a narrative that was distinctly Kashmiri,” says Zubair Dar, a US-based Kashmiri who has conducted a study on the socio-economic conditions of the families who lost a member in the 2010 protests. “For once, the Kashmiri narrative didn’t evoke the Pakistan connection in the same breath but seemed to evolve from a local rationale. The new generation of militants comes from this stock.”
Dar’s study on the victims of the 2010 unrest observes that 78 percent of them and their families had no political affiliation, a proof cited of the fact that the rage was not politically motivated as alleged in some quarters but sprung from a sense of prevailing hopelessness exacerbated by some major incidents of rights abuse.
But, has religion played any role in the choices of the new militants, in ways that it didn’t for their earliest forerunners in the early 1990s? There are signs to this effect, a certain conspicuous shift in the religious landscape of the Valley away from its Sufi moorings. This is something that has given rise to a contentious debate in the Valley about the evolving nature of the separatist struggle, with many dismissing the media focus on the spread of conservative Islam as a propagandistic ploy to discredit the Azadi movement.
“The whole point is, where do you draw the line between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’, particularly in societies where religion is a part of day-to-day life or, so to say, a way of life. The religious and secular are clubbed,” says Suvaid Yaseen, a student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, who has done some research on the relationship between secularism and Islamic movements.
According to Yaseen, while militants in the Valley would ideally and theoretically want the establishment of a religious way of life, in their actions, they stick to the specificity of the Kashmir struggle. “While justifying the struggle, they usually talk about the political history of the region and UN resolutions, etc, all of which form the ‘secular’ narrative,” he says. “In addition, the militants’ ideological discourse is about jihad on the basis of the Prophetic tradition, but it is not something that comes through in interviews or press statements where they stick to oppression and right to self-determination.”
All the same, a home ministry study on Kashmiri youth in 2010 reveals “a clear, subtle but perceptible trend” that the youth in Kashmir are turning to Islam in many ways, though the scale of this phenomenon is said to vary considerably across its different manifestations.
“An important indicator of this trend is that 61 percent of the Valley’s youth are listening to religious sermons on their audio/ MP3 players and 25 percent of them identify local mosques and graveyards as places for getting together with their friends,” says the study. “A small segment is also regularly watching programmes about Islam on Peace TV, Press TV, Al Jazeera and PTV.”
But, militancy has been too seamless a process in Kashmir to attribute a decisive role to some kind of hardening of their faith, says journalist Naseer Ahmad.
“Despite its highs and lows, militancy has been a constant phenomenon in Kashmir since 1989 and it has been primarily abetted by political reasons,” he says. “Yes, religion is a factor, we can say it comes through rather more strongly. But it serves, in our case, as a compass to judge the legitimacy or otherwise of the cause. And once it is judged as legitimate, religion strengthens the resolve to achieve it.”
However, Asif Wani, a resident of Drubgam in Pulwama, who was killed in an encounter with two other militants in Shopian on 26 April, did not go through a spiritual transformation before joining the Hizbul Mujahideen. “He worked at a garment shop,” says his brother Amir Wani. “But in 2011, he was arrested by the police for allegedly helping militants, which was not true. He was released after 18 months. Even after his release, he was asked to visit the police station every now and then. This harassment eventually forced him to join the militants.”
After being active for two-and-a-half years, Wani and his colleagues were tracked by the police to Karewa, Shopian. The ensuing encounter, which lasted through the night, led to the death of five persons — the three militants, a soldier and an army major, Mukund Varadarajan.
Before his death, Wani duly called his home, his brother Amir picking up the phone in their courtyard, where the entire village had assembled. “Tell my father and mother to spend time in the way of god, do good and don’t miss me,” said Wani. He then asked his brother to turn on the speakerphone and shouted “Allahu Akbar (God is Great)”, a template Muslim slogan, several times, which was duly responded to by the villagers. A few hours later, Drubgam received Wani’s body, and celebrated his death as a martyrdom to the cause of Kashmir’s freedom.