Snapshots from the South: Looking Behind the Mosaic of new-age Militancy
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The new-age internet-driven militancy in south Kashmir embodies certain significant departures from the militancy of the 1990s. It has become too complex and layered to be seen with the same lens as that of the earlier decades. The boys who form the fighting nucleus of this militancy are driven by an even more complex mix of motivations and emotions — religion, martyrdom, azadi, revenge for state brutalities, personal stories of state persecution, call of the young blood, daily exposure to international events, etc.

As we drove through the villages of south Kashmir, these complexities of militancy and the public support that sustains it began to emerge from a concoction of conflicting versions. So did the underlying contradictions of politics, militancy and people’s daily lives. That presented us with its own challenges of arriving at any straight-forward understanding of the situation in south Kashmir which dominates the discourse in media, security and political circles to the exclusion of what is happening in the rest of the Valley.

Recent events surrounding the former Hizbul Mujahideen, HM, commander Zakir Rashid Bhat aka Zakir Musa, and his being named by Al-Qaeda as the Kashmir chief of its cell, have added a tortuous twist to the storyline.

Al-Qaeda’s announcement of opening a front in Kashmir – Ansar Gazwatil Hind – draws new fault line in militant resistance                                                                                        Picture credit: Al-Qaeda’s Al-Hur media channel

As we went around the villages — the hotspots of current wave of militancy — the apparent serenity and the relaxed lifestyle of the countryside here in south Kashmir did little to assuage our feelings of unease radiating from a host of real and imagined fears.

The Dadsara area in Tral, Pulwama was a hotbed of militancy back in the nineties. Scores of its young boys were part of the armed struggle fighting the Indian forces mostly under the HM, which was then almost completely controlled by the Jamaat-e-Islami. The Jamaat continues to wield significant socio-political influence in the region, but young boys armed and unarmed are becoming increasingly skeptical of the Jamaat. It is a significant deviation from the nineties when the Jamaat enjoyed almost unquestioned support in the countryside particularly the south.

The Dadsara village was one of the fountainheads of the Jamaat and the militants inspired by its pro-Pakistan Islamist ideology. The village lived through its waves of atrocities at the hands of government forces. Most of its rebels were neutralised and many of the Jamaat men were tamed through force or co-option.

But in this new phase of militancy, Dadasara seems to have turned the clock back. In some ways, it has become a springboard for young, educated and tech-savvy new-age rebels who come mostly from well-off backgrounds. This again represents a stark contrast with the militancy of the 90’s which drew boys from marginalised sections of the society. An entire state narrative was built around this class-definition of rebels as being driven by their ‘impoverished’ socio-economic backgrounds to explain their involvement in the armed struggle against Indian rule in Kashmir.

Burhan was a sort of grassroots militant who would bond with locals of all affiliations with ease. He didn’t stress so much on armed actions as he did on creating a wide public base using a combination of social media outreach and personal networking. He mixed in the aura of his being a militant commander with some community work

Today’s militant fighters have access to far lesser arms than their counterparts in the 1990s when the Valley was flush with an arsenal that would pretty much serve a small-time army. The supply lines from across the border were as much dedicated ensuring the militants never ran out of arms and ammunition. So was case with men and money making its way from across the border. But what today’s militants lack are not only arms but, more importantly, hardcore training for a sustained guerrilla-style military campaign against the world’s third-largest standing army.

Adil Mir, Burhan’s cousin and mentor, rose quickly through the militant ranks to become the divisional commander of HM

Interestingly, ideology and a fallback upon religion has always been a part of the narrative of armed fighters in Kashmir. But this time around, there seems an added emphasis on religious motifs and appeals probably to widen public support and make up for the lack of arms and training, at least in part.

So what we encountered was that even common folks, particularly the youth, in the villages are deeply ideologically-driven by an Islamist thought, sometimes with contradictions running deep to open up potential fault lines as we have been witnessing in recent months.

A snapshot

Dadsara martyrs’ graveyard has the tale of a duo that captures some of these ideological mismatches. Who is a martyr and who is not? And who will decide that? How would you live with some of these fundamental conflicts of your political beliefs? These questions and many others crisscrossed our mind as we tried to make sense of the complex algebra of the politics of this place.

The two, whose bodies are buried here side by side, were bosom friends. They had common friends, common enemies, common interests and even shared a common surname — Mir. The two were born the same year—1988 — and died the same year — 2014.

Interestingly, ideology and a fall- back upon religion has always been a part of the narrative of armed ghters in Kashmir. But this time around, there seems an added emphasis on religious motifs and appeals probably to widen public support and make up for the lack of arms and training, at least in part.

Early on in their life in 2007, they chose the same career line — the Indian army. One, Owais Hassan Mir, made it through the battery of tests conducted by the army. The other, Adil Bashir Mir, didn’t. His friends say he fell through for want of a health certificate. After training, Owais became a rifleman in the 15 JAKLI regiment of Indian army.

Three years later, Adil’s life took a 180-degree turn. One winter morning, he left home to join the ranks of militants operating in south Kashmir.

But, Adil always felt troubled by a disturbing thought: What if he, the rebel fighting the Indian army, finds Owais, the chum of yesteryears, now a soldier in the Indian army, face to face in some encounter? Adil’s friends recalled this and several other incidents from his life.

Adil perhaps didn’t know death would follow them soon to reunite them in the hereafter. He was killed in a gunfight with State forces in June 2014 along with two other militants.

Owais didn’t live long either. He drowned in the 2014 flood at Sempora, Pampore while rescuing some villagers from the waters.

But when Owais’s body was recovered, villagers in Dadsara faced a serious dilemma. Should Owais, a soldier of the Indian army, be buried in the martyrs’ graveyard alongside Adil, the rebel?

Some agreed, others had reservations. Finally, it was decided Owais should rest alongside his childhood comrade Adil. Some villagers argued that like Adil, he too was a shaheed – martyr – since he died while saving his fellow Kashmiris.

The issue seemed to draw to close there. But it also symbolises the multiple conflicts within the larger conflict.

Two graves one belonging to a militant commander and other to an army personnel lie side by side in Dadsara martyrs’ graveyard

The word ‘shaheed’ is inscriped on the gravestones of both Adil and Owais. However, Owais has ‘Fauji’ or ‘soldier’ suffixed to his name in parentheses.

“The word Fauji was filled with paint when the stone was placed on the grave, but some youth thought that this will catch attention of people and therefore took off the paint, though the engraving is still there,” a local told us.

Moving around the cemetery, we asked some youth whether they found it contradictory to give space to an Indian army soldier in their martyrs’ graveyard. Their reply seemed to rationalise the contradiction.

“We don’t see any contradiction here. Both Adil bhai and Owais bhai died while helping humanity. Adil bhai gave his life while fighting oppression and Owais bhai gave his life while rescuing Kashmiris during floods. And Islam tells us that any Muslim who drowns is also a shaheed,” Danish Nazir, a local youth explained.

What makes this story of consequence is that Adil Mir was no ordinary militant. He was the Hizbul Mujahideen’s divisional commander. His influence seems to have spawned an appealing sub-culture of militancy that later produced names like Burhan Wani who was Adil’s cousin.

As we tried to interpret these apparently insignificant events here, we discovered the roots of the pan-Kashmir uprising of 2016 can be traced to what had been happening in Dadsara before that.

It was here that Burhan Wani, whose death lead to an all-out revolt against Indian rule in Kashmir, spent his last two years, 2009 and 2010, at his maternal home in Dadsara before joining up his comrades-in-arms.

Locals say that the current phase of militancy germinated here. In fact, while other parts of Kashmir witnessed a relative lull in militancy activities after 2000, Dadsara’s graveyard saw a steady number of martyrs being brought in for burial throughout that phase.

But contradictions of the region seemed to get in our way rather too often — either in fact or in what people told us.

While Dadsara has given some top-ranking militants to Kashmir’s armed struggle, it is also home to Muhammad Amin Naik, first Kashmiri Muslim general of the Indian army who recently retired as a lieutenant general. His relatives live among the local population. No issues, no problems despite the presence of armed militants and a militant mood among the unarmed youth.

But there were words of caution for us. A young man in Burhan’s native village, Shareefabad, told us to be careful while walking around Dadsara. “You don’t know where you are going. There are many people who are pro-India. So beware.” Maybe he was referring to burial of Owais in the martyrs’ cemetery. Maybe not.

Adil: Burhan’s mentor

Adil was Burhan’s cousin and mentor. And like Adil, Burhan too wanted to join the Indian army. But the course Adil took had a huge influence on Burhan.

Burhan’s maternal family has a long history of active participation in the three-decade-long armed insurgency. Very early in his life, Burhan saw his cousins leave the comfort zones of their homes and embrace the tough and short rebel life.

Adil Mir surfing his mobile phone           Picture credit unknown

During the first phase of the insurgency, Muhammad Amin Mir, a distant cousin of Burhan, went to Pakistan for arms training. He returned in 2002 and was active for a good part through that decade. He was killed in an encounter in March 2010 when Burhan was in Dadsara.

Then in September the same year, Naeem Ahmad Mir, another cousin of Burhan, was killed by the army. Naeem, a topper in B-Tech engineering from the Islamic University, Awantipora, left his home in 2009 to join the HM outfit.

“Burhan saw all these deaths up close. He was very much attached to his cousins. Whenever they would come home after they took to arms, Burhan would appreciate them for choosing a life full of respect and honour,” says a close relative of Burhan.

The Trigger

The final night Burhan spent before leaving for the woods to join the Hizb was at Dadsara. He along with his brother Khalid Muzaffar, who was killed by army in 2015 while on his way to meet Burhan, and other friend were thrashed by army personnel when they went to purchase meat for their neighbour whose close relative had passed away.

Zahoor Ahmad Mir, Burhan’s maternal uncle, vividly remembers the last night before Burhan left home to join militant ranks.

“He was beaten up by the army very badly. His right hand was injured during the thrashing. He was writhing in pain and anger. And then he said ‘I will take revenge for this beating’,” said Zahoor. Burhan was then a little over 15 and soon gave into the calling of his young blood to follow up to his words.

A couple of days after Burhan left home, Adil Mir, who was 25 then, too decided to join the HM. Within a short period, Adil rose to become the divisional commander of the outfit.

Adil was a charismatic figure and a brilliant student, his childhood friends in Dadsara recalled.

His friends recount how Adil imbibed leadership qualities from his brother Naeem and changed the look and style of armed insurgency in south Kashmir.

“The first thing Adil did was to detach HM from Jamaat-e-Islami’s clutches in south Kashmir. He made it very clear to the Jamaat that the two need to be separated. The reason behind this move was that some people within Jamaat want to see the HM function according to their own taste,” said Danish.

There were other things Adil did while he headed the outfit. He ordered militants to don military fatigues. Earlier, the militants used to be in civvies.

“This was not only a disciplinary move, rather a tactical one also. In one of the gunfights, Adil made his way through the forces and fled from the spot. They couldn’t figure him out while dressed in army camouflage,” said Danish.

Adil also brought armed fighters from other outfits under one umbrella. “His slogan was ‘Mujahid mujahid hota hain’. During his time, HM, Lashkar, Jaish militants used to operate together,” a local who had been close to Adil told us.

Forces stand on debris of a house razed to ground during an encounter in Arwani, Shopian in which Lashkar commander Majid Zargar was killed

Later, when Burhan rose to head the HM, militancy in south Kashmir took a suave turn. From the hideouts in forests and elsewhere, the social media platforms became a stage — a hangout and an open hideout of sorts. The intent of this strategy was to assert your presence and create an aura that would draw in more educated youth to militant folds.

Burhan was a sort of grassroots militant who would bond with locals of all affiliations with ease. He didn’t stress so much on armed actions as he did on creating a wide public base using a combination of social media outreach and personal networking. He mixed in the aura of his being a militant commander with some community work which villagers around his area of influence fondly recall. The unprecedented public outpouring that swept Kashmir after he was neutralised was proof of his approach being a success — though complete mishandling by the resistance leaders of the uprising that followed his death soon frittered away all political gains that could potentially have been made to propel the resistance.

Burhan is even reported to have resented what he saw as ‘unnecessary’ killings at the hand of militants even if such fatalities included men from the Indian army — the ‘avowed enemy’. He is said to have pardoned an informer duo that led government forces to the killing of his cousin and mentor Adil Mir.

Burhan-ud-Wani

Things took a sour turn after Burhan’s killing. Zakir, who had joined militancy a few years ago, was assumed by many as Burhan’s successor. There was no word though from the HM or the United Jihad Council from across the border regarding this. Zakir brought in his own style of strong-arm militancy and a heavy dose of religiosity and jihadist fervour, at least as he saw it.

Swayed by emotions in the aftermath of Burhan’s killing, seen widely in Kashmir as martyrdom, many young boys signed up to this obscure jihad project. With no arms or cash, militants were forced into resorting to a spree of gun snatching and bank robberies to provide for the swelling ranks. But what remained was any arms training of consequence to take on a professional war machine. Many thus became sitting ducks, a trend that continues with an increasing frequency of militant killings in recent times. Police figures released in the first week of August 2017 put the number of killed militants in the first seven months of this year at 132. This is by far the highest in almost a decade. And it is possible that such indiscriminate recruiting by militants may have brought in some moles as well which in part explains the recent success of the State forces in taking out militants. Although a good part of the intelligence inputs behind the pinpoint strikes against militants by State forces seems to be generated through technological means, tracking of mobile phones and other electronic gadgetry.

With some top militants like Sabzar Ahmed, Bashir Lashkari and Junaid Mattoo having recently been neutralised, militant leaders now seem to be more cautious in the face of a clear policy of elimination of top militant commanders by the State forces whatever it may take. Few months ago, the army released a hit list of 12 top militants of various outfits with their detailed profiles. Four commanders from this list have already been taken down including Yasin Itoo aka Gaznavi the HM operational commander.

In contrast, militant attacks of late have significantly come down. The buoyancy, covert and overt, that one witnessed among militants’ mood soon after Burhan’s killing seems to have given way to some despair. The killings have obviously created demoralisation and disarray among militants. The emergence of groups like Zakir-led Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, Kashmir Taliban and Harkut-ul-Ansar have added to the deep unease among militant ranks.

Zakir’s new dynamics

Zakir has added new dynamics and challenges to the three-decade-long insurgency in Kashmir. Soon after Burhan Wani’s death, Zakir dropped enough hints to suggest that he wanted to detach himself from Pakistan-administered Kashmir-based leadership.

However, he tried to overhaul the discourse of militancy in Kashmir when he called Pakistan an “apostate state” where “Shariah needs to be implemented.” The underlying meaning of this statement is that Muslims are obliged to fight against the rulers of such a state. This effectively took the spotlight away from the popular resistance movement in Kashmir and brought a global dimension to it. For many, it was like globalising and jihadising the political movement for self-determination in Kashmir to link it with the establishing of an Islamic superstate — the global caliphate — as is sought by groups like Al -Qaeda and ISIS. For many Kashmiris, this was a negative development as it handed over an automatic diplomatic victory to the Indian State. Its campaign in crushing the uprising in Kashmir would now be framed as part of the so-called global war on terror, and no questions would be asked about the trail of human tragedies it creates.

Kashmiris had by design insulated themselves from these global jihadist ideologies even when Al-Qaeda and ISIS were at their high point. There was always, as has been now, a strong emphasis on the struggle in Kashmir for self-determination as being driven by indigenous impulses rather than global jihadist dynamics.

Massive public outpouring at militants’ funerals is a serious concern for the State. Above people offering funeral prayers for Lashkar commander Bashir Lashkari

In this context, what Zakir has been talking about is unprecedented, the consequences of which can be far reaching if this ideology takes hold among sizable sections of Kashmiri youth. And let’s not forget the ideology Zakir espouses has a strong inherent pull to influence young minds.

Even Burhan had spoken about a caliphate in his video messages but his pronouncements were more in the context of Islam being the fountainhead of motivation and a bedrock for a localised struggle of Muslims that Kashmir represents.

Interestingly, Zakir’s earlier video messages had all the symboligies of global jihadist organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Even his language of ‘slitting the Hurriyat leaders’ throats and hanging their heads’ betrayed the means employed by Al-Qaeda and ISIS in dealing with those who don’t buy into their methods and ideology. In fact, the often quoted slogan by Zakir “Shariah ya shahadat” (Islamic rule or martyrdom) was coined at the gates of Jamia Hafsa, an all-women institution of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Pakistan which saw an Al Qaeda-ISIS-inspired bloody armed insurrection against the Pakistan state from the precincts of the mosque in 2007.

An interesting thing to note here is how easily Zakir broke away from his parent outfit, HM. Was his move in the making for some time? It seems so. Equally intriguing is the soft stance HM and the UJC took on Zakir’s move to break away and on his recent bonding with Al-Qaeda. The HM didn’t oust Zakir from the outfit, merely distanced itself from his outbursts and statements. The HM usually follows a tough policy towards its dissenter and deserters. Its breakaway commander Qayoom Najar had to literally flee Kashmir to the region’s Pakistan-controlled part after survival became hard for him here. Three of his militant deputies were quietly done to death in the orchards of Patan area in north Kashmir. Also, remember how senior HM commander Abdul Majeed Dar had to pay with his life in 2000 after he had worked out a compromise with the Government of India. In Zakir’s case, the HM has still not taken a tough line on him probably fearing an endless internecine war between the two groups. But all in all, a turf war is already on.

Breakaway HM commander along with his men in his avatar as Al-Qaeda chief in Kashmir Photo credit unknown

Now that Al-Qaeda has named Zakir as its chief in Kashmir, the dynamics of militancy in Kashmir may undergo several changes. Although it is difficult to imagine Al-Qaeda making any direct contacts with Zakir or keeping his group in the supply chain of men, arms and cash, this move may for the moment be more symbolic than strategic. But what it does represent is a massive shift in ideology and a vertical split among militants in Kashmir. This has the potential of creating a fratricidal situation where pro-azadi militants find themselves pitted against those with a global jihadist agenda. Conspiracy theorists argue the Al-Qaeda foray into Kashmir’s militancy may be an Indian intelligence game plan and that Zakir is being played for a purpose. Conspiracy theories have their own worth in Kashmir although the reality may be somewhat different.

At the moment, it is difficult to say how many men Zakir commands. Some say it is not more than ten. Some others believe that apart from this number, he has been able to poach a dozen militants from the HM fold. Zakir’s owning up of ousted Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Abu Dujana soon after his killing came as surprise to many. There were serious questions being asked about Dujana’s loyalty among militant circles when he was alive.

So how much of a militant force does Zakir’s Al Qaeda-supported group represent? And will it replicate tactics of Al-Qaeda-proper in Kashmir? Will this group limit itself to attacks on state forces or open fronts against sections of local population that it sees as apostates — a distinctive feature of the Al-Qaeda playbook? And will it inspire lone wolf attacks to keep itself relevant on Kashmir’s chessboard of militancy?

Kareemabad: capital of insurgency 2.0

The buzz around Kashmir’s new age militancy was triggered by the 2013 much-published group photo of eleven militants in military uniforms brandishing their prized AK-47s with Burhan occupying a strategic presence in the picture. Interestingly, the picture also included Tariq Pandit who later turned out to be a police mole in the high-profile group and is currently said to be in ‘protective custody’. All other militants in the picture except two — Wasim Shah and Saddam Padder— have been neutralised.

Naseer Pandit (2nd from right) soon after his induction in Kashmir police. He later deserted the police to join militants

Although Burhan captured much public attention and admiration making him a modern day Robin Hood of sorts, several key players in the group quickly paled away from public memory.

Here at Kareemabad in Pulwama,/ which is emerging as one of the hotspots of the new-age armed resistance, the legacy of policeman-turned militant seems to live on. Naseer Ahmed Pandit who hailed from this village was instrumental in imparting arms training to the young boys who signed up for the insurgency. He had picked up the wares of professional level arms training and combat during his days in the police. And the day he vanished from official duty along with four rifles, he became the man to be hunted down without delay. And so he was within a few months of his joining militants.

Naseer saw his friends from nearby villages fall to the bullets of State forces one after another.

And then a militant’s death in Heff-Shirmal village of Shopian changed Naseer’s life, and he decided to call it a day. His friends said when an HM militant Ashiq Hussain Dar of Turkuwangum was killed in an encounter, it was the turning point in Naseer’s life. That day Naseer was supposed to be on official duty.

“He couldn’t reconcile to be on duty while forsaking a militant funeral,” a close friend of Naseer who accompanied him to attend the funeral said.

“It was there that Naseer decided to join militant ranks. He placed his hand on Ashiq’s grave and pledged to avenge his death,” recalled Naseer’s friend.

Though Naseer’s stint as a militant was short-lived, he left a permanent mark on the way militancy was shaping up in south Kashmir.

Naseer’s tenure in the state police gave him some inside knowledge of the workings of security, intelligence agencies and their spy rings. What made him a “precious catch” was his information of a number of OGWs who were working for counter-insurgency agencies.

He had full knowledge that Lashkar-e-Toiba had a number of ‘double agents’ within its cadre, said Riyaz, a close friend of Naseer. Some even said that he had warned Abu Qasim, the Lashkar chief who was killed in an encounter in 2015, about possible double agents around him.

“Qasim had to finally pay the price. Naseer informed him about possible intrusion of agency workers in Lashkar ranks, but before he could take action, Qasim had already been trapped,” said Riyaz.

We met with Naseer’s father Ghulam Rasool Pandit at his home in Kareemabad. He seemed a picture of poise with no regrets over losing his son. “It was a natural reaction by him to join militancy,” he said. Natural reaction to what, we asked. “To what India is doing in Kashmir,” was his reply.

Naseer’s father Ghulam Rasool Pandit

Known to locals as Rasul Kak, Naseer’s father has earned a lot of respect after his son’s death. Already a well-connected man, a 1978 graduate from Amar Singh college, Rasul Kak has taken upon himself to look after the nearby martyrs’ cemetery of Kareemabad, which Naseer earlier looked after.

As he took us along the lanes and by-lanes of Kareemabad, people greeted him while asking who the guests were. Some stopped him to tell him that the bulb of such and such electric pole wasn’t working while others briefed him about various meetings. Then he paused at one house where Naseer was trapped first time, though he managed an escape. As he moved towards the periphery of the village, he took us to the house of Zahid Manzoor, a recently recruited militant.

Zahid, 26, left his home in May this year and showed up on social media brandishing an AK-47. His mother, Shahzada, has been in a state of shock since he left. She blamed the forces’ zulm for her son’s decision to pick up arms.

But Shazada is also defiant. “I wait for his martyrdom. I don’t want him to surrender now. How can he live after surrender”

A recent recruit Zahid Manzoor’s mother presents a picture of both defiance and despair

For Kareemabad’s inhabitants, it is a ‘liberated zone’. “The forces’ vehicles don’t enter the village. And if they do, they meet stiff resistance,” a local told us.

Dotted with houses that speak of affluence, Kareemabad presents visitors a rather deceptive picture of calm and placidity. Beneath this surface quietude, lies an ideological maelstrom of many layers — some complimenting each other, others jarring, all in all forcing a militant mood on its youth.

Above in Kareemabad’s blue skies, we saw airplanes from the Srinagar airport crisscross almost throughout the day. On the ground, the ideologies also seem to be crisscrossing rather menacingly. As we were preparing to leave, we were wondering what will emerge out of the impending clash of the global jihadist creed of Zakir Musa and the indigenous groups which limit their goal to Kashmir’s azadi.

You get a feel of the deep contradictions from personal conversations with the people as well as the behaviour of protesters out in the streets.

Soon after Abu Dujana and his aide Arif Dar were killed by government forces at Hakripora in Pulwama, protesters took to streets raising slogans. One group chanted, ‘Jeevay jeevay Pakistan’. It irritated another group as Arif in his last message had asked people to not wave Pakistani flags at his funeral. This group responded with pro-Al-Qaeda sloganeering. As a melee broke out between the competing groups, some one chanted, ‘Zakir Musa ka kya paigham,’ and everyone responded ‘Kashmir banega Pakistan’.

At the moment, people in the south seem happy to live with these contradictions and fault lines. They support these groups with conflicting ideologies of global jihad and localised struggle for azadi because they see it as a common fight against the occupation. But behind the anarchic fervour for Islam and azadi, one can but not miss a deeply discomfiting whiff of blood in the air.

(Some names in the story have been changed to protect identity)

Credits

Reporting: Aasif Sultan & Bilal Bhat

Written with analytical inputs: Faheen

Photographs: Muneeb ul Islam