Why south Kashmir is becoming the new hotbed of militancy
Radicalisation among the youth here is worrisome.
A 21-year-old is fast emerging as the new face of armed rebellion in the Kashmir Valley. The youth call him Burhan Bhai, for mothers he is Baijana, others call him Robin Hood of Tral, and many more refer to him as Burhan Sahab.
Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the district commander of the largest indigenous militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, now has a cash reward of Rs 1 million on his head.
In the south Kashmir districts of Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and the volatile Tral, Burhan is seen as an unmatched hero. His newly-released video has created ripples within the government security apparatus, and has marked him as the poster boy of new militancy in Kashmir.
The youth in south Kashmir hold the “failed peaceful protests” of 2008 and 2010, and the double rape-and-murder of Aasiya and Neelofar in 2009 as their reasons for taking up arms against India. At the same time, they praise the role of social media for providing them a platform for propagating their ideas.
Pulwama is the birthplace of Kashmiri legends like Habba Khatoon, the 16th century mystic poet and ascetic, and the much-loved poet Mahjoor. Now, Pulwama is home to agitated youth who seem fed up with traditional forms of protest like stone-pelting, and are inspired by Burhan. It is also evident from the interactions I had with the youth in Pulwama that the anti-India euphoria among them is fuelled by religious sentiments, as a result of their "growing religious awareness".
The elders are wary of the emerging discontent, and its manifestations. While they believe that the political, economic and social rights of the youth have been compromised by the state government, they blame social media tools like WhatsApp and Facebook for playing an important role in the recruitment of militants and in radicalising the Kashmiri youth.
The youth themselves are, however, quick to denounce any parallels between the use of social media here and its use by the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group. “Kashmir and ISIS have no links. It is only the Indian media which is linking the two,” the youth are quick to shoot back.
Sajid Baba, a university scholar studying conflict victims, holds the increased militarisation and heavy surveillance on the youth following the 2008 uprising responsible for the new wave of militancy in Kashmir. “After the mass protests of 2008 and 2010, Indian agencies tried to break youth power and took many into custody. This had a highly negative impact,” he said.
If Pulwama is restive, Shopian can give you shivers. The district, famous for its delicious apples, is heavily militarised. Every entry point to Shopian is armed by a garrison, with Army, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Special Task Force (STF) men posted in large numbers.
At the Balpora entrance of Shopian, the Agriculture and Horticulture Research Center is occupied by the Brigade Headquarters. The Kathokalan entrance to Shopian is home to an army cantonment, occupying about 660 acres.
The Batapora entrance is occupied by a CRPF garrison. Batapora is the place where Aasiya and Neelofar, aged 17 and 22 respectively, were raped and murdered in 2009. The Shopian Rest House at Chogam is occupied by the Army. Also under army occupation is Choudary Gund and the Shopian-Kadar road. The Shopian Imam Sahab is occupied by the STF. The last village of the Shopian district is also occupied by the Army.
Like Pulwama, it is apparent that Burhan lives in the hearts of the youth in Nazimpora in Shopian. They believe his cause is just.
In 2008, 2009, and 2010 more than 200 youth were killed following peaceful protests in the Valley. Almost the entire Kashmir was on the roads at that time.
Most of the youths one talks to here say that they pelt stones to save themselves from the police and STF. They accuse the forces of smashing the window panes of their houses. Some say that after Burhan uploaded his video in early September, militant organisations have recruited 17 youths from here.
The town of Shopian is calm and moves on at its own pace. The aura of Burhan is visible. Bilal, 19, (name changed), a political science student, says, “Burhan lives in our hearts and no restrictions can change our feelings for him.” As I move away after talking to him, a Bollywood ringtone buzzes on his cellphone. Suhaib, alias Rajpoot (meaning a kid prince in Kashmiri), a nine-year-old boy, also left home to evade arrest but his father was arrested instead. In Shopian, the youth believe that the rape and murder of Aasiya and Neelofar hardened their stance towards New Delhi.
During the day Shopian seems calm but as the night falls the Army takes over, keeping a tight vigil on everyone in the town.
The new wave of militancy also seems to have made its presence felt in Kulgam, the district of temples. Many Kashmiri Pandit temples here are still preserved by the locals. While many in Kulgam believe that jihad is the only solution, they also speak about the displaced Kashmiri Pandits.
Radicalisation among the youth here is worrisome. The local youth, including the educated ones, say that they would have joined militancy but for the social constraints.
When the first video of Burhan was released, Zahid was sipping evening noon-chai (pink salt tea) at his home.
“It was 4pm when the news of the release of a video reached our village. There was absolute euphoria and happiness in the entire village. Everyone wanted to see Burhan. And within a few hours the video spread like wildfire. Had anyone even mentioned that the video could be an intelligence agency plot, people would have killed him. So much is Burhan revered here. Everyone wanted a glimpse of Burhan. Even teachers, civil society members, government employees, men and women, everyone wanted to see him, listen to him.”
In Qaimoh, 2km from Tarigam, 18-year-old Usman has joined militant ranks, and Rampora, a village about 2km from Qaimoh, is often referred to as "Chota Pakistan" owing to the unflinching support of the locals for the militants.
The volatile Tral, meanwhile, is referred to as the "Land of Martyrs", the "Town of Newton", the "Land of Mujahideen" or the "Land of Burhan". Newton is the name given to Ishaq Ahmed, a 19-year-old who joined militancy this year. He is widely perceived to be a highly intelligent young man.
Graffiti is splattered on the walls. "Land of Martyrs", "Go India, Go back", "We want freedom" and "We love Pakistan" can be seen written on many walls in Dadasara village, our stop at Tral.
On entering this volatile town, three white “Rakshak” vehicles welcomed us. Our first stop was Dadasara village. We sat in a humble dwelling of a social activist for interviews. His neighbour was a Pandit family.
I was introduced to a young boy in his 20s, Furkan Nabi (name changed). With a wean beard, he appeared like Burhan. He had a strong faith in Islam and often quoted the holy Quran and Hadith.
Talking about minorities, he said, “In his recent video, Burhan Sahab praised the Sikh community for their unflinching support for the movement. The Sikh community also knows that the community is safe because of people like Burhan Sahab. The same is the case with Pandit families here. They also support Burhan.”
It was also said that some Pandit families are living amicably with their Muslim neighbours. There are around 25 Pandit families living in Tral. Upon inquiring, a Kashmiri Pandit of Dadasara village, Sanjay Kumar Kaul, said, “We don’t have any problem here. No one harms us. Had anyone said or done anything, we would also have migrated then.”
The peaceful protests in 2008 that killed around 65 youth in Kashmir also did not affect or deter the Kaul family.
“In 2008, my sister was getting married. Guests had come from Delhi and Jammu. But the entire Kashmir was put under severe curfew. Muslims in the neighbourhood came forward and catered to my guests. There was acute shortage of vegetables, but the locals helped us. We lived happily in those turbulent years of 2008, 2009 and 2010 as well,” he said.
Sanjay Kaul is a government employee.
Militancy erupted in Kashmir in the late 1980s but dipped during the mid-2000s. Militancy in south Kashmir has witnessed a revival, but many people believe that there is a stark difference between militancy then and now.
The residents of Tral also seemed disappointed with Hurriyat leaders barring Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Anees (name changed), who recently did his B.Com, reluctantly agreed to talk. He said, “Hurriyat is still relevant but we only request them not to use the Kashmiri youth for personal gains.”
When I tried to ask them if unemployment was the main reason for alienation and radicalisation, I was rebutted strongly. Amir (name changed), 26, who has kept a record of the people killed in the encounters, draws a distinction between unemployment and militancy.
“Recently a militant was killed in Kulgam. He had a permanent government job, but he left all perks and joined militancy. In Pulwama, another militant was killed. He had married recently and was a lecturer. Yet he snatched two AK-47 rifles from the police and joined militancy. In another encounter, Gulzar Sheryub was killed. He was a scholar. In Tral, Idress was killed. He was an employee in the health department. Engineer Saifullah was killed. He too was from an affluent family.” Amir reads these names from his list as if he is reciting a poem.
My tour of south Kashmir, ending at Dadasara, leaves me with many questions. The comment of a local teenager is indicative of what the youth here believe in.
He tells me: “Burhan is the only one. He can have many followers but cannot be replaced, just like Sachin Tendulkar. Some say Virat Kohli is another Sachin. But Sachin cannot be replaced. Kohli can only imitate Sachin. The same is the case with Burhan,” he says with conviction.
It summed up the situation of south Kashmir reasonably well.