Why do 14-year-olds pick up guns? Ask Kashmir's children

An extremist ideology needs to be fought back with a counter ideology, not government force.

 |  6-minute read |   19-07-2017
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As I discreetly walked into Kashmir's Lelhar village, a zone reporting heightened militancy, I was aware of the probable risks. A TV news reporter, especially one from New Delhi, is not exactly the favourite unannounced guest.

I knew, however, this story had to be told. A teenager, barely 14 years old, joined Lashkar-e-Taiba two years ago, with no previous criminal record.

Another boy, from a neighbouring village, had also joined terror ranks recently. The now infamous Burhan Wani too was a teen when he associated himself with Hizbul Mujahideen. Young minds, who have barely lived their childhood, are picking up guns. It is not a trend, say top police sources, but a matter of concern.

Lelhar was eerily calm — many of the hamlet's houses still covered with massive tin sheets, reflecting the aftermath of the Kashmir floods in 2014.

I unbolted the gate of one such house and saw a young girl holding an infant in her arms. I went up to them, greeting the girl in common parlance, and asked random questions until an adult arrived.

A team member then broached the issue. "They are from a news channel and have come to talk about your brother, who is now a militant." I gulped and paused. Surprisingly, they agreed to speak. The camera was switched on.

As I sat with the eldest of siblings, he looked at me and remarked: "This is the first time a channel reporter has come here to speak to us. How did you manage?" I stayed quiet and smiled.

I looked around and saw teenagers who deserve better than they have received from the society. The elder siblings of the militant struggled with education and have limited employment opportunities. They tell me about a search operation held few days ago, recounting it like it were a routine.

While I discussed the futility of terrorism and weapons with the young boy's siblings off camera, a curious neighbour walked in. Interrupting our conversation, he exclaimed: "Humko jannat milti hai issey." (We reach heaven through such actions). The "action" is a reference to militancy. Shocked, I retorted that such language could be a dangerous influence on the children.

"What impacts them is the high-handedness of security forces and political leaders, our fight is merely a response," he added. The children looked on, listening intently.

kashmir-_071917055907.jpgThis generation grew up amid inexorable uncertainty, watching crackdowns and search-cordon operations. Photo: PTI

I felt an immediate discomfort because I was prepared with a counter but chose to stay silent. It was not the time or the place for an intellectual debate, especially on an issue so overwhelmingly charged.

This incident reminded me of a conversation I had with a young teenage boy in Anantnag, in the premises of the Martand Temple ruins in 2015. He seemed angry with the government and refused to hear a counter view because his "parents had told him everything".

Children in the Valley of Jammu and Kashmir are politically aware. They have seen conflict from close quarters. In fact, this generation grew up amid inexorable uncertainty, watching crackdowns and search-cordon operations.

They have witnessed adults being rounded up, friends injured with pellets, some even killed, followed by weeklong curfews. They look up to community elders for a response in the hope of a probable solution. Often, that makes all the difference.

"We saw his photograph on social media after he left. We expect him to come back but he also has a gun now. What do we say? We will just cope with what comes along," said the 14-year-old's brother.

Sources say the young militant was seen firing shots in air, at a funeral in South Kashmir's Pulwama on Sunday. I doubt now if the boy will ever return, unless someone can convince him for the better.

***

An extremist ideology needs to be fought back with a counter ideology, not government force. The absence of an opposing view, a response without resolution, is what ails Kashmir.

Who will educate the Valley's children about what Kashmir historically stood for? Who will take charge and speak not about responsive violence but the syncretic culture that existed barely 50 years ago?

Which religious head is determined enough to distinguish Salafism from Sufism? Who, if I may ask, wants peace in Kashmir?

Abdul Qayoom Rafiqi writes in his book, History of Kashmir, "Kashmir is the only region in Indian subcontinent possessing an uninterrupted series of written records of its history. The strong tradition of historiography was established by Pandit Kalhana and carried forward by galaxy of historians down to Pir Hasan Shah Khuihami... Today we are facing genuine crisis of spirit. The social, cultural and political fabric of our society has crumbled and future appears to be bleak."

***

Over an hour's drive from Pulwama is Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. At Dal Lake, I watch students of a renowned school training for regatta, the series of boat races — a tradition that teachers are attempting to further encourage. I notice the enthusiasm of these teenagers, their energy and dreams. Their sheer determination is exhibited by their loud cheers. At nearby Bakshi Stadium, young girls fight patriarchy and politics each day to learn the nuances of football. They represent normalcy and the possibility of calm in Kashmir. That young boy of Lelhar may have been of the same age when he chose to pick up weapons and I can't help but make the comparison. The children of the elite have had it better, if not easy.

***

Disturbing videos are being circulated on social media. A child who is barely eight, held in the arms by an adult, is shouting Mujahideen slogans amid applause from a crowd of 5,000 men.

A sibling duo are singing a song against Hindu oppression, recorded on a mobile phone by an adult who appreciates the valour of these kids.

With what possible moral authority are people permitted to use children to further their political agendas — young Kashmiris who are unaware of the venomous songs they are encouraged to sing, awaiting an applause?

Social media applications have become an exaggerated reason to believe propaganda as real. Teenagers receive "evidence of oppression" and with each fresh incident of reported violence, they are pulled into the quagmire.

Children make for easy prey for jihadis — vulnerable, approachable and easily manipulated.

Amarjit Singh Dulat, former R&AW chief writes in his book, Kashmir - The Vajpayee Years, "Kashmir can hardly remain immune from what is happening all over the Islamic world, more so because the violence it has witnessed in last 25 years. Of late Kashmiri boys involved in militancy are highly educated and from better stock. Not surprisingly, pro-ISIS graffiti has appeared in Srinagar city and its flags flown in the university. The proclamation of caliphate is likely to be the most significant development."

To all those who are concerned for Jammu and Kashmir: who should be accountable as more teenagers get enraged and involved in the conflict? Is it the elected government that insists on using more force to end status quo or the news channels, often criticised for their one-sided approach and hyper-nationalism? Or does the burden lie with the civil society, part of which has merged genuine cases with secessionist propaganda? Lastly, is it the religious fundamentalists, who have used the conflict to ruin another generation of Kashmir's children?

I left the curfewed Downtown watching a mother and her four children head toward their destination. The youngest girl, dressed in her fine red frock looks startled, her face sad. She has just noticed the barbed wire blocking their path. Will she find her way through, is a question we must answer.

Also read: How Kashmir's future survives a curriculum in conflict every day

Writer

Pooja Shali Pooja Shali @poojashali

Special Correspondent for India Today TV.

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