Most parts of the Valley wore a deserted look Sunday as authorities imposed restrictions while a large crowd turned up in Tral in south Kashmir for the funeral of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Sabzar Bhat, killed in a gunbattle Saturday. It is here in south Kashmir where the seeds of the new local crop of militancy that has been spreading across the Valley lie scattered across a cluster of villages. J&K Police records reveal that among the 282 militants active in the Valley, 112 are from south Kashmir. And 99 of these 112 militants here are “local”. Local estimates say there are at least 20 more in the “local” count, with some yet to declare their affiliation and new recruitment reported almost every week.
These local militants fall into three broad categories: young protesters who take up arms after being jailed; militants before the 2008 summer unrest who returned to the fold after prison terms; and, those motivated by religion who see Kashmir as part of the global jihad. For the first two groups, the goal is political, the motivation is to “make Kashmir part of Pakistan”. It’s the third group, whose numbers are not known, which has emerged as a shadow force since the killing of Burhan Wani last July — the 22-year-old was from Tral in Pulwama.
Following the lead of Zakir Rashid alias Moosa, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who replaced Wani after his killing before renouncing the outfit recently, the third group has taken positions contrary to those of the United Jihad Council (UJC), the militant leadership in Pakistan, and the separatist Hurriyat in Srinagar.
On April 7, more than a month before Moosa threatened separatists with death, a follower of this ideology asked villagers near the grave of a militant in Pulwama not to wave “un-Islamic” Pakistani flags. He described the “struggle” in Kashmir as “a fight for Islam” and asked villagers to raise slogans in favour of Taliban. Official sources say he was one of two new recruits from Srinagar not affiliated to the Hizb or Lashkar-e-Taiba.
There are, however, several common links that connect this new band of militants:
* They operate jointly across outfits without ideological differences coming in the way.
* They do not possess formal arms training, and arrange weapons and finances locally.
* Their actions are driven by local issues, they are prepared to die.
* They announce their entry into militancy by posing for a picture with gun and make it public.
And, as The Indian Express found while visiting their homes and speaking to their families, many of them were “picked up” regularly by police before they decided to pack their bags. Many are those whose close family members were involved in militancy or separatist politics, and were jailed or killed. At Reshipora in Qaimoh, a large concrete house stands at the edge of the mohalla. Sheikh Dawood lived here with his three brothers and two sisters. One of the pioneers of the new militancy, Dawood was first arrested when he was in Class 9. “They (police) said they arrested him for stone throwing in Anantnag,’’ says his elder brother, Sheikh Mehraj. “After that, police kept picking him up regularly. In 2013, they raided our home at night. This time, they said he was involved with militants and took him to Srinagar. Once he was released, he joined the militancy,” says Mehraj.
In 2015, Dawood was among those who appeared on social media in a photo with Wani. In March 2016, he was shot dead near Buchroo, an adjoining village. “Our father Gul Mohammad Sheikh, a tailor, died in a road accident in Punjab in 1994. He left home to avoid arrest… police were looking for him because he was a Jamat activist,” says Mehraj. Dawood was buried next to his father in the village. Mehraj says “consistent harassment by police” led Dawood to go underground. “Once he became a militant, he was driven by religion alone, ready for death. He would rarely come home and spoke about life after (death). He knew that a few hundred militants could change little on the ground but he thought they would give a new direction to the movement,” says Mehraj.
“(Dawood) was critical of the movement run by the (militant) commanders and (political) leadership. He would talk of a movement where those on ground would determine the course. He would say they may not live long enough but will popularise this new movement,’’ says Mehraj, who runs a shop in the village.
On the other edge of the mohalla, the family of Fayaz Ahmad had erected a tent for mourners. Ahmad, a truck driver, was killed in a shootout when a group of militants tried to snatch weapons from a police team. Four local militants appeared at his funeral, firing in the air to pay homage. Ahmad went underground after he was linked to an attack on a BSF convoy in Udhampur in 2015. He was accused of transporting militants and arms. “There is nothing more painful than losing a son,’’ says his father. Ahmad left behind a wife and a little son. According to a police officer, Ahmad was a “reluctant militant”. “He may have ferried militants in his truck but he didn’t want to join. Eventually, he didn’t have a choice,’’ he says.
Majid Zargar (20), from the neighbouring Gobal village, was a contemporary of Dawood. Villagers say he became a militant while in Class 10 at St Lukes School, Anantnag, in 2012. “He was working with Hizb as an overground worker, but joined the Lashkar once he became a militant. He was driven by religious beliefs but was focused on freedom for Kashmir,” says a resident. Security officials say Zargar was behind several major attacks, including the one in Nagrota last year, and a key recruiter. On December 10, 2016, he was among two militants charred to death in Arwani after a 42-hour gunbattle. Zargar’s elder brother, a former militant, was released after a jail term. His two uncles were militants in the mid-1990s but were killed. Zargar belonged to a family that was once prosperous. “They had to sell their brick kiln since. After Majid joined (militancy), they went through a tough time,’’ says a resident.
In Redwani, a militant hotspot since Wani’s killing, residents recall a speech by Yasin Itoo alias Gaznavi, a top Hizb commander, last year. “Unlike the new militants, he had his face masked. He asked us to follow the Hurriyat calendar and insisted that the struggle was political. He was older (than the new militants). Militants like him are rare now and perhaps the only link to the past for the new boys,” says a resident.
A few kilometres ahead, lies Howurah village. Here, a retired government official who is part of a gathering at the market, Mohammad Jamal, describes the situation as “volatile”.
“Five young men joined the militancy here recently. One of them is Raju (alias Owais) who was hit on the eye by a pellet in 2014. He was 20 then, a second-year BA student. My nephew Altaf, also a militant, was arrested. But after he was released, they (police and security forces) consistently harassed him. Six years ago, he rejoined the militants,’’ says Jamal, a former Jamaat member who switched to the PDP but left after Wani’s killing. Altaf’s father, Ghulam Mohammad Dar was killed “at the border” in 1993, he says. Unlike the new militants, residents say, Altaf isn’t “visible at all”.
But the defining story here is that of Younis Lone (25), a post-graduate in Sociology and Islamic Studies and one among six children from a poor family. “In 2011, the sarpanch was murdered. Three youngsters, Younis, Ramees and Dawood Khan, were arrested. They were acquitted after four years but police didn’t stop harassing him after he was released,” says his mother Haleema.
“He was religious and that’s why they were suspicious of him. He was called to the Army and STF (police) camps routinely. He was frustrated and angry. They forced him to become a militant,” says Younis’s sister Shaista.
On February 12, when Younis was killed, he had been a militant for 23 days. “Ramees and Khan, too, are militants. Their stories are similar to that of Younis,’’ says a resident.
Rampur is called the “village of martyrs” after two sons and a grandson of Ghulam Hassan Sheikh, a resident, were killed by security forces and police. Five other relatives of the family were also killed. All of them were militants. Today, Sheikh’s son Abbas and a grandson Tauseef are active militants. “Abbas was active and was arrested in 2004. He was released after a year. We had children and he wanted to stay home. But the police didn’t let him,’’ says his wife Rasheeda.
“He was arrested again in 2007 and released three years later. Three years ago, police raided our home at night. They found nothing but wanted to take Abbas away. He ran, they opened fire, he escaped. Later, we came to know he got injured and has lost use of one arm,” she says.
According to the family, Abbas’s nephew Tauseef joined the militancy when he was in Class 10, about four years ago. They say Abbas’s uncle Mohammad Ramzan Sheikh is in Kathua jail and younger brother Iliyas was picked up a week ago. “Abbas had spoken to Tauseef on phone. Now police say he is involved as well,” says Abbas’s sister, Rafeeqa.