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Monday, July 23, 2018

Calling J&K’s lost boys back

The police promised the parents that if their children wanted to return home, the doors to the mainstream were “open”. “Every care will be taken for their dignified rehabilitation if they shun the path of violence,” said an announcement about the function on the Shopian Police’s Facebook page

Written by Mir Ehsan , Bashaarat Masood | Updated: June 26, 2018 11:32:10 am
Jammu and Kashmir Militant Group, Jammu and Kashmir Children, Jammu and Kashmir lost boys, J-K Lost Boys, Jammu and Kashmir Parents, Jammu and Kashmir Militancy, India News, Indian Express, Indian Express News Neighbour of Burhan Wani, Fatima Rather has issued appeal for son Irfan, and says she prays each day that there is no encounter; Haseena Bhat travelled to several media houses to reach out to son Adil (Shuaib Masoodi)

J&K has held out an olive branch to local boys who recently joined militancy, police have reached out to parents to issue appeals to them to return, while militant groups have warned this won’t happen. Indian Express on the parents caught in the middle.

On December 5, an unusual meeting took place at the heavily guarded Shopian Circuit House. Families of 30 young men who had left home to join militant ranks in the Valley took their seats, along with Deputy Inspector General of Police (South) Swayam Prakash Pani and District Superintendent of Police Shriram Ambarkar Dinkar.

The police promised the parents that if their children wanted to return home, the doors to the mainstream were “open”. “Every care will be taken for their dignified rehabilitation if they shun the path of violence,” said an announcement about the function on the Shopian Police’s Facebook page.

The meeting took place three weeks after the return of Anantnag teenager Majid Irshad Khan following an appeal by his mother and other family members on social media. The 18-year-old second-year Commerce student and popular football player returned within a week of leaving home and joining the Laskhar-e-Toiba.

Majid’s mother’s appeal to him had gone viral on social media. His return was even more sensational. Within a few days, across Kashmir, videos or Facebook posts began surfacing — often with encouragement from the police — in which a mother or father of a youngster who had recently left home to pick up the gun, made similar appeals.

By police count, 32 militants are active in Shopian. “The number quadrupled after Burhan Wani’s death. There were eight before he was killed. In the last few months, we killed 13 of them but again the number is 32,” says SP Dinkar. These militants are believed to have carried out big attacks, including the killing of Kashmiri Army officer Lt Ummar Fayaz in May, while he was home on leave.

Those at the Shopian meeting were families of some of these militants. By all accounts, the exchange was stormy. The families accused police of forcing their sons into militancy, and of harassment.

“It is a battle between you and our militant sons. Why are you dragging the families into it?” sources quoted Nazir Ahmad Malik, the father of top Hizbul Mujahideen commander Adil Malik, as saying. “Why do you harass the families? If somebody throws a stone, why do you beat the entire village, break the window panes?”

Zubair Ahmad Turray’s father Bashir Ahmad accused the police of pushing his son into militancy. Zubair had escaped from police custody and then surfaced in a video saying he had joined militants and that police had left him with no option.

“Yes, I told them ‘you turned my son into a militant’,” Bashir Ahmad says. “I told them you booked Zubair under the PSA (Public Safety Act), and when that was quashed, you booked him under another PSA, and when that too was quashed by the court, you illegally extended his detention. The DIG replied that we know everything. He told me he would talk to me separately.”

Admitting the anger of the parents, DIG Pani says their presence at the meeting, in a militant hotbed like Shopian, was in itself a step forward. “No parent wants their child to get into this rut,” he says.

“The trauma for these families is enormous; we cannot even imagine their circumstances. We are not forcing them to make any appeals to their children to return, but we want to tell them that if at all there is any scope for bringing them back, they should keep trying,” SP Dinkar says.

It is this hope — that if they tried hard enough, their son may come home some day — that sustains Ghulam Mohammed Wani and wife Gowhar Jan. Residents of Wanigund village of Qaimoh in Kulgam, another south Kashmir district, the couple had watched Majid’s return unfold in the media. For two months, they say, they searched for their 15-year-old Farhan in every village in the area, looked for him at bus stops and markets, and made hundreds of calls to his switched-off phone.

Farhan had left home on June 14 for his physics and math tuitions and not come back. Police told them a few days later that he had become “active” with the Hizbul Mujahideen. Majid’s return, says Wani, gave them “a clue that we could also use this method to contact him”.

With his older son’s help, the 52-year-old posted a message, in English, on Farhan’s Facebook wall: “My dear son, since you left us I am screaming of the pain which you have given. I can’t explain how much I miss your smiling face. About your mother, she loves you more than anybody else in this world. She didn’t mind going through the pain of giving you birth because somebody told her you will be there to lift her coffin on her death. Dear son, we request you to come back and start again, and we will help you in every manner, otherwise the path which you have chosen will not lead you to anywhere other than pain, stress and betrayal, and maybe the time will come that you come back and never see us again.”

At their double-storey home in the village, with vegetables growing in the large front yard, Wani says, “I thought everyone sees social media, Farhan will also see our message… that this thing he has done, it’s very wrong.” There has been no response. The 52-year-old, a senior teacher at the local government girls’ high school, says he indulged every wish of Farhan, the youngest of his three children — he has a daughter who is married and another son, in Class 12. Farhan had an iPhone 5 and wore the latest clothes.

The news that he had alleged links with militants came as a complete surprise, Wani says. Farhan had never been involved in even stone-pelting, and had no cases against him, the father adds. “I never imagined this would happen to us.” Crying, mother Gowhar Jan recalls how, even till a few years ago, Farhan would cling to her. He has cut off his “blood ties”, she laments. “I breast-fed him for five years, he did not remember a drop of that milk when he left.”

Like the Wanis, Ali Mohammed Shah, 60, and wife Sara Begum also put out an appeal online for their son Sajjad Ahmed Shah, 26, a few days after Majid’s return. Sajjad was last seen by his family on October 8, when he left home in Gund Chogul village in Kupwara, north Kashmir, for the clothes shop he owned in Langate near Handwara. The next time they got a glimpse of him was in a photograph that did the rounds on social media; he was holding a gun.

Ali Mohammad and Sara were told that Sajjad, then one month short of his first wedding anniversary and the father of an infant, had joined the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Sajjad’s wife Mysra was at her parents’ home for the delivery when Sajjad left. “We have been told that he’s somewhere in south Kashmir… We don’t know what else we can do to bring him back,” says a tearful Sara.

“He was the maalik of the house, he did everything for us. He had no problems, even his business was doing well,” says Ali Mohammed, who retired from the government Sericulture Department only a few months before his son’s disappearance, following a stroke.

Farooq Ahmed Akhoon and wife Mehmooda in Baramulla have also put up a video, begging their son, Suhaib Farooq, 22, missing for a month, to return. Mehmooda says her son, a second-year college student, went missing while appearing for his semester exams. “The only reason Suhaib left was because he was being frequently called to the police station. Ever since he was first arrested in 2014, after his mobile number was found on the phone of an arrested youth, he would be summoned whenever something untoward happened in the town and every August 15 and January 26,” she says.

Akhoon says five days before his son went missing, he was called to the police station as another boy, who had become a militant, had posted pictures with Suhaib shot at Hajibal, 8 km from the town. He also had to go to the Army camp to answer a few questions. Then two policemen landed up at their home and asked Akhoon to show up with Suhaib at Humhuma police station in Srinagar.

“On November 13, my son and I left for Srinagar. When we reached Parimpora, he said he had to use the toilet. That’s the last I saw of him,’’ says Akhoon, adding he waited five hours for him by the roadside.

A police officer, however, says they have a case against Suhaib, and claims he visited Pakistan in August and was trained at a Lashkar camp in Muzaffarabad. “The parents should have told us about his Pakistan visit; we would have counselled him,” he says. Akhoon, who works as a contractual worker in the Revenue Department, says, “Even in poverty I tried to give my four children the best possible education. Since Suhaib went missing, we feel we have lost something precious.”

For all such parents like Akhoon, finding their child and bringing him back home is a race against the next encounter. “My heart sinks when I hear of an encounter,” says Mehmooda. Sajjad’s parents talk of rushing to the site of two such operations, one in the next village and another in Handwara. They hoped their son would not be in it, but they also hoped that if he was, their prayers would persuade him to surrender.

In the alienation of Kashmir, it is tough, if not impossible, for parents to swim against the tide of heroism attached to militancy and the glorification of death at the hands of security forces. Often they are up against parents in their own neighbourhood with children in the same militant groups, or those whose children’s funerals they may have attended.

After Majid Khan’s return, which was much publicised by the security forces, the Lashkar-e-Toiba issued a statement saying it would not allow anyone else to go home, and that Majid had been permitted only because he had to look after his parents. The Hizbul Mujahideen too said none of its militants would return.

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None of the parents of the 30 Shopian militants that police met has issued appeals yet. So when Wani of Qaimoh, in south Kashmir, posted the Facebook appeal to his son Farhan, he did so “ready to face all the consequences”. He says he did not discuss the matter “much” with others in the village; all he wants is for his son to return home. In Pulwama’s Mangalpora village, the fear in Haseena and Bilal Akhtar Bhat’s home is palpable, as is the pain. On the sharp uphill road that leads to their home, their missing son’s name is scrawled in paint next to Burhan Wani’s — ‘Adil Hizbi’, it proclaims. Hizbul commander Riyaz Naikoo is from the nearby village of Beighpora. And Bilal Bhat is a policeman posted in Srinagar.

Their 20-year-old son, Adil, worked at a small Army airfield at Quil village — “on computers”, they say — and used to leave home at 7 am and return at 5.30 pm, until October 7, when he did not come back home. “He is very religious, did namaaz five times a day. But he showed no inclination towards militancy,” says Haseena.

A few days ago, Haseena and Bilal travelled to Srinagar and approached several news media in order to reach out to their son. That is how a video of their appeal got circulated on social media. “We saw Majid Khan’s video. We thought it might work for us also. An Army officer also told us to try this route,” says Haseena.

Quietly, the family also went to Naikoo’s place to leave a message, pleading for their son to be returned. “No one from the village has come to visit us,” says his uncle Shaheen Ahmad Bhat.

It is Fatima Rather’s plight though that is the most telling. Her small home in Sharifabad, Tral, is located only a few metres from the home of Burhan Wani. At least 25 militants from Tral have been killed in encounters with security forces in the last two years, each of their bodies returning to a hero’s funeral, with thousands of people, men, women and children gathering for the funeral prayers.

Fatima’s husband Ghulam Hassan Rather is a daily wager. At her home, where she lives with her two other sons and her husband, Fatima, 40, sobs helplessly as she says she wants her son, Irfan Ahmed, 17, to return home alive. She says she can understand why he left. Irfan would attend the funerals of those from the village killed in encounters. “He used to get very upset each time one of the village boys became shaheed. Burhan was like a brother to him.” She recently put out a video appeal, “on the advice of an Army officer from a nearby camp”; there was no compulsion, she clarifies.

Blaming the Army for “pushing” Irfan to take to the gun, she says, “When one boy becomes a shaheed, 10 more rise up in his place. What is the need for the Army to kill so many people?” Now Fatima starts and ends each day with prayers that there is no encounter that day. She is confident that others in the village do not expect her to give up her son for the Kashmir cause. “I have brought up my sons in great poverty, the entire village knows this, they understand,” she says.

DIG Pani says it is not easy for parents to issue public appeals but believes the pressure not to ask the boys to return home is entirely from the militants, not the larger community.

In an interview to The Indian Express last year, J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said, “A majority of these boys (who have joined militancy) haven’t killed anybody. We need to figure out how to integrate them back so that they can lead normal lives. We are also differentiating between local (militants) and outsiders.” While the crackdown this year has resulted in the killing of some 211 militants — 120 of them reportedly foreigners — there is also a growing realisation among security forces that it only leaves families and communities devastated, increasing the anger against the State and deepening the alienation.

A top J&K police officer told The Sunday Express that they are now working to the plan — though there’s nothing official —that while no mercy would be shown to foreign militants, every effort would be made to bring “local boys” back alive.

Police say 15 local militants have surrendered so far or have been arrested, and five have been “brought out” alive during operations. While these remain in police custody, parents who have put up appeals have been promised that if their sons return, they would not have to go through the “cumbersome” process of surrendering, and would be allowed to resume their lives where they had left off.

But that is not without its difficulties either. When Majid Khan returned, the responses on social media were divided between those who called him a coward and those who praised him for fulfilling his “duty” to his parents. The police too paraded him at a press conference.

Majid and his parents have since moved out of their home in Anantnag. A cousin who lives in the same lane says the parents have gone away for a “few days”, and that Majid is studying outside the state, “somewhere in India”. He is at pains to deny reports that the Army arranged this, mindful of anything more to associate them with security forces.

Many believe that Tariq Ahmed Pandit, a close aide of Burhan Wani who was arrested from Pulwama while Burhan was still alive, surrendered to the Army. He has not been released since, and the story goes that he does not want to come out either, fearing for his life. Rights activist Khurram Parvez says that even in the 1990s, militants surrendered. “But it was not used to feed the battle of narratives between India and Kashmir. Now, due to the deep penetration of social media in society, their return is being used as psy-ops.”

To Sajjad’s mother Sara, these debates around surrender matter little. “Even if they put my son in jail for three months, six months after he comes back, it’s better than seeing his face in a coffin,” she says.

Over at her home in Wanigund, Farhan’s mother Gowhar says she cooks the 15-year-old’s favourite chicken dish every few days, and does not let other family members touch it. It goes straight into the fridge for a couple of days, till she takes it out and reluctantly serves it to the family. Then she makes chicken all over again. “When he returns,” she says, “there should be something he likes to eat.”

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