Young And Educated, Armed And Dangerous

Young And Educated, Armed And Dangerous

1 July 2013
Tehelka
Riyaz Wani

Srinagar: On 30 May, Muhammad Yusuf Mir was on his way home when his phone started ringing. It was a call from the local police and he was scared to answer it. Mir had already heard about an ongoing encounter between militants and security forces in the area and he feared the worst. He was right. The officer on line had a grim message to deliver. Security forces were battling two militants 3 km from Mir’s village in the south Kashmir district of Pulwama; one of them was his 25-year-old son Sajad Ahmad. Sajad was a post-graduate in Islamic studies and was pursuing a masters in computer applications at Kashmir’s Islamic University of Science and Technology when he joined the militants in 2009. The officer asked Mir in no uncertain terms to prepare for his son’s funeral. This was not the first time he had received a call from the police. Whenever there was an encounter with militants in the district, the local police called Mir assuring him and his wife that their son was not among the militants under fire. Sajad represents a troubling new trend across Kashmir. At a time when former militants, disillusioned with jihad, are returning from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to surrender and settle into the mainstream, a new crop of Kashmiri youth is taking up guns, giving a new breath to militancy in the Valley. Though still few in number, they are relatively more educated and seem more motivated than their forebears. An example of their audaciousness was the 24 June attack on an army convoy near Hyderpora in Srinagar, a day ahead of the prime minister’s arrival in the Valley. The militants flagged down a security vehicle and as the vehicle stopped, they whipped out their assault rifles and fired indiscriminately. Another militant lobbed a grenade inside the vehicle, killing eight soldiers and injuring 16 others. They then escaped from the spot. In five daring attacks since February - three in the heart of the state’s capital Srinagar - militants have killed 23 security personnel. Besides, in the four successive encounters last month in south Kashmir, four jawans lost their lives. This has put Kashmir back on the edge. Targeted attacks have created a perception of militancy in the Valley that far exceeds the actual number of militants. At a time when the general mood in the Valley is against the armed struggle, for many this trend is inexplicable. Even Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is flummoxed, and termed it “a matter of great concern”. “We have found that militants killed in recent encounters were qualified and most of them were alumni of Kashmir University and Islamic University of Science and Technology,” he recently said. As security forces were engaged in a gunfight with Sajad and his colleague Muhammad Ashraf, they had to simultaneously battle a law and order problem in the area with people shouting pro-Azadi slogans and throwing stones at them. Later, when Sajad was laid to rest, thousands attended his last rites. Choices made by these youth seem to resonate with a large section of Kashmiri opinion. People exhibit euphoric support for militants killed in encounters and often vent their anger at security forces, putting them in an unenviable position of battling on two fronts. On the social media, these young men are seen as heroes and their deaths are celebrated as martyrdoms. On 23 May, when Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Hilal Molvi was killed in a pre-dawn gunfight in downtown Srinagar, a video of his 2010 speech at a gathering in Palhalan area of Baramulla district went viral on Facebook. The video was viewed 5,156 times in two days and attracted hundreds of deferential comments. Molvi, known as the “Azhar Masood of Kashmir”, was a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, and was known for his persuasive oratory, which he deployed to recruit youth for jihad. This trend of local Kashmiri youth taking to militancy is seen as worrying. A clutch of youth between 18 and 25 years of age, relatively well-educated and from middle-class families, are consciously joining jihad and redrawing the militant landscape of the Valley. In south Kashmir alone, around 15 youth joined militancy last year. This includes Burhan-ud-Din, 21, son of a college principal from Pulwama district in south Kashmir. He joined Hizbul Mujahideen in 2011. He disappeared one day without informing anyone. It was the police who later informed his family that he had become a militant. Saifullah Ahangar, 20, of Tral area in Pulwama district, killed in a gunfight on 24 May, was an engineering student at a private engineering college in the district. Son of Rafiq Ahmad Ahangar, a retired employee in the J&K Agriculture Department, Saifullah joined the militants on 24 March, two months before his death. “This trend has been going on for a while and it might continue,” says Deputy Inspector General of Police (Central Kashmir) Afadul Mujtaba. “We need not be worried as long as there is no stoking of this trend from across the border”. But the police do not deny there is a metamorphosis underway in the Valley. “I see the militancy graduating into terrorism. There is a new modus operandi in place. They have a close-knit group of 10-15 militants and are backed by overground support of around 100 people,” says Superintendent of Police Imtiaz Hussain of Sopore district - Kashmir’s citadel of militancy. “They don’t cross the Line of Control to get training. They get a gun or snatch it from security personnel or policemen and learn to operate it,” says a police officer. “Some of them join militancy seeking thrills and a sense of importance and belonging in their lives. But this by no means makes them less dangerous”. In contrast to the past few years, when they preferred to lie low, militants in Kashmir are now going on the offensive. A recent J&K police report talks about a definite move by the militants to change their strategy. Most significantly, they eschew conventional means of communication. They are technologically savvy and use Internet-based communication software that defy easy interception and surveillance like Viber, KakaoTalk, Skype and other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies. This has dried up a useful source of “technical intelligence” for security agencies, hampering not only the efforts to trace and target militants but also to forestall future attacks. For now, however, nobody in the state’s security establishment feels this trend will become a wave. The latest J&K Police estimate puts the number of militants in Valley at 133. The army pegs the number at 325. The state police also believe there are many unlisted militants in the Valley. “There are militants whom we don’t know yet. For example, two militants in Sopore are still unidentified,” says Hussain. “Even though I don’t see the prospect of Kashmir going the 1990s’ way, with a little help from outside, things could change,” says another police officer. While on the one hand, the looming 2014 elections are setting off an increased political buzz with parties working out their poll strategies, on the other, there is a determined bid by the militants to organise themselves, with local youth spearheading this revival. Though the balance is still disproportionately on the side of the ongoing preparations for polls, things could be drastically different if the governments - both in the state and at the Centre - remain oblivious to how a large section of youth continues to be alienated.