November 2016 News

Kashmir Is Paralyzed By An 'Adored' Band Of Militants

14 November 2016
The New York Times
Geeta Anand and Hari Kumar

Srinagar: They hide in the forest, emerging occasionally to lure police officers into villages where they try to kill them with explosive devices. They steal weapons from the security forces. Then they disappear back among the trees. They are members of Hizbul Mujahedeen, a militant group that has emerged as the face of the independence movement in Kashmir, the Himalayan region that was subsumed into India when it shook off colonial rule in 1947 and that remains at the center of the country's 70-year dispute with neighboring Pakistan. Relatively few in number, about 200, roughly half of them from local villages, Hizbul Mujahedeen is the larger of two militant organizations and has widespread support from a populace that has lost faith in dialogue to resolve differences with the Indian government. 'They are adored,' said Sridhar Patil, head of the regional police in Kulgam district, where crowds have burned a courthouse and a police station. 'The younger generation of Kashmir is searching for a good leader, a good role model,' he said, and they have settled, for better or worse, on these young men. Daily life in Kashmir has come close to a standstill since July, when Indian security forces killed the 22-year-old leader of the local militancy, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, who had attracted a broad following through videos he posted on Facebook and WhatsApp. He started the trend of young, charismatic militants, dressed in military fatigues and carrying assault weapons, revealing their names and faces on social media in efforts to spread their message to a wide audience. The killing of Mr. Wani touched off four months of violence, including bombings, shootouts and attacks by stone-pelting youths, as well as protests by tens of thousands of people. In a lengthy interview, the young man's father, Mohammad Muzafar Wani, said he had tried hard to influence the path of his son, a handsome youth who gelled his hair and changed his outfits twice a day, preferring Western-style T-shirts to traditional kurtas. But in 2010, three weeks after Burhan and his older brother were beaten up by security forces, the brainy boy who got top grades at school dropped the original plan to train as a doctor and instead joined Hizbul Mujahedeen. 'He was not a small child, I couldn't have confined him to home,' his father said. 'I could have stopped him for a day or two, but not all days.' The Kashmir police have counted 2,400 clashes since July. Schools remain closed, more than 30 of them burned, and public transportation is almost entirely shut down. The state's education minister was holed up in his home for days after receiving a threat. Seventy-six people have been killed in the violence, the police in Kashmir say, while local activists put the toll at closer to 100. At least a thousand protesters have been struck in the eyes by pellets fired by police officers, and some have been blinded. Kashmir, part of India's only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, was promised some measure of self-determination and autonomy after India was partitioned and Pakistan was formed. That promise was not fulfilled, and since then, India and Pakistan have fought two border wars over the region and have assembled nuclear arsenals. A violent secession movement arose in Kashmir in the late 1980s, as thousands of militants spilled over the border from Pakistan. India responded by moving tens of thousands of troops into the scenic Kashmir valley and slowly crushing the uprising. Still, the independence movement persisted, giving rise every few years to violence and protests. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India made overtures to Pakistan early in his tenure that rekindled hopes for a resolution of Kashmir's future. But he has made no public moves to restart discussions over the region. 'Is people's confidence in dialogue shaken? Yes it is,' said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a founder of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of separatist groups. The young men who have joined the Kashmir militancy grew up in a militarized land where they were routinely stopped and searched by security forces, and at times brutally beaten, their families say. Mr. Wani's older brother, Khalid, did not join the insurgency, even after the two were beaten by the security forces. Nevertheless, he was the first to be killed. In 2015, he was shot after delivering a meal to his brother and his comrades, his father said. The older Mr. Wani, 54, the principal of a government high school in the valley, said he was now focused on trying to keep his only surviving son, 16-year-old Naveed, from following his brother's deadly path into the militancy. 'My life is in him,' Mr. Wani said, looking over at the lean, bearded teenager who gave monosyllabic answers to visitors' questions. The current rebel commander, Zakir Rashid Bhat, 22, went through many of the same experiences as his predecessor, said his father, Abdul Rashid Bhat, 56, an assistant government engineer. Mr. Bhat said his son was arrested and jailed in 2010 for pelting security forces with stones. Mr. Bhat said that he had tried to broker a deal with the police to bring back his son, then 16, who was hiding in another part of the state, in return for leniency. But not only did the police throw the son in jail for several days until a court granted him bail, they also opened several criminal cases, accusing him of violence and of destroying government property, his father and the Kashmir police say. The rebel commander's older brother, Dr. Shakir Rashid Bhat, 32, an orthopedic surgeon in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar, tried to explain why his sibling had joined the militancy. 'The experience of seeing his father begging police for mercy changed him,' he said. 'It was humiliating.' In 2012 and 2013, even as Zakir attended an engineering college in another state, he had to return to Kashmir every few months for court hearings. Then, in July of 2013, one month into his summer vacation, he disappeared, leaving a note saying that his parents should not look for him and that he was at peace with himself and with his God, his father said. Mr. Bhat said his son had left his iPhone, his iPad and cards for his family's three bank accounts, taking nothing except the pants and T-shirt he had been wearing. In retrospect, the father said, the only clue to his son's radicalization was an increased interest in religion in the days before he left. The youth, whose major passion had previously been his Yamaha motorcycle, suddenly began accompanying his father to the mosque each day during the holy month of Ramadan. On Saturday morning last week, only hours after an explosive device went off a few miles from the three-story brick house where Zakir grew up, a security officer was on the phone with his father, telling him his son was the prime suspect. Three police officers had been wounded, one critically. Mr. Bhat, a stocky man who was wearing a brown woolen cape and sitting on the pink-carpeted floor of his living room when the call came through, sounded despondent at times as he responded again and again that he had no idea of his son's whereabouts. 'If you want to kill me, kill me,' he told the officer. 'If that ensures safety to your country, do it.' A few miles away, in another village in the Tral area, several dozen children and young men played cricket in a field adjoining the graveyard where Mr. Wani is buried. They stopped playing when visitors arrived. A 6-year-old boy in a blue cape, Muneeb Shah, began leading the crowd in a cheer, egged on by his father, a shawl merchant. 'What do we want?' the boy shouted. 'Azaadi,' the group responded, using the Urdu word for freedom. 'For the sake of Burhan,' the boy called out next, going down the list of dead militants, one by one. Local people say dozens show up at the graveyard each day to pay tribute to Mr. Wani, some carrying away clumps of mud from the mound of grass covering his grave. Security officials worry that the glamorization of militant leaders might draw a larger number of young people into the fold. The police are trying to counter the appeal, in part by aggressively tracking down the leaders and the new recruits. But it is hard to make arrests because the militants operate in the forests around the villages where they grew up. When the police close in, crowds of people rush to the scene and try to stop the security forces by throwing rocks, yelling chants and generally interfering, knowing the officers will resist shooting at them. 'From the front side you are fighting the militants and from the back side you are getting hit by stones,' said Mr. Patil, the police chief.

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