Alienated and radicalised, J&K youths who grew up under shadow of violence find conflict pervades daily life
Tragically, for decades India has allowed itself to be represented in Kashmir by the barrel of a gun
Editor's Note: As another turbulent year comes to an end in Jammu and Kashmir, Firstpost will run a series of reports on how the state changed in 2018 and how these changes will translate on the ground. This series will focus on new-age militancy and the changing political landscape in the Valley, as well as the ever-increasing gap between the three regions of Jammu and Kashmir.
Arif Ali walks through a small market in his native Redwani village of south Kashmir with a toy pistol is tucked into his socks. He looks over his shoulder, and sees an army vehicle parked at the edge of a road. This is not a comforting sign, so he looks down till he reaches the edge where a small lane takes him to his school. The school is a small, two-storey building. His friends are waiting outside. All of them laugh. With the army vehicle out of sight, Arif breathes a sigh of relief. “So our mujahid is alive today,” Zameer, his friend, a Class 6 student said, raising his fist. “I made it, like I always do, without getting checked,” Arif responded.
A popular game among schoolchildren in south Kashmir is bringing a wooden gun or toy pistol without getting caught by teachers or security forces. Which is what Arif was doing one morning even as the sounds of schoolchildren rented the air in Kulgam's Qaimoh area.
As Jammu and Kashmir went through record levels of violence this year, its impact on children of the Valley is perhaps its least discussed phenomenon. It is the children that have bore the brunt of the violence and their daily lives are also shaped by it. The children born at the end of the century, many years after the conflict seemed to be ebbing, are also the most politically radicalised. The conflict —with its lexicon — has taken over their lives.
One recent morning, I followed Arif from his home to see how everyday conflict shapes the lives of Kashmir's children. Every conversation for next six hours involved mujahid, military, mukbeer (informer), guns, graveyard, hide (hideout), janaza (funeral) and such words. “Our heroes are Burhan, Majid, Sadaam,” Arif said. Walking back from his school, he counts the militants killed this year and last year. “They fought for us and stood up for us. They are living with us. They are not dead.”
In the past few years, as the conflict raged in Kashmir, particularly in southern part of the Valley, I visited four districts of southern Kashmir almost every week. My first sources of information and guides have always been children. I speak to them because their version of events is unadulterated. They tell you exactly what happened, the names of those killed, how, why and when, and who was killed where. Just few kilometres away, in the village of Kapran, Insha Nissar Dobi plays with her younger brother Taban Nissar. She was orphaned when militants kidnapped her father, a police constable, and then killed him in September. Insha has become the anchor of her family, fulfilling his role and taking up his duties.
“I can’t bring my father back, but I can help fill the void he left behind,” Insha, a Class 12 student said. That means looking after her brother, mother, and her aged grandparents. It has also brought, on her tender shoulders, the responsibility of going to the market to buy everyday items and maintaining the orchards which help pay the bills. “Everyone is fighting to survive,” Insha said, sitting on the verandah of her home in Kapran village. “My father became a casualty of a war that unfortunately swallowed many lives. Regardless of who dies, it is the people of Kashmir who continue to suffer.”
Kashmiri children who have been brought up under the shadow of gun are perishing under it. Their lives, even in their games, are heavily militarised. In thick apple orchards, they play a game called “mujahid vs army” where playing the part of the soldier is a curse. Look at any encounter site, post gun battle: children are the first to enter the razed homes. They collect empty cartridges, and keep them in their pockets to tell the stories later. Many wear rings made of bullets on their left fingers: part fashion, part mini-rebellion.
In these parts of Kashmir, India is the paramilitary soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder, the army soldier who arrives in dead of night hunting for militants. Or the policeman — a Kashmiri — who represents India. Tragically, for decades India has allowed itself to be represented in Kashmir by the barrel of gun: of which children are recurring victims. These children are the ones who have borne the brunt of the ongoing crises. But never before have so many children been thus affected. Many hate India and everything that India represents. Their mobile phones are filled with picture militants: dead and alive. Those who died find a place in their memories. Those that survive are role models (for want of any better choices). No young, mainstream Kashmiri politician or Hurriyat leader can even come close to the popularity of militants.
Till 23 December, at least 247 militants were killed across India: most of them from Kashmir. About 25 commanders of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Ansarul Ghazwatul Hind (AGH) of Zakir Musa were killed in encounters with security forces. And of the 87 security men killed this year, 45 were Kashmiri policemen. Children can be seen at every militant funeral: from performing last rites to helping dig graves. At a graveyard in Karimabad, after seven civilians were killed by forces in the adjoining Sirnoo village of Pulwama, Sadiq Rasheed sat silently near the grave of his neighbour. A shy, lean boy, Sadiq looked at — for hours — the poster of dead militants hanging from a tree.
“We knew them all,” Sadiq said. “Our lives are filled with graveyards. They died one after another, but we will remember their sacrifices forever. We will not forget that they gave their lives for a better tomorrow.”
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