Crackdown no deterrent in Kashmir: Youth in the Valley find inspiration in 'heroics' of militants

Tantraypora: On Thursday morning, Mudasir Ahmad Kirmani travelled over 15 kilometres to a small village in Kulgam district after Suhail Ahmad Tantray, a young Hizbul Mujahideen militant, was killed along with his associate, Aaqib Itoo, in an ambush laid under a bridge by the army in Gopalpora village in wee hours of Thursday.

Kirmani, 19, a tall, skinny boy — wearing blue jeans and a baggy shirt — stood out on the attic of a single-storied house, surrounded by wailing women, on the edge of the ground where the dead body of Tantray was placed on a makeshift elevated platform for people to have a last glimpse.

But Kirmani, son of a prosperous businessman, had not come here to be part of the funeral procession that drew thousands of people from adjoining and far-off villages of Kulgam district.

A militant offers gun-salute at the funeral of Suhail Ahmad Tantray in a village in Kulgam. Image courtesy: Hilal Shah

A militant offers gun-salute at the funeral of Suhail Ahmad Tantray in a village in Kulgam. Image courtesy: Hilal Shah

When he heard about the killing of militants in Gopalpora, he dialed his friend’s number. The two rode on a motorcycle but parked it few kilometers ahead of the village. From there, they walked to Tantraypora. Every minute they spent at the ground where the body was kept brought more and more mourners: Children, women and even elderly.

But Kirmani was looking for something else: A militant with an AK-47 who often turned up at the funerals of their fallen comrades these days to offer them gun-salute.

Out of nowhere, two young men with curly hair, flowing beards, dressed in military fatigues cloaked under a Kashmiri pheran, appeared in the crowd, flaunting their AK-47 rifles. There were loud cheers. Applause followed. Mourners jostled to hug or kiss the gun-wielding men. As if by design, the commotion brought them up to the elevated platform.

As he saw the gun-wielding men, Kirmani ran down the stairs and pushed himself into the crowd, struggling for an inch of space at one point. Within minutes, he was on the stage and managed a quick handshake with one of the militants who stood on the right side of the slain militant’s body.

Before starting his speech, the militant raised anti-India, pro-freedom and pro-Islam slogans. Then, flaunting his AK-47 in the air, he fired few shots. His associate joined in. A loud cheer followed. In an atmosphere of festivity, the crowds struggled to hold and touch the militants, as if a famous cricketer was walking to the dressing room after hitting a century.

“I wanted to kiss his forehead,” an elated Kirmani told Firstpost after the funeral. “The very sight of a young militant motivates you to fight for your land and your people. You may die very soon in this fight, get killed in three days or three months, but you die like a hero.”

It is the machismo of this moment, despite all the crackdowns and possibly the largest manhunt to eliminate militants in more than two decades of insurgency in Kashmir, that has made legends out of these young boys and motivates others to take guns into their hands.

There are so many stories where folklores and other apocryphal tales are attached to militants in order to romanticise their lives in the minds of the younger generation.

As long as there are stories about bravado floating in air, militancy will find young boys to embrace it.

On 16 June, I was speaking with the father of Junaid Ahmad Matoo, a top Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT) commander who was killed in an encounter, when hundreds of young boys ran towards a large ground in Kudwani area, where the body of Matoo was kept for public display followed by multiple rounds of funerals.

Armed with an Insas rifle, I saw a young boy sandwiched between two teenaged boys on a motorcycle. He fired shots in the air before disappearing into the crowd, only to return again. Few hundred metres away, three soldiers guarding a government building watched in awe.

And for better or worse, the younger generation of children seems to have developed a liking for these young men for achieving them their political aspirations.

As thousands of people made way for the motorcycle, the gunshots brought people on their toes and they cheered rapturously. “This is a different generation,” Manzoor Ahmad Matoo, father of Junaid Matoo, told Firstpost. “They will do anything to merely touch the man who is holding a gun. Today one die and there are hundreds struggling to get in the fold of militancy, unlike early nineties.”

Thousands gather to have a last glimpse of Tantray, who was killed in an ambush in Kulgam. Image courtesy: Hilah Shah

Thousands gather to have a last glimpse of Tantray, who was killed in an ambush in Kulgam. Image courtesy: Hilal Shah

Back in Tantraypora, after the funeral procession was over, Rafiq Ahmad Shah, a retired headmaster of a government school, sat cross-legged on the pavement near a kirana shop, talking to village elders.

“If a militant appears in a funeral, it has the power to attract hundreds towards the idea of militancy. The only problem is Pakistan that has stopped giving guns to these boys. Either way, it is the return of 1989 in every village of Kulgam,” Shah, 66, a resident of Tantraypora village, told me.

Shah was referring to the early nineties when, after decades of political discontent with New Delhi, thousands of young Kashmiri men crossed the treacherous Line of Control for arms training. Every day, hundreds of young men would leave the comfort of their homes to participate in the ‘freedom movement’.

“That movement will never come back to Kashmir but it has metamorphosed into something very dangerous. Today, it is the few gunshots or the aura of gun that motivates this young generation to adopt the path of militancy,” Shah said.

“The truth is that this maddening love for militants in our younger generation, as every funeral tells us these days, is signaling that these militants may not live forever but the idea will.”

The new phase of militancy gained speed after the killing of Burhan Wani last year but the sheer audacity of parading themselves in front of the cameras also brings back memories of early 1990s. “But the kind of impact their appearance is having on the younger generation of Kashmiri youth is phenomenal,” Imran Jalali, a student of politics and a resident of Kulgam, said.

“By the end of July next year, a majority of these militants might well be dead. But the reality today is that for every gun today, there are at least hundred aspiring militants waiting in line. You may or may not like it, but this is the truth,” Shah said, as his friends nodded their heads in agreement.

“That,” says Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, youth president of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, “is because we lack role models and icons. We have to offer them better ideas than the idea of militancy.”

“It is also because the governance and polity has time and again failed the younger generation of Kashmir. More than the love of militants, it is the hatred against the State that makes an idea like militancy attractive f0r younger generation of Kashmir."

In the first seven months this year, the security forces have killed 119 militants, recovering the ground lost following the 2016 uprising by building human intelligence and mounting a massive counter-insurgency operation against the militants in the four districts of south Kashmir.

At Tantraypora, I walked with Kirmani and his friend to the spot where he had parked his bike. As anti-India and pro-freedom slogans reverberated in the air, I asked him if he would want to see the militants again:

“Yes,” he replied, calmly, “Who knows, I may come next time to offer the gun-salute."

Updated Date: Aug 04, 2017 12:21 PM

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