Fourteen-year-old Mudasir Parray’s charred body lay in the rubble of a burnt building along with that of his 17-year-old friend Saqib Sheikh. At Parray’s home in Hajin, the mood was strangely celebratory. “Our son has achieved such success,” his grandmother told reporters. The women in the family were “very happy” that he “gave his life in the way of Allah”, she said as the body was brought home on December 9.
A few hours earlier, football buddies Parray and Sheikh, who were recruited by the Lashkar-e-Taiba four months ago, and their Pakistani accomplice had died in a gunfight with security forces in Mujgund on Srinagar’s outskirts, 23 km from Hajin. Parray is one of the youngest jihadists to have been killed in recent times, but Kashmiri boys signing up to wage war on India is not new. What is worrying is that as their ranks swell, there is no pushback from society — families, in most cases — separatists or even the government to stop children from picking up arms.
The security establishment has failed to even keep a count of the boys recruited by jihadist outfits in violation of international humanitarian law. All that police officials will say is that the numbers are “very less”.
As opposed to the 1990s when the average age of a jihadist was around 25, the new recruits, police say, are much younger. Some are not even out of their teens.
Every time jihadists have felt the heat, children have been pushed into the battleground. Several top commanders are among the 237 jihadists killed this year.
Support on the ground is the lifeblood of any armed movement, hence the need to control the narrative. Children are a powerful symbol and are being used by separatists to lend credibility to their fight, police say.
‘World is an illusion’
In a picture that went viral days before the gunfight, Parray, dressed in a pair of jeans and a dark sweatshirt, wears a smile as he holds up a sheathed dagger and an assault rifle.
He undertook jihad for “his akhirat”, Parray told his grandmother during a visit to Hajin, once a stronghold of pro-government militia that is now Lashkar turf. Akhirat, or the afterlife, is one of the main Islamic beliefs that after death one is granted heaven or hell based on their worldly deeds. “If my mother is fortunate, she will see that I will die fighting,” she quoted the Class IX student as saying.
Afterlife is a recurring theme.
“What is this world anyway, an illusion,” 15-year-old Fardeen Khanday referred to a verse from the Quran, turning down the pleas of his mother, Wazira, to return home.
The meeting took place two weeks after the teenager disappeared on September 15, 2017, from his home in Hyuna village in south Kashmir’s Tral. The family, until then, had no inkling that the boy had joined Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad.
“I have prayed for this (to be killed fighting). My prayers have been answered,” Wazira recalled her son’s word sitting in their two-storey home on a recent winter afternoon. On December 31, 2017, 17 days after he turned 16, Khanday and two other jihadists stormed a paramilitary training centre in south Kashmir not far from Tral.
Wazira heard the gunshots but didn’t think it could be her son. Kashmiri jihadists aren’t known for their fighting capabilities, much less fidayeen attacks, which are high-risk assaults carried out by attackers who are prepared to die. It wasn’t until she saw his body that Wazira realised her son had died a jihadist.
Khanday completed his Quran lessons at the local seminary run by Aquib Ahmad Lone, better known as Aquib Molvi, who joined militancy in 2013 and was killed four years later.
Khanday would attend the funerals of jihadists to get a “last glimpse” but the family — with many in the security forces; his father is a policeman — didn’t see anything amiss, said Wazira.
In matters of faith, Khanday, otherwise a quiet person, was vocal. He prayed at the mosque and would not allow anyone to miss a day of fasting during Ramzan. “I (still) don’t know what was in his heart,” Wazira said.
A video message released after the gunfight, which left the three attackers and five soldiers dead, is her only insight into her son’s mind. “I was surprised with the ‘ilm’ (religious knowledge) he had,” she said.
Wearing a pheran and a keffiyeh, Khanday had three
assault rifles and grenades spread out as he looked straight into the camera. “If Allah is kind, by the time this message reaches you, I will be far away, a guest in god’s paradise,”
he said. He had heeded the call of the “Quran and embarked into the battlefield of jihad”.
Minors being recruited to wage jihad is not unheard of. In 2001, 20 ‘terrorists’ killed by the army in Khari Dhoke in Poonch district were children taken for slave labour by jihadists, Frontline magazine reported in September 2003. Even the state has used the young to take on the jihadists by arming them as part of the now-defunct village defence committees. But for most part, the young have remained on the fringes in Kashmir. Security officials, however, worry that may be about to change.
Jihadist organisations, a police officer posted in south Kashmir, says are increasingly taking in younger Kashmiris. They serve two key purposes: they act as obedient “sidekicks” to the seniors and are easy to mould.
On October 17 this year, 15-year-old Faizan Majeed, recruited by Kashmiri-dominated jihadists Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen, was arrested as he was on the way to join a group of jihadists of the Al-Badr, a Pakistan-based outfit seeking to revive itself in the Valley.
Ubaid Malla from Shopian district and Farhan Wani from Kulgam were 17 when they were recruited. Both died in separate gunfights this year.
Three months after the Hizbul Mujahideen recruited him, 15-year-old Tral resident Faizan Bhat was killed in a gunfight in March 2017. Majid Mir and Shakir Ahmad were minors when they took up arms. Killed in separate gunfights, the boys from Pulwama were suspected to have killed three people, including a politician.
Another boy from Pulwama, Arif Dar, was recruited when he was 14, says his family. According to police, he was 16 or 17. He is among the first jihadists to switch loyalty to the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind. Adil Sheikh, 17, and Sartaj Lone, 16, both from Anantnag, were killed in 2015.
The emergence of social media has played a vital role in the rise of the young jihadist. Burhan Wani, perhaps, was the single biggest factor in ‘legitimising’ and romanticising underage recruits. He was 15 when he joined the Hizb in 2010 and was a ‘divisional commander’ four years later. Adept at social media, Wani was the first among the new generation of jihadists to give a call for a caliphate not only in Kashmir but globally. His killing on July 8, 2016, triggered bloody street protests. Children were at the forefront of enforcing shutdowns, manning roadblocks in towns and mobilising crowds for rallies in villages.
Videos of boys barely into their teens posing with assault rifles, children shouting slogans and enacting gunfights with dummy rifles carved out of wood are regular fare. Clips of children espousing the separatist cause are shared regularly by social media channels that disseminate content for jihadist outfits.
Police see a design behind these but can do little. That could change if the draft juvenile bill that allows prosecution of people using or recruiting children for violence is passed. Such groups or individuals “shall be liable for rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to a fine of five lakh rupees”, the proposed law says.
The lost generation
A law, however, will not be enough to keep Kashmiri children home. Most of them were not born when the violence was at its peak in the late 1990s but they have witnessed massive civilian unrest between 2008 and 2010 and were alienated by the Indian state that called them “agitational terrorists”.
The signs were ominous, warned an assistant professor based in south Kashmir. The role of children, mainly as stone-pelting aides to jihadists caught in gunfights, and their exposure to violence was creating a “new acceptance” of the gun culture. The violence, he said, was a process led by the Jamaat-e-Islami but fuelled by the Indian state. “For the army, killing kids is a successful operation but it is actually the victory of those getting killed,” he said.
Every civilian or jihadist killed renewed the anger and alienation. “When they die, they win,” the professor said. “The jihadi, untrained, doesn’t want to live, he wants to die a martyr. That earns him and his family respect and stature in society.”
While many believe the incitement to violence comes from seminaries, some police officers blame the mosque. “Our understanding of the darasgah is flawed,” said a police officer, who went to a seminary as a child. “Darasgahs are to improve diction, not solely impart morals. Most of that happens at the mosque where in every third khutba, you will find mention of the verse — the world is an illusion.” Khutba generally refers to the sermon delivered before the noon prayer on Fridays.
The social sanction for recruiting minors also stemmed from Islam, the officer said. “According to Islamic principles, when a child is 12, he is ready to follow all the obligations, as such he is considered an adult. But when parents seek clemency for such children (facing legal action), they claim legally they are minors,” he said.
The insistence on the world is an illusion verse is so great that the Quranic commandment to maintain a balance between materialism and religion was lost on those indoctrinated. “All sects agree on this half verse,” he said. “The weaponisation of this verse is how a Khanday forgets his mother.”
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