Shaurya Chakra recipient Irfan Sheikh fears going back home

Recently awarded India’s third-highest peacetime gallantry award, the Shaurya Chakra, 16-year-old Irfan Sheikh is in hiding, fearing revenge from jihadists

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He was a hero — a teenager who took on jihadists and lived to tell  the tale. On March 19, India’s third-highest peacetime gallantry award, Shaurya Chakra, was conferred on Irfan Sheikh by President Ram Nath Kovind at a ceremony in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Then, the 16-year-old disappeared — into hiding, in a house where the family has been living in fear of reprisal from the jihadists.

 Shaurya Chakra recipient Irfan Sheikh fears going back home

Irfan Sheikh is currently preparing for civil services and aspires to become an IPS office.

Irfan’s story is that of the hundreds of Kashmiris who have suffered in the 30-year conflict and continue to face indignities in silence, but still find ways to fight back.

In Kashmir, medals and honours earned in the service of the country are meant to be hidden, not shared. “…here if I get a medal, I have to hide it. It hardly has any value. Who in society would congratulate us,” said a police officer from south Kashmir. On the other hand, in other parts of the country, the stereotype is that all Kashmiris are separatists, and pro-Pakistan.

Irfan’s father, Ramzan Sheikh, was a small-time contractor who would work for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) when he wasn’t building roads in rural south Kashmir. He survived an assassination bid in 2013 and nervously bided the unrest that followed the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

On the evening of October 16, 2017, Irfan, the eldest of Ramzan’s children, bravely but unsuccessfully wrestled three jihadists at their home in Shopian’s Homhuna village to save his father. When it all ended, jihadist Showkat Ahmad Kumar, from nearby Trenz village, too, lay dead. The following day, Ramzan’s family and that of his brother left everything, even their shoes, behind and ran for their lives as a mob of hundreds led by at least four jihadists marched towards their home. From a safe distance, the family watched their house go up in flames.

The Sheikh family has not returned to Homhuna and continues to live away from the public eye, somewhere in the state. The Shaurya Chakra has compounded their fears of a backlash from the jihadists.

It was on the instructions of party chief Mehbooba Mufti that Irfan again went into hiding, a PDP member said. “They will never be able to go home,” he said. “Irfan’s family did not want it, but when he was named for the award, it could not have been refused.”

Irfan is staying strong and preparing for the civil services, aiming for the Indian Police Service. But, for anyone identifying as pro-India in Kashmir, rewards are few and dangers real.

His gallantry award coincided with Kashmiris facing violence in some parts of the country in the aftermath of the February 14 suicide attack that left 40 CRPF men dead in Pulwama. The violence, seen as the manifestation of stereotyping of Kashmiris as pro- Pakistan, might have been criticised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but pro-India Kashmiris do not hesitate to say that in the national imagination, all Kashmiris are separatists.

“The Kashmiri today has replaced the Pakistani as a whipping boy,” said a Kashmiri journalist, requesting anonymity. “Wherever we go, we are the Kashmiris of their perception: out to destroy India. There is no other Kashmiri.”

In the early days of the Kashmir conflict, several hundred workers of the National Conference were killed by the jihadists, while the Kashmiris serving in the police force continue to face violence. So do sarpanches.

There are Kashmiri men who have crossed the Line of Control and worked in jihadist camps to gather valuable intelligence, only to return home to serve in lower ranks such as constables or personal security guards in the police force.

In 2008, Mukhtar Ahmed Sheikh, a Kashmiri man whose brother was killed by the jihadists, infiltrated the ranks of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He led the agencies to the Lashkar men who attacked Mumbai in 2008 but was jailed following differences within the intelligence services.

From jihadists-turned-counter insurgents of the 1990s to the “mainstream” politicians who braved bullets, all feel abandoned by India.

Far from the public and media gaze, Kashmiris who chose the Indian side have to deal with insidious assaults on them besides battling adversaries from within their community. Medals and uniform are just not enough.

A paramilitary officer posted in Srinagar narrated the following incident to illustrate the deep mistrust of Kashmiris. A senior paramilitary officer was severely injured in a gunfight in north Kashmir’s Handwara.

Eyebrows were raised when a Kashmiri doctor, a recipient of more than a dozen police medals for high-risk evacuations of soldiers during gunfights, was involved in moving the injured to a safer place. Communal slurs were hurled at him.

“There were others in uniform who said he would end up killing the injured officer,” the Srinagar-based officer said. “All because he was a Kashmiri Muslim.” The injured officer recovered and returned to duty amid much fanfare.

Not just them, their friends and families, too, are at risk, Kashmiri police officers say. In the last few years, family members of several policemen have been killed or abducted and their
houses attacked by mobs.

“Kashmiris have faced the brunt of militancy and yet we are called anti-national,” said a police officer, feted with two gallantry medals for counterinsurgency operations. “It makes people think that if we were on the other side, we would have at least been safe.”

A resident of south Kashmir whose sibling was killed by jihadists, the officer has not been home for five years. Despite the slurs and sacrifices, he served out of conviction, to “give our youngsters a chance” and see a change, he said. “For officers from outside the state, Kashmir is a ladder for success. Earn a few medals based on their kills and show those off back home. But here if I get a medal, I have to hide it. It hardly has any value. Who in the society would congratulate us?”

The Machil fake encounter case was investigated and proved by police but “it was still we who bore the brunt of it for the whole of the remaining year”, he said. “It is difficult to explain to our children why stones are always being thrown at us. Somewhere they also begin thinking if we are doing the wrong thing.”

There was “no ownership” and no “investment in the mainstream”, he said. Police officers point to statements made by PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti at public gatherings against the police, while members of the force guard her.

“Whatever you do, it will never be enough,” the officer said, adding the focus should be on reaching out to people. It has to be incentivised. “The idea is to expand the people in our favour, normal policing has to be glorified and commended but that itself is just not happening.”

In 2018 a paramilitary medical officer, Suneem Khan, was awarded a medal and citation by the home ministry for his rescue efforts during an attack on Amarnath yatra pilgrims. No political leader, including the chief minister, congratulated him. “For reasons best known to her, Mehbooba Mufti also did not deem it right,” Khan said.

Lack of incentives and social acceptance of pro-India politics has gone unchallenged, even by politicians with similar leanings.

In May 2017, a 22-year-old Kashmiri army officer, Umer Fayyaz, was abducted from his cousin’s wedding in south Kashmir’s Shopian district. His cousin, Rafia Nazir, said no one in the family knew that Fayyaz was in the army. Had it been known, “we would not have let him in”, she had then said.

“The taboo on being Indian has to be broken,” the police officer said. “If you are not able to win people already on your side, how will you win over people on the other side?”

For another police officer, who has four medals and citations, awards are not enough to boost morale. “We need a radical policy shift to own Kashmiris who are Indians,” he said. There was a use-and-throw system at play and governments invariable ended up appeasing the enemies at the cost of the pro-India element.

“Instead of working on expanding the Indian constituency, they have been pampering those opposed to us. It has been a seven-decade failed experiment,” the officer said.

Though the officer is content with his two decades of service, he plans to shift abroad for a better life. His medals wouldn’t matter if he were to go to other states. “They will notice my circumcision. In Kashmir, I am a policeman; there I am a Muslim,” he said.

The officer had some strong words for powers-that-be in New Delhi, who, he said, were doing little for the mainstream. “There is an army of people in New Delhi who think short term, create Pied Pipers to draw out stone pelters and separatists and then don’t know what to do afterwards,” he said.

Those who spoke of Pakistan were pampered, taken to shout in favour of Pakistan on scripted television debates and evoke anger against Kashmir and Kashmiris. “The time has come for India to own Kashmir’s nationalists. More non-combatants have died fighting against so-called azadi than for it. Pro-India Kashmiris have always been given a raw deal,” he said.

The preconceived notions about Kashmiris were a big hurdle in promoting integration, a pro-India political activist in south Kashmir said. “India would rather create a crop of fake nationalists and separatists to control the discourse rather than take affirmative action to effect a change on the ground,” he said on condition of anonymity. “If you take a clear stand, you suffer. Kashmiris who want to contribute to nation-building will never be heard.”

He blamed the media as well. The people of India, irrespective of their ideologies, had a set idea of what a Kashmiri should be, and pandered to Kashmiris who fit that frame. “No one in India values those who speak about ground reality,” he said. “When even the liberals in India give space to our opponents at our cost, how can we blame local elements for gagging us?”

Kashmiris were afraid because anyone spreading the idea of India was at risk, but New Delhi, too, didn’t want to empower Kashmiri Muslims, he felt. “We want azadi from azadi so we can breathe and speak freely.”

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