Before he "disappeared" to join the militants, Majid Irshad Khan had isolated himself from society, refusing to engage in conversation with anyone, including his parents, for almost a fortnight.
On Thursday afternoon, Majid, a tall, skinny boy with Caucasian features, handed over the keys of his bike to a shopkeeper outside his house on Khanabal-Pahalgam Road in the Sadiqabad locality of south Kashmir's Anantnag district. And then he vanished.
That evening, as the sun began its slow descent behind the mysterious mountains, his mother Aisha Begam, was waiting anxiously for her son when the door opened and her husband Irshad Ahmad Khan walked in. "It then occurred to me that something was wrong. He (Majid) always returned before his father," Aisha told her cousin later.
Soon enough, she found herself grabbing her husband's collar and beseeching him to bring her son back. Helpless, Irshad understood what his wife meant.
On Sunday, Majid's distraught parents huddled inside a relative's house, broken and traumatised by their only son's decision to join the militancy.
This news was confirmed a day before, when posters announcing Majid's recruitment went viral on social media, a standard practice among militant ranks regarding the new recruits. "Majid Irshad alias Abu Ishmayeel of Ananatng has joined Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)", it said. Accompanied was a picture showing Majid flaunting an AK47 assault rifle. The poster sent shockwaves in his family, neighborhood and friends' circle.
His friends have since been posting desperate messages on his Facebook wall to try and elicit a response.
"Today, I saw your maa and abu. They are completely broken, please come back. Don't leave your parents like that... Please zuw wapaa aa. You are the only hope of your parents. They can't take this separation. I swear by Allah I was not able to talk to them. When I saw them, tears were rolling down the eyes of your father and mother. Please, Majid, for sake of them, please come back. We love you," wrote Rahie Sadaf, a former colleague at the NGO where Majid worked.
But his Facebook wall also gave one a look into the mind of a youth who had always perhaps wanted to become a militant.
More youth likely to join militancy
Early on Sunday morning, a group of teenage football enthusiasts gathered near a goalpost inside the Sports Stadium Anantnag as a chilly breeze swept the ground, forcing the players to retreat, make a circle and lit up a bonfire. A few days ago, Shams Irfan alias Shamsul, a resident of Khudwani village in Kulgam and an LeT militant, had appeared with an AK47 in the stadium, barely 400 metres away from the Sadder police station, and clicked pictures. He later posted these pictures online, chiding local militia. Shamsul had joined the LeT in the initial months of this year, and he was a friend of Yawar, another militant from Anantnag who was gunned down barely days after joining the militancy.
"He took that picture here," said Inam, who only gave his first name, referring to the picture of the LeT militant. A few days after the incident, Majid disappeared.
The boys say in whispers that Shamsul was the biggest motivating factor behind Majid's decision. They also fear more youth are likely to now join the militancy because, according to them, Majid is a boy who can pull many others in the same direction. "Militants are now luring local youth from within the main town centres. Majid's is a case in point," said a police official.
The family of the football playing Majid is devastated. His parents are refusing to eat, hoping against hope that their only son will come back. The father has already warned his relatives that if anything happens to his son, he would be the first one to die.
How Majid was lured
On 4 August, on a shopfront surrounded by middle-aged men and women in Anantnag's Sherpora locality, the bullet-ridden body of Yawar Nisar was brought home.
Majid was among the mourners. Donning a multi-coloured tee, he stood out among the crowd because of the colour of his skin. As people carried the body for his last rites, Majid caressed his dead friend for almost 15 minutes, crying like a child and shouting continuously, "Maine bayoo tche katue gowuk? (Oh my brother, where have you gone)
Though Majid mixed with the crowd, he kept his head down and kept crying inconsolably.
Yawar, a 22-year-old militant who had been arrested on several occasions by the police for his involvement in stone pelting cases, was the first youth from Anantnag to join the militancy since 2005. But he survived only 16 days before he was killed in an encounter. "That was the day we knew he too will join the militancy," Majid's friend recalled. He refused to give a name, because the police was detaining Majid's friends for questioning.
"He was desperately asking for his salary," recalled another colleague at the office where Majid worked.
Massive clampdown on militancy
In the last few months, security forces have launched a massive clampdown against home-grown militants, killing more then 180, the highest numbers in almost a decade. In the three districts of south Kashmir, Indian Army soldiers are omnipresent everywhere. Throughout, Anantnag, Kulgam and Pulwama, one thing is visible everywhere: The presence of a gun-weilding man in uniform. At the same time, however, recruitment of local youth by the militants is also at the highest in the last seven years, according to Jammu and Kashmir Police officials.
The south of Kashmir in recent months has become heavily militarised. Highways, markets, interior roads, almost every nook and cranny of these districts are dominated by forces. In seven years of reporting Kashmir, I have never seen such level of militarization as the one encountered these days.
But despite this level of security and after so many counter-insurgency operations, casualties continue to pile up on both sides, while young boys continue joining the militancy. "When they join, they know they are throwing themselves in the fire," said another father whose teenage son went missing a few weeks ago in Redwani area of Kulgam. "Can you fight such a huge military?"
The only thing that motivates so many to join the ranks is "fighting the military occupation", he said.
In Drabgam area of Pulwama, Ubaid Thakoor, a Class XI student, has been frantically searching for his brother, Manzoor Ahmad, who has been missing for the last 10 days. Thakoor lives alone and is an orphan. His brother was the only family he had after his father died and his mother remarried. "When I open a book to read, his face appears on the page," Thakoor said.
Manzoor Ahmad drove passenger vehicles to earn a living before suddenly disappearing. "I don't know where he is, but I want to see my brother," Thakoor said.
Since July this year, at least 50 locals have joined the militancy, a majority of whom are from south Kashmir. At least 70 have been killed this year, and there are another 150 active militants in north and south Kashmir, suggests data available with the Jammu and Kashmir Police that was accessed by Firstpost.
Major General BS Raju, the general officer commanding (GOC) of the Victor Force which oversees the Indian Army's operations in south Kashmir, recently told Firstpost that despite the counter-insurgency campaign, recruitment into militancy is still on — though it keeps fluctuating from month to month. "It has come down from 15 recruits a month during July-August to about 8-9 a month currently," he said.
Earlier this year, after his friend Yawar was killed by forces, Majid wrote a moving post on social media telling his friends that he will meet his departed friend again. "You and I will meet again, when we're least expecting it, One day in some far off place, I will recognise your face, I won't say goodbye, my friend, for you and I will meet again. Victory coming soon," he wrote.
Majid's parents weren't expecting their only son will shun the comforts of the world. They too didn't get the opportunity to say goodbye. But maybe they will.
Updated Date: Nov 14, 2017 08:48 AM