Kashmir (NI) – As the taxi drives through landscapes interrupted by vast Indian military garrisons and settlements in Shopian, south of Indian-controlled Kashmir, the driver remarks: This is like Kandahar: the air is different.’
We drive by the Rambiar rivulet where 2 women were found raped and murdered by Indian troops in 2009. The old city market buzzes with life and with stories of oppression and resistance. While the ‘everyday’ continues, somewhere amid the encircling dense alpines, young boys – the mujahed or mujahideen – have taken up arms, declaring a war against India’s rule in Kashmir; marking a ‘new wave’ of armed rebellion with south Kashmir as the turf for an indigenous movement.
Desolate terrain unfurls as we drive towards Mughal Road through the mountainous Pir Panjal range. Later, Shopian’s residents reveal how a few days ago the mujahideen had crossed this terrain, ‘miraculously escaping’ an attack from Indian forces.
The region is abuzz with stories of ‘miracles’ and valour. Incidents like young boys snatching guns from government forces are part of an evolving folklore. Strong support exists for the mujahideen, their resistance rooted in faith and ideological commitment derived from the teachings of Islam. In an unprecedented act, they released via social media a video and photos in which they are donned in combat gear in the forests. The video and photos were widely shared and have garnered huge public support; sympathizers keep tabs on new releases. Audio recordings of the mujahideen’s phone calls to family members have also been circulated widely. These recordings expressed strong commitment to the struggle, and the fact they have been shared so widely suggests a warm and strategic support from the people as well.
‘This new wave of armed struggle led by youth can be seen as a resistance to all hegemonies aimed at maintaining the status quo, even within the resistance leadership,’ says a Srinagar-based resistance lawyer. The police census of militants puts their strength at 142.
Reports are abuzz with how these young boys are well educated and from financially sound families, countering common perceptions of who takes part in resistance movements. In Kashmir schools, the state curriculum is strategically designed to erase people’s history, and portrays militants and dissenters as ‘uneducated’ or ‘unemployed’. The desire for liberation is labelled a ‘problem’ of a ‘misguided’ youth.
As part of its counter-insurgency tactics, India is pumping huge money into ‘welfare’ projects such as establishing ‘goodwill’ schools, which are set up and run by the Indian army. (Ironically, the army had previously occupied many local schools, turning them into garrisons.) However, such ‘goodwill’ projects have visibly failed to ‘mould’ its target youth. The state, which has also been boasting about its police and army recruits in the region, has attempted to hide the emerging rebellion within.
And the battle runs deeper. The state is creating new ‘youth icons’ to replace ‘deviants in society’ fighting for liberation, such as young Burhan, who heads south Kashmir’s armed group. But even high-school children, of a politically astute generation, identify with Burhan. ‘He is our life, our light. I pray for him and his fellows every morning,’ says a 15-year-old high-schooler.
North Kashmir too hosts a ‘splinter’ armed group. The state believes there is a divide between 2 groups, north and south. However, many assert that there is no such divide. They argue that the rebels’ motivation is rooted in faith, not group politics. Others believe the division is part of the local groups’ strategy and that both are unified in their goal.
‘The division should hinder any movement, but the opposite is happening here. More recruits. Increased activity,’ says a young scholar from south Kashmir. There is ‘no perceived rift between the 2 groups on the ground. This movement is different from earlier phases and can be explained more as global phenomena of Muslim mobilizing against various hegemonies,’ he explains.
Harmeet Singh, a senior police official hailing from Tral, calls this phase of armed insurgency ‘quality militancy’. ‘Their dedication is rich and [they] are highly radicalized,’ he remarks.
‘Before, people picked up guns in great numbers. This generation of militants is aware of how militancy was crushed, its huge social consequence. They have witnessed killings, militants’ surrender and how the families of militants suffered. Despite all these factors, they still take up arms, though in small numbers; so I would call it quality militancy,’ Singh explains.
The mother of a 13-year-old boy killed by Indian troops in 2010 remarks that ‘we have seen enough. [The] gun is the only solution.’ A Shopian entrepreneur says that a few teenagers had gone to join the militant ranks but were sent back ‘because they were too young’. ‘There are more people and few resources. We need more guns,’ he remarks smilingly.
A young lawyer, pointing towards Shopian’s old graveyard of foreign militants who fought for Kashmir’s liberation in 1990s, says: ‘The first grave is of a Sudanese mujahid.’
Some histories refuse to settle as sediment. Dark begins to descend on surreal landscapes as we drive back and an uncertainty looms as thick black clouds gather in Kashmir skies.