In the year 2015, a picture featuring dozen militants including Hizb commander Burhan Wani, wearing army fatigues and carrying AK-47, went viral on social media. It announced the start of what is now known as the New Age militancy in Kashmir. Later eleven of them were killed in various encounters over the past few years, except one, Lateef Ahmad Dar.
In this report Journalist Umar Sofi investigates the reasons behind picking of guns by the present generation of Kashmiri youth. During his journey into the new age of militancy , the journalist talks to family, friends, and relatives of the militants to cobble details to understand what goes inside the mind of a youth before he becomes a militant.
The reporter begins his journey from The Lone Survivor, Lateef Ahmad Dar, who was one among the dozen militants featuring in the iconic frame of the Burhan group:
It all started on that cold evening in October of 2010.
That’s when he left his home at Shareefabad in South Kashmir, only to return draped in garlands after six years, and with an enormously proud but equally sad crowd following his coffin.
The crowd was in a tizzy, not knowing whether to mourn or to celebrate his death. Eventually, they did a bit of both. They were wailing over his death, and praising his elevation into immortal martyrdom with pride.
Burhan Wani had died only to live on forever.
A decade long lull in Kashmir’s armed struggle had received a major boost in July of 2015 when the photo of a dozen or so affable local youth, in camouflage and proudly holding AK-47s in their hands, first went viral online.
It was the dawn of what is now called The New Age militancy in Kashmir.
The rebels in that iconic photograph were Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Waseem Malla, Naseer Ahmad Pandit, Ishfaq Hameed, Tariq Ahmad Pandit, Afaaquallah Bhat, Adil Ahmad Khanday, Saddam Padder, Waseem Ahmad Shah, Anees, Lateef Ahmad Dar, and Burhan Wani.
The Kashmir Press Long Reads
While as the government claims to have closed the ‘Burhan group; chapter for good after Saddam Padder’s death, one image still lingers above the graves of the others. It is that of the rough- and- tumble, wavy haired Lateef Ahmad Dar, alias Lateef Tiger. He is the only combatant in the group photo with Burhan who has not been killed, making him “The Lone Survivor.”
On May 13, 2018, the Indian army released a list of the 10 most wanted militant commanders of Kashmir and Lateef Tiger is listed as Number 6. The list was prepared after the death of Saddam Padder. Earlier he was the most wanted Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant. Now he been replaced by Lateef.
The Lone Survivor
At around 8:30 at night on March 8, 2014, the atmosphere inside the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Dhaka was electric. The Pakistan and Sri Lanka cricket teams were engaged in a tough fight, and the match was in its slog overs. A similar tension could be felt thousands of kilometres away inside a small grocery store in Dogripora, a tiny village in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
“They always disappoint us,” said Lateef, young and tall and with his mane of long black hair shimmering under the tungsten light. Pakistan was about to lose to Sri Lanka.
“I am going back home, Zubair. It is pretty late. Ammi, must be worried,” he said to his younger brother.
All over sudden there was a huge bang, the lights went off, and all went dark. The TV screen’s afterglow still shed a bit of light on everybody’s’ scared faces, as women were heard wailing loudly on the main road along the banks of the river Jehlum.
Ghulam Dar, an 84 year old man and father of the village Sarpanch, was dead. He had been shot in the face by unknown gunmen. This happened while he was on his way to the mosque for his evening prayers.
The next day, army vehicles were rushing along the village roads, with masked men sitting in the turrets, and with their eyes darting from side to side while casting suspicious glances upon every village boy on the road.
The Jammu and Kashmir police were on tenterhooks and doing everything they could to nab the killers of the old man. After all, he was the father of the village head. But soon enough, everything went back to normal. The days passed as usual. For most people it had already become a thing of the past.
With the skin cracked on his hands, Lateef, a carpenter by profession, got busy again with his daily chores. Ghulam Hassan Dar, his father and professional mentor, had given up the job a few years ago after Lateef had learned the trade.
Ishfaq, a graduate student, was one of his closest friends. The son of a teacher, he often accompanied him to work so he could keep his friend company. Although a bit younger than Lateef, they could often be seen together somewhere along the banks of the Jehlum, hanging out and watching the silent waters under the russet sky.
But every now and then the police could be seen at the house of the village head. A door to door questioning had also started by them. The gunmen had been invisible to everyone. Clearly, a sense of fear was palpable among all the eye witnesses.
A week passed by. It was a normal day. Lateef as usual went to work. At around 5 in the evening, police picked up Ishfaq and asked him about Lateef’s whereabouts. Within an hour, both Lateef and Ishfaq were in police custody, accused of killing the Sarpanch’s father.
“When Lateef had not returned by the evening, we tried to call him, but there was no response. That night seemed unending. I still remember how Ammi spent the whole night on the veranda waiting for bhai to return,” said Zubair, Lateef’s younger brother.
As dawn finally broke, someone came with the news that Lateef had been arrested in connection with the murder of the old man. It was then that our mother finally collapsed. We immediately went to the police station, but neither Ishfaq nor Lateef were anywhere to be seen. We only came to know about their location when a policeman in civvies was kind enough to tell us that they had been taken to Budgam jail. Once we reached there and asked about Lateef, they denied that they had arrested Lateef or anybody else by that name.”
“For the next ten days, my mother and the rest of us were literally begging the officials at the Budgam police station to tell us Lateef’s whereabouts. During nights, we went looking for him in far off places of our village, fearing that he might have been killed and dumped on the road somewhere. Finally, on the eleventh day, the police called us inside a room and told us to wait. Soon Lateef was brought in. He had scars on his face, probably the result of red hot charcoal or cigarette butts having been burned through the flesh. My mother held him tight against her chest, but he could only utter a few words lifelessly, pleading “ hatai, moaje may bachaetav, may deetav gooel kahn akha wani,” which literally translates as “ oh, my mother, please save me; please shoot me so I won’t feel this pain.” He could not even sit on a chair properly. His anus had been injured when they inserted a thick rod inside it while interrogating him,” Zubair adds while displaying a photograph of Lateef on his cell phone.
“They brought my son to Awantipora jail and put him there for a month without ever filing a charge sheet. They brought Ishfaq, too. His arm was broken, and he had bruises all over his body. We went to meet them every day. We thought they would be let go. No guilt was ever proved. One day when we went to meet them, police officials told us that they have been taken to Srinagar central jail after being convicted of murder. We were helpless and too poor to fight the system. All we could do with our hard earned money was to hire an advocate, which we did. After spending six months in jail, their sentence had still not been announced. The wait was gruesome. After another month, the flood came and totally submerged our house. All our belongings were ruined or swept away in the flood. Among them were the legal papers that we had prepared to apply for his bail. The only things left were his childhood school books, but even they had been drenched in the grubby water above his Almirah. They still lie there even now,” said Ghulam Hassan Dar, Lateef’s father.
Both Ishfaq Dar and Lateef Dar were finally granted parole for ten days on the day before Eid and after spending seven months in jail.
“People were sighting the moon in sky, but my moon was in front of my eyes. Lateef was finally home though just for ten days. He cleaned up the whole house. After clearing the flood debris from the rooms, he mopped all the floors and did not even allow me to help. After five days of Eid, he went out for Maghrib Prayers but did not return. We thought he might have gone to Ishfaq’s place to visit his parents. We thought we would go to Ishfaq’s home who lived near us. But as we stepped out of our gate, Ishfaq’s parents had already come, trying to see if Ishfaq was at our house. We searched for both throughout the night, but they were nowhere to be found,” said Lateef’s mother with a stoic face.
When asked whether Lateef had ever come back to see his mother, Zubair answers, “One cold winter evening, almost three months after he had left us, the door of our kitchen slowly opened with a shriek, and Lateef entered. He had grown a long beard. Clad in a Pheran, he held a rifle on his shoulder. There was a long pause as if everyone’s mouth had been sealed shut. His mother just stared at him. He came over and hugged her. They said nothing to each other, and he only cried profusely for about ten minutes. She could not even lift her arms long enough to hug him back. It was as if her entire body was frozen while tears were rolling down her cheeks.”
Lateef told the family that he knew that he had picked up the gun only to get killed someday soon. He told them he would not have done it but for the fear that he might be hanged for a crime he did not commit. Then a voice from behind the door called him back outside. As his brother glimpsed through the window, he could see Lateef breaking down until a man wearing glasses held him tight and managed to calm him down before they left through the tin gate outside.
The man was none other than present Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo.
The school headmaster
“We will welcome them (Kashmiri Pandits) warmly, and there is always a place for them in our hearts. They are part of our nation. We are their protectors and not their enemies,” the militant commander Riyaz Naikoo is heard saying in an 11-minute video address in which he invites Kashmiri Pandits to return to the Valley.
The oldest surviving militant in his outfit, Riyaz is considered to be a “moderate” militant commander, unlike some of his hardliner predecessors.
Son of Ghulam Qadir Naikoo, Riyaz is the commander in chief of Kashmir’s indigenous militant group, the Hizbul Mujahideen.
Police records state that “Ryaz Naikoo, after his release from detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA), was drawn towards “terrorism”.
“He is wanted in several killings, including of police officers, and was a close associate of Burhan Wani, and was seen in some photographs with him. He was never subjected to any PSA arrests earlier; just some minor questioning and that too without any firm basis. It does not really mean that he was booked under any Act,” the police records reveal.
But one of his friends, wishing to remain anonymous, insists,” It is the consistent harassment at the hands of the police that forces many Kashmiri youngsters to choose death over life. He was a post graduate. He had a good job. Why would he just pick up a gun to be killed?”
Riyaz’s uncle, Ghulam Qadir Naikoo, has perhaps suffered the most because of his nephew’s decision to pick up the gun.
“I never thought that this was going to be my fate. Sometime during the early summer of 2012, I remember getting a call from an unknown number. The man on the other end said that he was the station house officer of the Awantipora police station. He told me to bring my nephew over quickly. I then got him from his room where he had been checking some question paper of the exam he had appeared in. I took him to the police station where they put him in another room and asked me to wait outside,” Qadir recounts.
“Day turned into evening, but neither the SHO nor Riyaz had come out of the room. It was already dark when I finally saw Riyaz stepping out into the corridor. Outside the gate, the headlights of cars going by were shining on his face. He told me that it was nothing, and that everything was just fine, while rubbing his swollen left eye with his forearm. A month passed, and he was still reluctant to spend any time with his family. He would sit for hours in his room with the lights off. Neither did he let us touch his belongings. June 1, 2012, was the day when he left us, saying he was going for prayers; and that he had some work and might be home late. He never returned,” recalls his uncle, who is a driver by profession.
Meanwhile, Ghulam Qadir Naikoo, was slapped with a charge under the PSA and spent seven months in jail for reasons that are hard to believe.
“Once the Burhan Wani agitation had started, everything came to a standstill. My son is pursuing his M.Sc and was selected for admission. I had to pay his admission fee and I was at my bank, when DSP Parvez Billa summoned me over the phone. They then put me behind bars and told me that ‘you and your nephew, the commander in chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen, have cut the trees of your neighbour and sold them. That’s major theft we were accused of. Now isn’t it the height of oppression if they are convicting me of something that is totally untrue? Think about it: would a person hunted to be killed, and the most wanted militant in valley, engage in smuggling of a few logs of wood, and that too in broad daylight? It is all rubbish,” he explains.
“At 4 AM a gypsy came through the main gate of the police station. I and five other boys were put inside. The next morning, we were unloaded at Kathua central jail. With me was a 50 year old man who was accused of being the leader of the stone pelters of all of district Shopian”, adds Ghulam.
The outer walls of Riyaz’s house are different from the others in the neighbourhood. There is graffiti all over, accusing Ryaz of being an Indian agent, and displaying slogans like Musa Musa Zakir Musa, Zakir Musa zindabad. The house wears a deserted look with all windows and window panes broken.
“Some eight months ago, in the middle of the night at around 2 AM, some men from the police’s Special Operations Group came and locked us inside our house after hurling abuses at us. Petrified, we took refuge in the washroom. They started to paint graffiti on the walls outside, and even pulled out the windows, broke the window panes, and continuously fired live bullets all over the place, even into the ground, before they finally left,” said Assadullah Naikoo, Riyaz’s father.
“His sister till today cleans his room every day. She is sorting his books again and again even though they are already sorted, except for that question paper for the junior statistical assistant exam that still lies there near his desk, untouched,” sobs Zeba, Riyaz’s mother.
Riyaz is one of the toughest challenges that security forces are currently facing. Always escaping from sieges laid by the forces, his survival is being viewed as a major threat. The daring escapes of this 29 year old militant are believed to be a big inspiration for boys to take up arms, including scholars like Sabzar Ahmad Sofi.
The militant scholar
“A person, who isn’t even from here asks for your identity card, beats you up for no obvious reason, holds you by your collar, and kills your little ones. What more does it take for a sensitive youngster to want to avenge all of it? He has chosen death over life but at least he did not succumb to the brutal oppression that all of us are facing,” shouts Sabzar’s mother Hajira, even if his brother is genuinely puzzled why Sabzar chose to become a militant when he seemed to have such a bright future.
In the morning of July 8, 2016, 29 year old Sabzar, who had qualified competitive National Eligiblity Test (NET), Junior Research Fellow (JRF) exams, left home saying he was joining coaching sessions in Delhi for the upcoming Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exams.
Hailing from Naina, Sangam in Anantnag, he had completed his Masters in Science (MSC) from Burkhatulla University in 2014, and his MPhil from Jivagee University in Gwalior before joining Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi in 2016. After the family had seen him off, they assumed he was taking a flight to Delhi. For the next three months, the family could not contact Sabzar because of a communications blockade. Then all over sudden a photo surfaced.
In the picture, scholar was no longer a scholar but a militant.
“He woke up early that day and went for prayers to the nearby mosque. After he came back, he packed all his clothes and books in two big suitcases and told us that he was going to meet a friend outside the gate as they were both leaving for Delhi for IAS coaching. A cab came and we said a goodbye to him. In the evening, when Ammi went to clean his room, she saw that he had put both of his suitcases on his books behind a curtain. But because of the communications blockage we could not contact him. It was only after three months that we saw his picture with a rifle in his hand, leaving us all in a state of shock,” recalls Sabzar’s brother, Aijaz, who is also an M.Phil, after showing us the pile of books with the packed suit cases on top of them.
‘We tried to find our son but without any success. We miss him badly. We were under the impression that he was pursuing his PhD. studies at the university. He was a God-fearing and honest son. He would help students of the locality and encourage them to pursue higher studies. I remember, once after he had completed his M.Sc and was back at home, he returned to the house very late for a few days. One night, I got angry because of his late arrival, until he told me that he had started his own coaching centre (Ascent) at Sangam where poor Students could get free tuition. Before that I had loved him, but after that I really started to respect him,” narrates Bashir, Sabzar’s father.
“I could not believe it, because I never thought that Sabzar sir would ever pick up a gun. I have known him since he taught us at the govt. high school for free. These days, when teachers charge us huge fees at tuition centres, Sabzar Sir was an exception. He brought me free books and provided me with references. I still have them in my home,” said Owais, one of Sabzar’s former students.
Sabzar, like Rafi Bhat and Mannan Wani, is one of the scholarly militants who gave up promising careers to take up a gun instead of a pen. The question lingers why this trend is picking up.
As far the answers are concerned, the investigation into the New Age Militancy brings out the fact that continuous harassment, killings of protestors and the unresolved Kashmir dispute- which is political in all senses- has been contributing factors to the renewed call among youth for picking up the gun, even among the teenagers like Yawar Nisar Wagay.
The defiant son
Amidst the deafening firing and with guns spraying bullets all over in Kanelwa, Anantnag, a masked man with an AK-47 in his hand, aims at the door and roars, “Who is inside?” But nobody answers. A woman pushes her way through a group of army men, all with guns aimed at the same door.
“My son is bathing inside,” she shouts at the masked man. He, in a much higher pitch, repeats, “Who is inside, I repeat?” There is a pause. No voice comes from the other side of the door.
The woman next to the masked man again shouts, “I already said, this is my ….” Before she can complete her sentence, more than a hundred bullets hit the tin door of the washroom, where a twelve day old militant is hiding.
As the volley of bullets finally halts, and the door of the washroom is opened by the army men, a boy is found lying on the floor inside. He is not moving. His face is disfigured, and his whole body is drenched in blood after more than a hundred bullets had been pumped into his young body. Yawar Nisar Wagay, 20, is dead.
“I saw him running. He had removed his shirt and put it on his shoulder. He was probably shot already. He did not even have a gun on him while he was running. He scaled a wall and disappeared,” said a resident of Kanelwan, wishing anonymity.
Yawar, a former student of Central High School, has been the only youngster from the main town of Anantnag who had taken up arms in this New Age Militancy. Khan Majid, the footballer turned militant who later surrendered after mass campaigning for his return, was Yawar’s best friend.
“Yawar’s funeral was the one with the biggest crowd in Anantnag town in over a decade. I remember almost being trampled to death by the people who were trying to touch Yawar’s body,” said a close friend who was present at his funeral.
Among the mourners, a tall and fair boy, Majid Khan, was seen shedding tears in total despair. Lying down next to the dead Yawar, he kept hugging, kissing and embracing the body of his childhood pal.
“It was only Yawar’s death that pushed Majid to take up arms. Both were welcomed back home, but Yawar returned dead because he had the courage to face death,” said another of Yawar’s friends.
Outside the small home of Yawar Nisar Wagay, there are two rabbits roaming around the small courtyard.
“They would not eat anything for days whenever Yawar was arrested. Probably, they were used to Yawar and not me,” snivels his father while holding one of Yawar’s rabbit in his hands.
‘I remember, he was just 12 years old when the police arrested him for the first time in 2008 and beat him up. He had haunting memories of the time he had spent behind bars. He was never a part of any stone pelting, but after his first arrest every time there was some protest, he would join until he was arrested again and charged with multiple cases of stone pelting. And that’s the truth,” adds Nisar Ahmad, who works as a labourer in a nearby food and supplies store.
“In a single month there would be more than seven court hearings for him to attend. He could hardly focus on his studies. When he had to apply for his 11th class admission, he was in jail. He finally left his studies, too. He was completely broken and shattered”.
Nissar said every day, Yawar would insist to join militancy but then he refuted it with a laugh, insisting he could never leave his Amee ji (mother).
“But over the past year, every time there was stone pelting, Yawar was accused of being a participant. Even if it would happen in a remote area of Anantnag district, the police would accuse him for being part of the stone pelting youth. He was very depressed for almost a year. He had to visit the police station thrice in a day to register his attendance. It was only then that he picked up the gun and left all of us behind mourning,” Yawar’s mother said.
“After he left us, the army came to our house every day, sometimes even twice a day. One of the local rebels, who later became a collaborator, was hounding us day and night. He was trying to force us into telling him Yawar’s whereabouts, which we did not know. We were so desperate that we asked him to please bring our son back to us, to which he replied that we needn’t worry, and that he would bring back our son within fifteen days. On the sixteenth day, Yawar returned home, but dead. The army officer probably had forgotten to mention dead instead of alive,” adds his mother with a distraught look on her face.
“The saddest part is that even his death did not stop them from harassing him. Every time there was stone pelting somewhere, a police summons would reach Yawar’s house, asking him to appear in court. The cases ended only after we had produced his death certificate more than five times,” concludes Rasik, one of Yawar’s cousins.