As Kashmir tips into turmoil following the death of the popular militant commander Burhan Wani, a new angry Kashmiri generation has taken over and staked claim to the leadership of the 26-year-old separatist campaign against India’s rule. This generation is angry, bitter and ready to renew the armed struggle, which has been on a steady decline since 9/11 and down to just around 150 militants now. But this is changing.
Already, over the last one year, more than one hundred local youth have taken up arms, replenishing not only the jihadi cadre that has been depleting as a result of the death of active militants in the day-to-day encounters with Indian security personnel, but also, in the process, altering the local-foreign militant ratio in the state, such that it is now in favour of the former. By the latest count, which considered 145 militants active in the Valley, 91 were locals and 54 foreigners.
So what does this generation want? Like their predecessors, they too seek freedom from India. But a significant section of them is no longer interested in non-violent street resistance, a transition which had taken place over the three successive summer revolts until 2010. The general drift now is a return to armed struggle. And for those who are still chary of gun, like the youth in Srinagar, throwing stones at the security personnel and engaging in attention-grabbing stunts like the hoisting the flags of the Islamic State (IS) or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has become the order of the day.
Naveed Akber, 20, is one such youth. On most Fridays, Akbar shows up to pelt stones at the armed personnel outside Srinagar's Grand Mosque. He and four of his friends don black masks with holes cut out for the eyes. It makes them unidentifiable to the police cameras, and also fit into the locally glorified image of the resistance activist. Akbar and his college clan are rather pleased with this effect.
They haul a sack of rocks, some the size of fists, others just pebbles. The security force across the street brandish wooden rifles that fire metal pellets, and wield windshield-sized reinforced plastic with "POLICE" boldly lettered across. Not many of the stones Akbar tosses meet their mark, but he’s glad to match his neglected cricket skills to his cause.
Akber’s worldview is equal parts Kashmir’s familiar separatist discourse and social media chatter. He has an ambivalent approach towards the Islamic State, understanding it only in broad brushstrokes. However, the terror group's conspicuous military successes, and its ideological outlook that “brooks no compromise,” impress him.
But Akbar has little idea of the group's brutalities. What he sees on mainstream media, he resists: It’s a deliberate effort “to malign Islam,” in his view.
“I don’t entirely believe what media has to say. I have seen the Indian television channels unleash propaganda about Kashmir,” he says. “How can media now be expected to be truthful on IS.”
He is pragmatic about his methods, though, and he’s measured what he hopes to achieve against the risks he’s willing to take.
"I prefer stone throwing over militancy. It has advantages over the gun. One can pursue it in the open, unlike carrying a gun, which obliges one to go underground,” Akber says, adding that he is not against the gun, though. “Those who are picking up arms against India do no wrong," he says. "They have a role, too.”
Downtown Srinagar, the congested, old part of town, lost much of its historicity in the turmoil of the '90s. Witness to the violence in its picturesque streets, young men like Akbar grew up with a deep sense of estrangement from New Delhi. They are fluent, persuasive, in turn poetic and prosaic, about real and imagined everyday indignities, and about the endemic security presence that has marked the quarter-odd century of their lives. In their heads, and in their hearts, this deep discontent is what makes “Azadi for Kashmir” [Liberty for Kashmir] a desirable objective.
Waseem Ahmad rattles off his reasons as if by rote: "See what happens? Government has shut down Internet [and] phones. There is a curfew in entire valley. Kashmir has been turned into a big prison. Does this show we are a part of India?"
The 27-year-old Ahmad is on the streets throwing stones at police and CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) officers. He says he narrowly escaped the bursts of pellet gunfire unleashed in his direction. But this hasn't deterred him from returning to the streets to throw stones. His area of operation is the broad thoroughfare around Srinagar's Grand Mosque, where an assortement of youth turn out in their baclavas and kefiyahs take on security personnel.
From 2008-10, Ahmad was the leader of his coterie of a dozen stone throwers. He was arrested in 2009 and 2010. Five cases were lodged against him at separate police stations.
"It took me months to get bail in all the cases," he says. "Many of my friends also have several FIRs [First Information Reports] against them in different police stations.” He says the police do this to prolong their stays in jail.
Ahmad quit school for one common, typically Indian reason - “to help my father at his small kiryana shop” - and one reason that’s only mundane in Kashmir: “police harassment.” For him, the stone-pelting youth of downtown Srinagar are “the protectors of the struggle for Azadi."
Stone throwing in Kashmir is a tradition with a hoary past. In the 1930s, under Sheikh Abdullah’s aegis, Kashmir militated against autocratic Dogra rule, and since 1947 it’s been in the crosshairs of competing India-Pakistan claims. For intermittent political mobilizations, or smaller grievances, stones have long been the local counter to the government’s stick.
As guns took over in the '90s, pelting petered out. The Kashmir Valley teemed with militants. More than 20,000 roamed its the length and breadth, filling the ranks of an array of organisations, from the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and Hizbul Mujahideen (Hizb) to Lashka- e-Taiba and Jaish e Mohammed (JeM).
Over 15 years, much of this militancy was suppressed, and by 2010, when Sajad Ahmad Khan of Firdausabad, Batamaloo, was "encountered" in Rajouri in Jammu province, Srinagar was declared militant-free.
But the young men in Srinagar with stones in their hands have "revived a waning resistance," as Waseem Ahmad says. With each call for a protest or a shutdown, knots of masked teenagers show up on the streets to lob stones at the police and the paramilitary.
In the three successive summer revolts through 2010, stone-pelting spiralled out from downtown Srinagar to major urban centres in Southern and Northern Kashmir, and further afield into the countryside. But now, in 2016, it is the other way around: The protests radiate out from the countryside to the urban centers, and from there on to Srinagar.
If you want to know what young people want, look at Facebook. Scores of social media sites hail the current militancy and its angry, young heroes. Slain Burhan has his own online cult. Pages like" We Love Burhan"; "Burhan College"; "Tral"; and "The Land of Martyrs" show him emerging from a lush, hilly backdrop or a thick orchard, dressed in full battle fatigues with a Kalashnikov loosely slung over his shoulders. In others, he smirks at the camera or banters with his comrades.
Now, Burhan's successor, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, has similarly taken to social media to reach the youth. On August 2, just three weeks after Burhan’s death, a video surfaced on Facebook and Youtube showing him in a forest with his five colleagues. The post got hundreds of instant "likes" and long comment threads praising the spirit and the courage of the fresh recruits, for whom Burhan was the poster child.
Facebook is the bastion of militant propaganda. But now, the militants' aggressive PR effort has also taken to WhatsApp and street graffiti. After his death, the graffiti applauding Burhan’s martyrdom surfaced all over the valley. Slogans like "Long live Burhan" ‘Burhan and "Your death will launch a revolution," etc., are inscribed on shop shutters and walls across the valley.
The priorities of Srinagar's center and the countryside differ. In 2015, more than a hundred youth joined Hizb and LeT, most of them from the rural areas of South Kashmir. For the first time in a decade, 88 of the 142 declared militants in the valley were local Kashmiris. The rest were from Pakistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). Though killings and an influx of fresh recruits have altered the numbers, now estimated to be between 150-200, local recruits still outnumber the foreigners.
Among the 195 militancy-related killings last year, 100 were militants, 12 policemen, 41 civilians, 35 Army personnel, five BSF personnel and two CRPF Jawans.
Since January, around 85 militants, have been killed.
In the North, Sopore has been the lone militant citadel for the past 25 years. But in June 2015, the militancy received a jolt: Hizb expelled its long time commander, Abdul Qayoom Najar. He allegedly presided over the successive killings of four former militants and separatist sympathisers against the edicts of the Hizb top brass from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Thus far, downtown Srinagar has bucked the surge of growing gun violence. This has left many a Kashmir observer puzzled. If Akbar is to be believed, it’s an active, deliberate decision to cock a snook at the State. “We think peaceful resistance has advantages over gun," he says. "This way India can’t call us terrorists.”
But what works for the town mouse doesn’t hold for the country cousin, and from a safe distance, he supports bloody uprisings. “[These are] necessary for the Azadi movement to survive."
A senior police officer trying to solve the Srinagar puzzle says the security penetration makes it tough for any militancy to survive in Srinagar. “Guns do fascinate a section of youth, but Pakistan is not ready to supply weapons,” he says. “Islamabad seems content with [maintaining] 100 or so militants, which generate enough violence to keep Kashmir in the limelight."
The solid reassurance of those words are undercut by his caveat: “But as things stand now, the situation could also swerve in opposite direction," he says. "A militancy comprising local youth will be too tempting for Pakistan to resist."
But it’s in the nature of the young to reject agendas ascribed to them, to take symbols and subvert them, to make messages mean what they want them to.
"Don’t think we support IS. We fly their flag to provoke India, to get their attention,” says Basit Zargar, 26, a friend of Akber. “Waving IS flags is our revenge on India, not an endorsement of the group."
(*Official sources spoke on condition of anonymity. Some names have been changed to protect identities.)
Riyaz Wani is special correspondent with Tehelka magazine. He has covered Kashmir for The Indian Express. Before that, he was a senior editor with Kashmir’s leading regional daily Greater Kashmir.
Feature image © Daanish Bin Nabi for The Quint