'My son was forced to pick up the gun': the making of a ‘militant’ in Kashmir
On 1 May, J&K Police said that a stone thrower – 22-year-old Zubair Ahmad Turray - had escaped from custody. But his family contested this claim, arguing that he hadn’t come home, nor contacted them.
The residents of his town, Shopian, suspected the worst. They went on a sustained protest to demand his whereabouts. But later in May, Turray appeared in a video dressed in Army fatigues to declare that he was now a militant. On a table before him stood two Kalashankovs and two grenades.
“My story is heart-rending. There was no option left for me. I was imprisoned for the past four years. And I have spent the term equivalent to eight Public Safety Acts (PSAs) in jail,” Turray says in the video. “Whenever my father got one PSA quashed by the court, the police kept another PSA ready to keep me in lock-up.”
Though the viral video brought the protests to an end, the family blamed the police for forcing Turray into militancy.
Turray's story over the past six years seems to bear that notion out. First arrested in 2008, when he was just a Class 6 student, he has been in and out of the jail ever since. According to the family, Turray has been booked in 23 FIRs and successive Public Safety Acts. Every time the court quashed a PSA, the government slapped on another one to prolong his detention.
It was the fear of the imposition of yet another PSA that forced Turray to escape from police custody and join militants, says the family.
“The High Court quashed his last PSA detention on 28 February and he was set free from the Central Jail,” says the father Bashir Ahmad, a shopkeeper. “But before being released, the jail superintendent told him to report to the Counter Insurgency Kashmir (CIK) wing of police after two days, which he did. He was detained again and handed over to the police station in Shopian.”
My son was left with no choice,” Bashir said. “Every time the court would quash his PSA and order his release, the police, instead of releasing him, would shift him to Central Jail Srinagar and then to the local police station and then slap another PSA.”
Not a new story
Stories of Army and police harassment being the reason for several youth to pick up gun run abound in Kashmir. Parents talk about it to justify their extreme choices their sons made.
But in many cases, such justifications are also borne out by objective facts. One such prominent case is that of the slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani himself.
He joined militancy in the heat of the extended 2010 revolt as a 15-year-old boy angry over the beating of his elder brother Khalid Wani by security personnel when the two were running an errand. The story has since become a part of the legend about Burhan.
“Burhan was furious when he returned home. He wondered why his brother was beaten up when he had done nothing wrong,” recalled in an interview his grandfather Haji Ghulam Mohammad Wani, a grey-bearded former state government employee, who was proud of his grandson’s decision to take up arms. “He had always been a nice boy, who prayed five times, and was an obedient son. Now that he had become a militant for a right cause, we stood by him.”
Forces allegedly killed Khalid in 2015 when he was returning after meeting his militant brother in a forest.
Running for his life
Mohammad Abbas Sheikh, yet another living militant, as his wife Rasheeda says, didn’t take up gun out of his own volition. “The repeated jail terms and constant harassment by the fauj (Army) forced him to become a militant. Whenever there was a violent incident in the area, he was picked up for no reason, jailed, tortured and then let off by the courts,” says Rasheeda. “He was left with no choice”.
In fact, Abbas’ decision to join militancy was not his own, but his family’s, which feared he will be killed in security custody if he stayed at home.
“One night when he was sleeping at home, we heard knocks on the door and windows. It was the Army,” says Rasheeda. “I woke Abbas up, who let them in. The Army questioned him and searched the house. But when the personnel were about to leave they asked Abbas to accompany them to the nearby security camp where the officer wanted to see him.”
Abbas saw it as a signal that he might be killed in a fake encounter. He ran upstairs, jumped out the rear window and fled,” says Rasheeda. The Army chased him for some distance, fired shots in the air and then gave up.
But the following day Abbas returned. He had spent the night at a nearby marsh. He asked Rasheeda for her suggestion for the next course of action. She asked her father. The family elders sat together to discuss and concluded that it was no longer possible for Abbas “to stay home and stay alive”.
“They decided that if at all he has to die, he should die waging jihad,” says Rasheeda making a case for Abbas’ joining the militancy. “Ever since, nobody harasses us. And we are ready for what is going to happen.”
A routine practice
There are many more examples where constant incarceration and torture of some of the young protesters and the requirement to be present at the police station during every crisis have forced them to take up the gun. Police calls them “chronic stone pelters” and the organisers of the protests.
Top separatist leader Yasin Malik has termed Turray as a “classic case” of how Kashmiri youth are pushed to militancy.
“Turray was in jail for the last four years. More than eight PSAs were slapped on him. His family was constantly terrorised, humiliated and oppressed by police and other forces and he was virtually denied every legal and democratic right and hence pushed to the wall,” Malik said in a statement. “The state government left him with no place but to join armed struggle.”
“Imagine, imprisoning and torturing youth for years and using successive PSAs against them. They end up seeking refuge in militancy,” says noted human rights defender Khurram Parvez. “Turray is one more example of how the state makes the militants in Kashmir. Because you choke all possible avenues of peaceful protest.”
Edited by Aleesha Matharu