A TALE OF TWO FLAGS

A new crop of Kashmiri militants is fighting in the name of religion—not politics

Quartz india
Quartz india

“This nation is ours, we will decide its face,” shouted a man at the funeral of Eisa Fazili in Srinagar on March 12. Fazili was one of the three militants who had been killed early that morning in a gunfight with security forces in a south Kashmir village some 60 kilometres away.

Various slogans were competing at his funeral. “We want freedom,” shouted one group. “Kashmir will become Pakistan,” shouted another. “Musa, Musa, Zakir Musa,” shouted a third, referring to the leader of the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, a local armed group which is affiliated to the al Qaeda and rejects the idea of a nation state.

The flags of Pakistan, Pakistan-occupied-Jammu and Kashmir, and Saudi Arabia jostled with the flags of the Jaish-e-Muhammad and the black and white flags made familiar by the Islamic State. Twenty three-year-old Fazili’s body was draped in the black flag.

The rival groups of mourners soon got into a scuffle while youth swarmed around a man believed to be the militant who recruited Fazili. But then someone shouted out that he was an informer for government agencies and the chaos continued.

This was not, perhaps, the kind of funeral that Fazili’s father, Naeem Fazili, had in mind when he had posted on Facebook earlier in the day, giving precise instructions. The service would be held at “3pm sharp” at Sharjah Ground on 90 Feet Road near their home in Ahmednagar.

Militants of Srinagar

Of the three militants killed on March 12, Fazili was the only one from Srinagar. The militancy that has gained ground over the last five years had its epicentre in the four districts of south Kashmir. But after the protests of 2016, which broke out with the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, and despite the ensuing security crackdown called “Operation All Out,” young men from other parts of the Valley have also taken up arms.

Unlike the militancy of the 1990s, where urban centres played an important part, this phase of militancy took shape largely in rural areas and small towns. In Srinagar, once the hub of militancy and separatist politics, it was slow to pick up. According to government figures, 280 youth joined militant ranks in Kashmir in the last three years. According police officials, there are only three militants from Srinagar at present.

Fazili, who lived in a modest house in the posh Ahmednagar area, left home last August to take up arms against the state. From the crowded lanes of downtown Srinagar, Sajid Ahmed Gilkar joined militant ranks in June. Towards the other end of the city, Mugees Ahmed Mir left his home in the bustling Parimpora area in April 2016,  There are only three militants from Srinagar at present. along with Dawood Sofi, who lived close by.

The three men came from very different homes in very different parts of town but were united by a common factor. All three claimed to be fighting a religious rather than a political war.

The police believe Fazili was with the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen, a relatively small Islamist group, and was responsible for the killing of a separatist leader’s police guard in Srinagar last month. The attack, however, was claimed by a pro-Islamic State channel on the messaging service, Telegram. Pictures of the slain policeman and his weapon, stolen by the attackers, were circulated, signed “Wilayah Kashmir,” or province of Kashmir.

On March 12, pictures of the slain militants were circulated on social media. They showed Fazili and the two others who had been killed with him standing in front of black flags bearing the inscription “ISJK”—Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir.

Gilkar joined the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen, but years before he joined up, he was arrested for possessing a black flag. Mir, too, had joined the Hizb but his “heart was not in it,” his mother said. He would say he was “fighting for Islam, not Pakistan.”

A grieving father

Ahmednagar is a new colony with palatial houses. The vast fields on the city’s outskirts became a preferred location for the families who had found prosperity abroad, and for Valley-based business families seeking an escape from the congestion of Srinagar.

The Fazilis lived a quiet life. Naeem Fazili, principal at a government run school, was always wary of the influence that Kashmir’s turbulence might have on his children. Eisa Fazili was enrolled in a missionary school in Srinagar and given Quran lessons at home to prevent him from coming in contact with “extremist” ideas, Naeem Fazili said.

A picture of Eisa Fazili with the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who heads Hurriyat (G), did the rounds on social media after he was killed. Geelani himself claimed Eisa Fazili had been close to him.

Two incidents left a mark on Eisa Fazili, who was then studying engineering outside the Valley, in Jammu. The first was the death of an engineering student during stone pelting in Srinagar in 2015. Then, in June 2017, Naeem Fazili said, he was disturbed by pictures of the charred bodies of militants recovered from the site of a gunfight in Pulwama district. “I took it lightly then,” he said, adding that Fazili had spent little time at home in the last few years.

Eisa Fazili’s friends noticed a gradual change in him. Amir Ahmad Amin, his classmate in school, took to Facebook to point out Fazili’s transition. “I remember the fiery expression on Eisa’s face when someone criticised the then newly mushroomed cult we all know today as ISIS,” Amin wrote. “I curse the Wahabi preachers who mislead (sic) him.” 

The post carries on in a bitter note: “I curse the Wahabi preachers who mislead (sic) him, the Tehreeki leaders who inspired and encouraged him, the careless relatives and friends who never stopped him from taking the leap into the dark abyss. They are all alive and well today—ranting and raving—but Eisa is not.”

After his son left home, Naseem Fazili had also used Facebook to try to bring him back home. “Eisa your innocence is being exploited,” he wrote in post last year. “Please don’t play with fire. Return as early as possible.” Though the post was deleted soon, it had already gone viral and screenshots of it were circulated again on March 12, after his son had been killed.

A tale of two flags

On Nov. 17, 2017, a shootout in Srinagar led to the deaths of a police sub-inspector and Mugees Ahmad Mir, a militant. Soon afterwards, Amaq, the Islamic State’s official media wing, claimed responsibility for the attack on the policemen and called Mir its “second martyr” in the Valley.

The next day anti-Hurriyat slogans echoed as Mir’s body, draped in the black flag, made its way through the narrow roads of Parimpora, a congested settlement built close to the Jhelum, opposite a newly designated general bus stand. Mir’s family seems to believe in the idea of martyrdom, so commonly circulated about militants in Kashmir. After Mir died, his family distributed sweets for two days on “the celebratory occasion.”

Mir’s interest lay in studying Islam and its history, his mother, Hajra Bano, said. He dropped out of school calling it “jahanami taleem”—cursed education. Among his influences were the poet Mohammad Iqbal and Sultan Salahudin Ayubi, the 12th century Muslim ruler who led a military campaign against the Crusaders.

A number of sketches are displayed in a gallery at Mir’s home. Hajra Bano, his mother, said some of them were made by Mir. Bano was in touch with Mir till his death. One such sketch shows a black wine glass bearing the flag associated with the Islamic State, flanked by two Kalashnikovs. There are inscriptions in Arabic on the sketch: “Paradise in the shade of sword” and “The law of Allah cannot be established without the sword.” Some sketches are signed “talib-ul-jihad”—student of jihad.

In south Kashmir’s Shopian disitrict, Mir had managed to replace the green flags with black, Bano said, albeit briefly. “The Hurriyat and other militants stepped in,” Bano said. She claimed that Mir was on his way to meet Burhan Wani, with the plea to only use black flags. “He was only 1.5 kilometres away from Bemdura [the place where Wani was killed] when Burhan was martyred,” she said.

Mir’s wife had tried to dissuade him when he was about to join the militancy. Later, pictures of their infant son circulated online but even that “did not soften him,” Bano said with a kind of pride. His “only mission,” she said, was “to raise the black flag of Islam.”

A kilometre from Parimpora, in Mustafabad, Mir’s acquaintance, Dawood Sofi, ran a travel business. Like Mir, Sofi also dropped out of school and is believed to have played a role in reviving the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen. According to police officials in Srinagar, Sofi had recruited Eisa Fazili into militancy.

In April 2017, a video emerged of Sofi, who goes by the nom de guerre Burhan Musaib, addressing mourners gathered at a graveyard in Pulwama district, asking them to not wave the “un-Islamic” flag of Pakistan during the funerals of militants.

The shades of the Jamia Masjid

Sofi’s calls were answered on July 12, when mourners at Gilkar’s funeral tossed a Pakistani flag into a drain, replacing it with a black flag. Umer Adil Dar, a Hurriyat worker, was manhandled as he attempted to address the mourners, a local resident said. The funeral procession began at Pandan, near the Jamia Masjid in Nowhatta.

The mosque has played a prominent role in Kashmir’s political history. For decades, it has been presided over by a Mirwaiz, traditionally considered the religious leader of Kashmiri Muslims in Srinagar. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the present incumbent, also leads a faction of the Hurriyat that is usually described as moderate.

The downtown area has long been the site of political and religious contestations. The early half of the 20th century, for instance, saw battles between the “sher” (or tigers, the nickname for followers of the National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah) and the “bakra” (or goats, followers of the Mirwaiz). In the 1990s, it became the hub of separatist politics. Much of the separatist leadership lived here. According to local residents, the youth joined militant ranks in thousands from downtown Srinagar.

The Jamia Masjid itself is also the site of a Friday protest that has become almost a ritual now. Local youth gather during prayers to pelt stones and chant anti-government slogans. In the last couple of years, as discontent with the Hurriyat gained ground, black flags began to appear at these protests. In his last tweet, Gilkar called Geelani a “puppet of India.” He then went on to say: “inshallah [godwilling] stone pelters take guns and fight with india. we r not with u”. He joined militant ranks less than a month later.

Also in June, the Jamia Masjid saw a serious act of violence. A police officer was lynched to death by a crowd the night before Friday prayers. Gilkar was a “key suspect” in the lynching, according to the police.

A worn out politics?

What explains this gradual drift from the old separatist politics and perhaps even the pro-Pakistan nationalism of militant groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen? Bilal Siddiqui, one of the first to pick up arms against India in the late 1980s and now the chairman of a constituent party in the Geelani-led faction of the Hurriyat, put it down to the “influence of the time.”

During the late 1980s, the Afghan Jihad and the Iranian Revolution were the global events that served as “inspiration” for many militants Kashmir, he said, but today it was the Taliban and the Islamic State. “The thought has taken root,” he said. The disillusionment stemmed from the political failure to address the issue. 

The disillusionment with the older politics, he said, stemmed from the political failure to address the Kashmir issue. “There is a section of the youth who say that you [the Hurriyat] have no solution to offer,” he said. In the late-1980s, a number of political parties had grouped together to address Kashmiri political aspirations through democratic means. “India did not let that political movement grow and instead militancy got space,” he said.

Today, he continued, the apparent failure of even those militant groups to effect change seemed to be pushing the youth closer to other ideologies. But there were still militants who saw Kashmir “as a political issue,” Siddique said.

This piece was first published on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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