Revisit Surrendered

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As mother’s emotional plea and father’s cardiac attack brought footballer turned ‘militant’ back home, all of a sudden seeking and accepting surrender became the new in-thing in Kashmir’s security grid hitherto unwilling to take even prisoners. But to make the rethinking impact the ground positively, authorities will have to put in more efforts to improve the earlier record, reports Muhammad Younis

Last Friday when the news about footballer Majid Khan laying arms before the army spread like wild fire, it reached Muhammad Shaban Bhat while he was sitting at a grocery shop near his home in Pulwama’s Chersoo village. “No father likes to shoulder the coffin of his child,” was his quick take on Khan’s surrender. “His father definitely should be in high heavens… after all, the stick of his old age hasn’t broken prematurely.”

Each morning, before leaving for work, as Bhat, 55, spends sometime at the same spot, the passers-by stop to extend him greetings. The feelings that come along are usually replete with respect. Spending a few moments with him, they ask him about things which they otherwise don’t care to ask others about.

Bhat’s home has survived three members out of five. Two years ago, his wife, Fareeda Begum, 45, suffered a cardiac arrest. Few months after her death, Ashiq Hussain, their eldest son, was killed in an encounter at Dadsara (Tral). Ashiq was listed an A++ category militant after his name cropped up in the Udhampur militant attack where two BSF personnel were killed when theirconvoy was attacked. Now Shaban has two kids, a daughter, who has dropped out of school to take care of the hearth, and a 20 year old son, who,struggles to excel in studies to fulfil the desires that his father had conjured up for the eldest one.

A little distance away from Shaban’s house, lives Mughli. Once in a while or so, this 55-year-old lady cries her heart out. When her voice float out of the room that used to be her son’s, and echo in the vicinity, her neighbours get to understand that she is missing him. A year and a half before Ashiq’s killing, Aijaz Ahmad,her son, was killed at Kangan (Pulwama). He was anA category militant.

Aijaz and Ashiq were close friends. The mass protests of 2008 and 2010 had a huge bearing on their lives. Ashiq adapted a “strange” habit of collecting the newspaper clippings about civilians killed during the protests. “He maintained sort of a diary in which he kept the record of the people killed,”Bhat said.“Sometimes he also gave vent to his feelings by writing. From the writings, I got the hunch of him brimming from inside. And it would concern me.”

On the other hand, Aijaz, not so well read, became an ardent protestor. “Not a single protest in the area it would be in which he didn’t have taken part in,” says Mughli. “He hurled stones on police… he hurled a lot of stones.”

To curb the protests, when the government initiated a clampdown, both friends began to seek other ways to fight the system. Aijaz started attending funerals of slain militants, hoping of running into the active militants, so that he joins them. “The process went on for couple of years. We heard that he had got in contact, but fortunately the militants hadn’t said him a yes,”said his father.

As Aijaz’s mother learned about his intentions, she started looking for a girl to get him married. “When I suggested him the name of a girl for marriage, he said:one day, you are to see me keffiyeh donned, so why are you rushing for it, and then flashed me a smile… somehow thus managed to dodge the marriage,” she says. “Who knew which keffiyeh he was talking about?”

Ashiq’s mother was a heart patient. Installed with a pace maker, it was somewhat a sufficient reason for him not to cross the line. “When we got the feeling that he was on the brim of doing something dangerous, his mother always talked to him about her possible heart failure if anything bad occurred to him,” the father recalled.

But Aijaz crossed the line finally. One day, after spending a 10 day Aiteqaaf in a local masjid, the grip let loose, and Aijaz went missing. A week after the Eid, his family learned that he was a militant.

Ashiq continued to stay with his ailing mother. “After Aijaz’s joining, my son voiced his resolution of picking up arms one day.. but he didn’t… I think the love of his mother was keeping him back,” says Shaban.

Finding him slipping away towards the “fatal destiny”, Shaban enrolled him in a nursing college at Pulwama. After his medical assistant’s training course ended, the same college hired him. And Shaban kept his fingers crossed.

On February 2, 2014, Aijaz was killed in an encounter at Kangan. Ashiq was crying at his funeral. Residents remember his frantic sloganeering at Aijaz’s coffin: Aijaz tearae khoon sae inqilaab aayae ga (Aijaz your blood will bring the revolution)…

A few months later, Ashiq disappeared into Kashmir’s parallel universe that is so close but so invisible to a common man. Family launched a manhunt and got them a letter, one night. “You people stay happy,” the letter read. “You don’t worry about me. I have chosen my way. I can’t bear this anymore. My silence would have killed me anyway.” A year and a half later, on March 3, 2015, he got a bullet and fell silent till eternity.

In the time period of those two years, a little more than 200 militants were killed. Interestingly the figure remained somewhat proportional with the new recruits; around 150 local youth also joined militancy during the same period.

Every year, the security grid tries reducing militant numbers but new recruits continue adding on and it becomes a no-ending game. In the ongoing Operation All Out, around 200 militants stand killed, 90 of them locals. But freshers continue rebelling. Almost 90 local youth joined militancy this year.

The number of new militants being created is directly proportional to the militants killed is perhaps the main reason for policy makers to go for a “course correction”. MHA sent a team of third party experts to investigate why militants prefer fighting over surrender. They met the former militants, the surrendered militants, the militants in jails and the families of the militants. Subsequently, district jail Pulwama was converted into a ‘correction home’ for the youth arrested for stone pelting incidents. This ‘Home’ is designed to run unlike a jail and avoid humiliation, insult and torture during questioning and interrogation. When Majid Khan laid down his arms, a new surrender policy was already being talked about. But the footballer laid down the arms because of her mother and his outfit claimed they sent him home.

Khan’s Ghar-Wapsi was seen as a natural inauguration of the government’s initiative for a new rehabilitation policy for militants. General Officer Commanding, Victor Force, Major General, B S Raju said that they would provide full opportunity to Khan to pursue his career in academics. “The youth who have gone astray and have treaded a wrong path must follow Khan’s footsteps and return to the mainstream,” General Raju said. “We will accept the surrender of militants even during the middle of a gunfight. If a local militant puts his hand up during an encounter, we will let him live and help him join the mainstream,” Dr S P Vaid, State Police Chief, said.

Islamabad town, from where Majid and Waqar (one of the three militants arrested at Kulgam) hails, hadn’t seen any local youth joining militancy for over a decade. Because of their popularity within their peers as talented sportsmen in the town, “they were a potential threat, capable of motivating more youth to pick up arms.” Waqar has played under-19 cricket at the national level and Majid Khan is known as a cricketer and footballer.

Three days after Khan’s surrender, another Kashmir youth, Naseer Ahmed of Chimmar (Kulgam), who had joined Hizb ul Mujhadeen returned home. Coming on the heels, two more families from South Kashmir’s Pulwama and Shopian districts have made emotional appeal to their sons, who have joined militancy, to return. Ashiq Hussain Bhat, a trader from Shopian, and now a LeT militant, had a passionate appeal from his wife: “We have no support except you (Bhat). Please come back. I only want you to come back (and) if you won’t return I will commit suicide.”

For a very long time, a strong section in the counter-insurgency grid is unwilling to take surrenders. Teenagers forming the maximum of the ‘new age militancy’ were also not ready to surrender. In this backdrop, a goal-keeper’s “penalty corner” becomes a celebration. But why is government’s surrender policy so badly responded on ground?

Surrender policy was always there but it was last revisited in 2004. Besides, there was a rehabilitation policy, launched in 2010, with focus on Kashmiri youth living in Pakistan who wanted to return. Both these policies were botched up. Incentivised killings made surrenders un-attractive for government combatants.

When Riyaz Ahmad (name changed), 45, an ex-militant from Handwara returned home, taking the Nepal route from Pakistan, he hoped of a better future. “We were doing economically well there,” Ahmad said. Back home, it was a predicament in the offing. He wanted to apply for a job and had a to fight a battle for his State Subject certificate.

Somehow Riyaz managed a living by doing a menial work at a stone quarry, but his children had to bear the brunt. A couple of years ago, when Zaenab, Riyaz’s eldest daughter,  passed 12th standard, she started coaching for MBBS. Unfortunately when she couldn’t make it, Riyaz thought of sending her abroad. But she was denied a passport.

“I sold the land that I had inherited from my father to let my daughter study. Even after spending a good amount of money, I couldn’t get her the passport,” Ahmad said. “I went from pillar to post, even up to Delhi, but nothing happened.”

The son of another Pak-returned militant, Riyaz said was having a degree in veterinary. “When he applied for a job, he was told his degree is invalid,” Riyaz said. “Another girl was eventually married off, when she wasn’t given an admission after 12th.”

Tired now, Asifa, wife of another such militant said that she, along with 10 others, have filed a petition in the court seeking permission for returning back to Pakistan. “Everywhere we are being asked about our identity… this is what we wanted, nothing else.”

The state of combatants who surrendered is termed to be worse. Waiting for rehabilitation, they are yet to get their “disloyalty” tags removed. Every time, there is unrest, or a militant attack, surrender militant is the first to get a call from police station and an army garrison. This excludes the “militants” who worked for the security grid and were accommodated in various paramilitary forces.

When Ashiq and Aijaz were active; security grid employed various “brute” methods against their families to coerce their wards to lay arms. Aijaz’s two little brothers were put in jail for weeks together and tortured. Ashiq’s father was tortured at Srinagar’s Cargo, his cousin was given electric shocks: his house raided frequently. And one day his mother, on September 8, 2014, suffered a heart stroke due to continuous raids. But still the duo didn’t return.

“What do you have to offer him (a militant)? Life?” Shaban asks. “If it were the case, he wouldn’t have chosen gun in the first place.” But if the same life that is apparently the only thing on table, could it be de-linked from humiliation, and torture? “The policy makers are talking about cures− when you cure a problem, there are chances of it cropping up anytime again− they should look for preventions,” advices Shaban, after losing his pallbearer to the conflict.

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