Minor Militants

The latest of the juvenile rebels killed in an encounter was only 15 years of age. He was neither the first to fall to the bullets nor is expected to be the last minor with a gun. While a juvenile arrest triggers some sort of tension in the society, why there are no murmurs when a minor picks up a gun, asks Aakash Hassan

Just For The Fun. A group of boys with toy guns posing for a photograph. Source Facebook

The last gun battle that shook Kashmir was reported from a Tral village on May 27. It sent out two body bags: Sabzar Ahmad Bhat and Faizan Ahmad Bhat.

Both the Bhats’ had own distinctions. Sabzar was the successor of Burhan Wani, the minor father of Kashmir’s new-age militancy. Faizan was probably the youngest combatant to die in recent days. He was only 15.

His induction into militancy was recent. Almost eighty days before he was laid to rest, Hizb-ul-Mujhideen rebel, Aqib Moulvi, and his associate were trapped in a tight cordon of counter-insurgency grid in Hyun village. That day of March, Faizan left his home.

A Class X student, Faizan, along with local boys marched towards encounter site. The local youth clashed with the anti-militancy forces in an attempt to break the cordon, now Kashmir’s new norm. As a group literally disarmed a paramilitary CRPF personnel, Faizan picked up the assault rifle, fled from the spot. That day he became a militant. After living less than three months on the run, Faizan was killed. But he is not the first minor to pick up the gun in Kashmir.

Kashmir’s new-age rebellion is a teenage story. When Burhan Wani moved to the nearby woods in the summer of 2010, he was only 15, miles away from touching adulthood. Early poses in his album with a gun reflect his raw innocence. The teenage rebel was noticed by the virtual world, years before he commanded his status in the real world. His induction into militancy was his reaction to an insult by somebody in uniform.

International laws prohibit the recruitment of juveniles into any armed conflict and seek their protection. Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, “conscripting or enlisting children into armed forces or groups constitutes a war crime in both international and non-international armed conflicts.”

Under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, it stated, “States must ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces, while armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit persons under the age of 18 years.”

But who cares about the books and the laws!

Two minor boys with their toy guns posing in front of photographs of slain civilians and militants, somewhere in South Kashmir.

Who can be accused of this war crime? Why are these teenagers taking extreme step in the Kashmir? Different accounts back dissimilar stories. There are Burhan-like-situations. And there are theories of boys having “conviction”?

But some stories are deep-rooted, complicated, and cannot have one-line explanations.

Tauseef Ahmad, from Rampur Qaimoh of Kulgam, joined militancy four-years-ago after he passed his matriculation.

“He belongs to a militant family,” a police official in Kulgam said, “and it became prime reason for him to join folds.”

His two uncles have died as militants in ’90s and later his cousin followed the same path and was killed. Tauseef picked up the gun after witnessing what happened to his maternal family.

His uncle, Mohammad Abbas Sheikh, was an active militant and was arrested in 2004. Sheikh was released after a year but the family says, forces never let them live in peace.

Police used to raid Sheikh’s house regularly and harass the family members, alleges Tauseef’s cousin, a  witness to his upbringing in a state of “anger and (with a) sense of revenge”.

Three years ago police raided Sheikh’s house to arrest him. He fled from the spot. He was fired at but he survived.

Those bullets, he ducked, changed Tauseef completely, says his childhood friend wishing to remain anonymous. Next year, Tauseef joined his militant uncle. That is how he became a rebel.

The latest juvenile joining militancy is Shamsul Viqar Teeli. This 17-year-old hails from Ganjipora village near Wanpoh, the highway village of Kulgam.

A national-level cricketer enrolled in an integrated law course at the Central University of Kashmir, he was the lone son of a well-off family.

Shamsul used to join the anti-Indian protest and was a listed stone pelter. He was arrested by police number of times and beaten harshly, alleges his relative. Even his father was detained by police for 15 days.

He would avoid sleeping at home fearing nocturnal police raids, his father told local newspaper days after his joining.

A day before he was scheduled to join classes at University, he went to attend the funeral of a militant in Redwani. Since then he didn’t return home. His photos later appeared on the internet in military fatigue, evidence to his family about his joining.

“Being the lone son, he cherished every comfort with a very good education,” says his classmate Zakir (name changed). “But the sense of atrocity led him to join militancy.”

To Zakir, Teeli was like any other classmate. “But after his detention and then as his father was arrested there was a visible change in his behavior,” Zakir said. “He told me once, ‘what is the fun of life that is spent behind lockups taking lathis of cops’.”

According to the police records, two boys who joined militancy after Burhan’s killing were below 18.  The data reveals that 15 militants are 18-19 years old.

However, locals aware of the happenings differ with the figures. They say around ten of these militants are below 18 and police avoids mentioning their age correctly.

“India has always violated child rights in Kashmir,” says Khurram Parvez, human rights defender who was himself booked under draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) after people hit streets in Kashmir following Burhan’s killing on July 8, 2016.

“These children feel pushed to the wall and that is why they take such extreme step,” feels Khurram. He sees roots of the problem in the way police deals with the juveniles when they are arrested.

“There are innumerable cases where minors were arrested and illegally detained in police stations. There is no one to ask police why these juveniles are being tortured for weeks,” he says. “It is obvious that they will react.”

However, Khurram says militant organizations recruiting them should not be overlooked. “For instance, Faizan joined militant ranks and they owned him,” he said. “How can a 15-year-old have his consent,” he asks. “He is a minor and cannot take decisions on his own.”

But some cases are different. Dawood Sheikh of Qaimoh (Kulgam) was arrested by police, his family says when he was a ninth standard student. He was accused of stone pelting in Islamabad. For the next three years, he was arrested several times and was interrogated in SOG camp in Qaimoh and other places.

“SOG men interrogated him several times for throwing stones and later for being an Over Ground Worker (OGW),” alleges his brother.

In the summer of 2014 when he walked out of the Qaimoh’s SOG camp, he went home, had his lunch and left again.

Barely half-an-hour later, he sent shockwaves around. He shot dead a counterinsurgent turned cop by firing with a pistol just at the gate of the SOG camp he was released from barely an hour back.

“Dawood could have been saved if he had been tackled differently,” says a professor from the same area, who knew him since his childhood.  “Let us agree he was a stone-pelter. Did he cease from pelting stones after he was roughed up by police? No, he did not.”

A year after Dawood joined Hizb ul Mujahideen and became close aide of Burhan Wani, he was killed in an encounter few miles away from his home on March 6, 2016.

The case of another youth who joined militancy recently is more appalling. Zubair Turrey, 23, fled from police custody and was missing for several days till his video appeared with AK-47. His family alleges Turrey was arrested first at the age of 11 and by now, his father said, he faced seven more PSAs in a few years.

 “This (Dawood’s case) justifies Army chief’s statement. They don’t want stone pelters to live peacefully. Instead, they compel them to pick-up gun so that they can be killed without any question,” the professor says.

“I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us,” Army Chief General Bipin Rawat was quoted saying recently. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I (want to do)”

“These juvenile militants are a reflection of government’s policy towards children,” Rao Farman Ali, author of History of Armed Struggles in Kashmir, said. “There is no outreach policy, instead state is making them weak, marooned and escalating desperation in them by showering pellets.”

He believes that situation makes children angry and government by its actions upgrades anger into hatred.

Recruitment of juvenile combatants is no novel trend of the new age Kashmir militancy. “Earlier in 90’s young boys in large number were recruited and a number of them died immaturely,” says a journalist who has been covering Kashmir for last three decades. “I remember many cases where young militants of age from 13 were active and one who would join after matriculation would make a big deal.”

Some of these young boys crossed LoC and went to training camps on other side. However, many were killed while crossing the LoC.  Some of them landed in bigger militant networks. In November 2015 a family from Nagam village of Southern district of Islamabad identified their son in an Al-Qaeda video.

Al Qaeda claimed in the video that one of their operatives killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan’s North Waziristan was Muhammad Ashraf Dar from Kashmir’s Islamabad.

While confirming that he is their son, the family said that Dar, then 15-year-old, had crossed over to Pakistan administered Kashmir in 2001 to acquire training in firearms as a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen cadre.

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