Survival Tales

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Trained across the LoC, they fought in Kashmir, were jailed and set free. Some of them surrendered too. But that didn’t end the uncertainty in their lives. Sameer Yasir travels across Kashmir to hear the tragic stories of survival after Afzal Guru, one of them, went to gallows.

A woman cries as she hugs her brother after his surrender in Rampur

A woman cries as she hugs her brother after his surrender in Rampur

At the main market in north Kashmir’s Baramulla town, Riyaz Ahmed Mir, 40, theatrically lifts his arms in the air and waddles on the road. The market is abuzz with activity. A woman sitting inside a moving car carelessly looks at Riyaz and quickly turns her head away. Two girl students hurriedly cross the road to avoid him. An aged Sikh walks past Riyaz without looking at him. With his precarious looks – an unkempt beard, tattered clothes, torn shoes and two peeled oranges in his left hand, Riyaz presents the looks of a mad man.

Riyaz, a resident of Tawheedganj in Baramulla, was not always like this. Many people who know him remember him as a man who didn’t speak much and ran a neighbourhood retail shop near his house. That was till 1995 when he crossed over to Pakistan administered Kashmir where he received arms training and joined Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a separatist militant outfit whose motive was to free Kashmir from Indian rule.

“When he returned from Pak in 1996, he was arrested by Border Security Forces. They took him to Joint Interrogation Centre in Baramulla where he was tortured. He was released three years later after which his health began to deteriorate. We consulted many doctors here who said that he was losing his mind because of torture. We even took him to Delhi but that didn’t help. Now we are not even aware of his whereabouts. He stays out of home for days and shopkeepers in the market feed him,” Imtiyaz Ahmed Mir, Riyaz’s elder brother said.

I travelled to south Kashmir in search of another man, a militant who had worked with Pakistan backed Muslim Janbaz Force. Waqaar Ahmad is sitting at his ladies’ cosmetics shop in main market of Pulwama. When he surrendered before the armed forces in Shopian on September 29, 1996, he passed an entrance test at University of Kashmir from where he later obtained a masters degree in Political Science. He wanted to lead a normal life but the security agencies had different plans for him.

“I was picked up by forces along with many former militants of the area whenever a bomb blast took place in the town. We were all locked up for days and tortured. The forces asked us to reveal the names of people who had carried out the attacks. On many occasion, they asked me to become a collaborator if I wanted to lead a normal life,” he told Kashmir Life.

Waqar says he tried to find a job after he came out of the jail but his background became a big hurdle in his career prospects. “There are many former militants who are doing government jobs today. I couldn’t find one because of which I opened this shop,”

A Kashmiri militant surrenders in front of a former General officer Commanding of 19 infantary Div Major Gen. Ramesh Halgali in Baramulla on 20th April 2007.

A Kashmiri militant surrenders in front of a former General officer Commanding of 19 infantry Div Major Gen. Ramesh Halgali in Baramulla on 20th April 2007.

In 1989, thousands of young men cutting across ideological divides crossed the LoC for arms training in Pakistan-administered Kashmir (Pak). Many of them stayed with the militant groups till they were killed or captured while some of them, weary of uncertainty in their lives, decided to give up and surrendered before the armed forces.

Abdul Rashid Sofi also made this journey on foot to joined JKLF. A resident of Handwara town in north Kashmir, Sofi went across the LoC in June 1991. After spending three months in a training camp, he returned to his native village and remained loyal to his ideology of liberating Kashmir for three years.

Sofi was one of known militants in Handwara town who had motivated many young men to cross over for the arms training, presuming that ‘freedom would be attained in months if more people join the rebellion.’ He was one of the most wanted men but he kept changing his locations to avoid surveillance. On February 14, 1994, he was trapped inside the house of a government employee along with four other militants. Instead of fighting the forces surrounding the house, they decided to surrender.

After weeks of continuous interrogation by different security agencies, he decided to give away all that he had – an AK 47, one Chinese pistol and three magazines. “The forces demanded more weapons. I had nothing. So I kept telling lies about ammunition being hidden in faraway places to avoid further assault. We would take them to the places which even we didn’t know and we would tell them guns were here. When they didn’t find them, things would get worse for us,” he recalls. The forces didn’t produce him before the court and he was kept illegally detained for months. When they failed to extract more weapons, he was transferred to Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu where he spent three years.

“As I got out of the jail, I thought this was the end of miseries. But I soon realized this was only the beginning,” Sofi told Kashmir Life. “I tried to start living a normal life and opened a shop. Almost after six months, one day while talking to my customers, the army personnel from a local unit arrested me. They asked me to work with them as an informer. The major at the camp told me in categorical terms that you either get ready to die or work with us.”

Former Kashmiri militants protesting against the harrasment and humilation method out to them by security agencies

Former Kashmiri militants protesting against the harassment and humiliation method out to them by security agencies

After hours of mental torture, he was allowed to leave. Sofi had recently married his cousin who was in her college. He tried to tell his wife about the demands of forces but stopped, presuming that the army officer might change his mind. But the officer didn’t.

“After five days, I was at the shop when they came and took me to the camp. Without even speaking a word, they started assaulting me. I have not seen such thrashing even when I was first arrested as a militant,” he said.

It was after many such illegal detentions and assaults that Sofi decided to bow down and work as an informer with the Army, “I was forced to. I had no connection with any militant and when I failed to provide any information, it led to more assaults,” he said.

Three Kashmiri militants waiting for their turn to surrender in front of army in Srinagar

Three Kashmiri militants waiting for their turn to surrender in front of army in Srinagar

The modern wireless telephony was not introduced in Kashmir in those days and Sofi was asked to visit the camp physically. “This invited danger. People would talk in whispers whenever I would walk by. Even the local militants knew this. I was fed up and decided not to visit the camp. The forces from the camp once again beat me up. I was taken to Handwara district hospital. My wife came to know about it next morning,” he said.

At that time, Misra, who was listening quietly to our conversation besides Sofi joined in. “I found him in an unconscious state. He was beaten so ruthlessly that he started walking after one month.” Sofi led a normal life after that incident until two months when on August 21, 1998, someone knocked at the door in the evening asking for Sofi.

“When I went out, I was shot two times. I got a bullet in the right leg and one in the abdomen. After surgery, I have survived, perhaps to tell my tale,” he told me.

Living at a single-storey house with his three children who study at a college, Sofi says the life of a former militant is not easy. “It would have been better had I been killed. What followed after my release was worse. It was better in jail. Now that my children are well educated, they won’t get a government job for the sins their father has committed.”

A STIGMA FOREVER

Hundreds of kilometres from Handwara in Anantnag town of south Kashmir, Parvaiz Iqbal, 30, is chatting with his friends at a hotel. There is nothing about him which could suggest that he has been a militant in the past. He had crossed the LoC in 1998 when he was 17. He stayed in Jehlum Vadi training camp for three months, almost 50 km from Muzaffarabad in Pak.

Zafar Akbar Bhat

Zafar Akbar Bhat

After spending a brief time in Pak, he returned to Kashmir. “One day I was arrested by Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) forces who later handed me over to Army’s 5th battalion. From there, I was taken to a high ground camp in Anantnag five days later. I was in jail for three years from where I was taken to Harinivas. After 25 days there, I was released from Bijbehara police station,” he told Kashmir Life.

“One day a senior police official who was on his way to Anantnag on the first day of his assuming charge in the district was attacked in Pampore,” he said. Little did Parvaiz know that the attack would lead to more trauma in his already disrupted life. The forces told him that one of the militant arrested for the attack had revealed his involvement in the attack.

“I was arrested by the Special Task Force. They interrogated me for days. A bamboo stick was inserted into my mouth which left my wind pipe completely damaged. I had a casual chat with one of the men who was lodged in jail with me, a day before the attack. That was the only reason I was tortured for seven days. It took me Rs 5 lakh rupees in Chandigarh and six months to stand on my feet. I still have nightmares of that incident,” he said.

“It didn’t stop there. I had a flowing beard after my release. It became an eyesore for the officer who refused to issue me a character certificate. After I shaved, I got the certificate,” he said.

Ghulam Nabi Bhat

Ghulam Nabi Bhat

“Then there was this Company Commander of 3 RR. He came to my home and directed me to work for them. I refused. He took me to his camp where I was tortured and later released. It was only when that officer got transferred that I felt safe and started to lead a normal life. Even after we shun violence, life is hell for all of us,” he told Kashmir life.

“We have the tag of a former militant. We can hardly do anything. I had applied for the passport but I couldn’t get one. Even my children won’t get that,” he said.

The security agencies in Kashmir have adopted this measure of not issuing the mandatory security clearance certificate to all the former militants, their families and even their distant and far relatives for obtaining passports as a policy. Even if the former militants want to lead a normal life, they are chased by security agencies and asked to co-opt. Most of the former militants I spoke to recall the horrors they faced at the hands of security forces and the constant uncertainty prevailing in their lives.

In Kashmir valley, there are endless tales of former surrendered militants facing continuous harassment by various security agencies. Their children don’t get passports for the ‘sins’ their fathers have committed. Their cousins don’t get government jobs because their relatives have been militants. The list of tragedies goes on and on. There is not one but a plethora of problems that these men, their families and their relatives face.

“Even if there is a small blast anywhere, the needle of suspicion has been and will be always us. When a bomb blast took place near the flyover in Jahangir Chowk, I was kept under custody for thirty days without any reason,” says Tariq Ahmad, a former militant who lives on the outskirts of Srinagar city.

Tariq was walking near the bridge when the blast happened. Once the police in Kashmir and its counter-insurgency wing, the Special Operations Group, came to know that Tariq had been a militant, he was picked up from his house and kept under lockup for many days without even a charge-sheet, “I was beaten up mercilessly. They asked me for information about the people who had carried out the blast. How could I tell them,” he said.

In Baramulla, Ghulam Nabi Bhat, 40, a street vendor says he was working as a peon in a government department before he crossed over to Pak. After remaining active for three years and returning to Kashmir, he surrendered in Kandi area of Baramulla. He was sent to jail and after spending two years in jail, he was released.

“Once I was free, I wanted to join my department back like many others. I was told that I have lost the job. That is how I started working as a street vendor.”

Bhat says those people who were able to bribe their superior officers in their department retained their jobs. But those who couldn’t afford to arrange the bribe lost their livelihoods, “That job was my only source of income to take care of three brothers and my old mother. I was given no option,” he said.

Kashmiri surrendered militant while speaking to media --Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Kashmiri surrendered militant while speaking to media –Photo: Bilal Bahadur

A Movement for Justice

Many years ago, Qadir Dar, 45, formed Peoples Rights Movement, an NGO to fight for the rights of these militants. Qadir was a former militant himself and says that most people who are part of his NGO are asked to report at Army camps and police station on every January 26 and August 15. “Many of these people lead normal lives and have nothing to do with militancy. But the harassment continues. For that reason we formed this organization to fight for our rights,” he says.

Qadir Dar

Qadir Dar

“Many of my friends couldn’t marry. No one wants their daughter to marry tainted people. And the agencies of the state want you to collaborate with them even if you might not wish to,” he rued.

If there was anything which the Afzal Guru case proved in the Kashmir context, it is the relationship between those men who wanted to lead a normal life and the Kashmir’s security apparatus which coerces them into submission to work as collaborators or get face torture, humiliation and social exclusion. Thousands of militants who crossed over to Pak after their return either surrendered before the security agencies or they were caught and jailed. But what happened after that is an endless saga of tragedies which makes them easy prey for the counter-insurgency grid of the state.

“There is a complete battalion in Indian Army full of Kashmiris who work as informers. When the Special Task Force was disbanded in Mufti Sayeed-led coalition government, many former militants who had joined it were left jobless. Most of these men work with the Army now as informers. Of late, the Army has also realized that most of them have been feeding them wrong information. And in most cases even the Army has stopped paying them,” a senior police official told Kashmir Life.

Zaffar Akbar Bhat who started the Jammu and Kashmir Salvation Movement in 2003 says most of former militants have come under one platform after the tragic 9/11 attack in US when the political situation changed throughout the world. “People shunned violence for political dialogue. But their lives have become miserable.”

“Even people who want to perform Umarah (a religious pilgrimage) can’t go because they don’t get a clearance certificate from the police. It is a crisis. The future of their children is dark. They can’t get admission in good schools. So what should they do?” he asks.

“I asked many well-established businessmen in the valley who were friends to accommodate some of these men in their office. But they refused, saying that they would give them money but not jobs,” he claims.

Bhat says there are more than 30,000 former militants living in Kashmir valley. “And most of them been slapped with the draconian Public Safety Act once. Many wanted to start their own businesses but they can’t get bank loans. It is very disturbing for them. To save them from persecution, we formed this organization. But no one listens to us.”

“Even months before elections, they are told to make sure that voting happens in their area, which is to tell them indirectly that they can’t oppose the polls and make sure people come out to vote,” says Khuram Parvaiz, a human rights activist based in Srinagar.

During the 2008 and 2010 civil unrest in valley, the police suspected some of these former militants for their involvement in the uprising which was why they were engaged by security agencies by holding meetings with them in different districts. But what happened in these meetings is unknown!

A senior Army official who spoke to Kashmir Life said there was a fear these former militants might get recycled, “So we used to ask them to come to camps. But now we have stopped it. Sometimes you have to make sure that they don’t fall in the trap and there is always a possibility. But by and large, we ask them to come only on important occasions, once in six months, or so.”

Many former militants, like Waqaar Ahmed from Pulwama, fought the recently held Panchayat elections. “A friend advised me to fight elections to avoid daily harassment and torture by forces. I did and won. Now that I am a Panch, no one asks me to come to the Army camp. You become a nationalist from an anti-national overnight. Now I get invitations, not warrants,” he says.

(Some names in the story have been changed)

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