On Saturday, May 27, Kashmir was tense after 31-year-old Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, a top commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in an encounter with security forces in Tral in Pulwama district. But another militant also died with him, 16-year-old Faizan Muzaffar Bhat, armed to the teeth, ready to die and to kill.

Faizan Muzaffar Bhat’s death brings a grim fact into focus: minors in Kashmir are taking up arms to confront the state. Going by newspaper reports, there are at least three minors who have been identified as active militants with the two main outfits operating in the Valley, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen.

Others who joined as minors have already been killed, such as 17-year-old Adil Sheikh and 16-year-old Sartaj Ahmad Lone, both from Bijbehara in Anantnag district. Both died in an encounter with security forces in Aishmukham, a nearby town, in 2015. Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was 15 when he took up arms and the figurehead of the militant group in Kashmir by the time he died on July 8 last year, aged 22.

‘Senior militant’ at 16

There is another teenager who is known as a “senior militant” in Pulwama in South Kashmir. Arif Dar, who lived in Lelhar village, was 14 when he stumbled into militancy, his family said. Fascinated by a pouch of AK-47 magazines lying at an encounter site, Dar took it home with him in excitement.

The police now say he was bullied and teased by other children in his village who convinced him the Army would go after him for taking the ammunition. On August 25, 2015, two weeks after he found the pouch at the encounter site, he left his home to join the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The youngest of five siblings, Dar was the darling of his family. He was not a stone-pelter. Unlike many youth who have joined militancy in the last few years, he did not have a history of being harassed by security forces. “He never did anything to warrant police attention,” said his mother, Saja Begum.

In Lelhar, Dar’s family members are still trying to reconcile themselves to the fact that he has become a militant. “Had it been another of my sons [both are adults] who went with the mujahid, I would have come to terms with it,” Begum said, softly. “He was just a little boy.”

Over the last two years, Dar has consistently been exposed to violence. “He is fully motivated by the jihadi sentiment now, and jihadis also need more to join. He has shown no willingness to surrender so far,” a police official in Pulwama said.

The official added that Dar is now a “senior militant” as he has been active for two years. Most militants do not make it past a year before being killed by security forces. Dar, according to police officials in Pulwama, was involved in bank robberies in South Kashmir and is believed to have been taken in by a group of six local and two Pakistani militants, including Abu Dujana, the Pakistani divisional commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in South Kashmir.

‘Had we known’

A billboard with the photographs of slain militants in South Kashmir's Pulwama district.

Police officials believe militant groups have no real policy to recruit minors, but said a “jihadi sentiment” is seeping into young minds, turning them into active perpetrators of violence. In South Kashmir, boys under 18 have been involved in militant operations, they said, including the killing of Abdul Gani Dar, Pulwama district president of the People’s Democratic Party.

In Shopian district’s Trenz village, 17-year-old Ubaid Shafi Malla joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in February, a month before his birthday. Born in 2000, the aspiring doctor had scored 378 out of 500 in his Class 12 board examinations. According to his family, Malla was attending coaching classes in Srinagar for over two months. He came home for a day and then left to join the militant ranks.

His story is similar to that of Dar. Malla, too, disappeared without giving any hint that he was inclined to take up arms. “Had we known, we would not have let him go,” is a refrain common to both families. Like Dar, Malla was never involved in stone-pelting and had never been harassed by security forces, his family said.

Who toh aisa kaam kabhi karta hi nah [he never did such a thing],” said Malla’s father Mohammad Shafi, who owns an orchard.

The calm and soft-spoken Shafi lamented his helplessness. “Those who want to go do not ask their parents,” he said. “Today, families with even a single son worry that he might join up someday. Parents no longer think their sons are their own anymore.”

On June 1, the media reported that another 17-year-old, this time in neighbouring Kulgam district, had abandoned his studies to join the militant ranks.

A Kashmiri militant shouts slogan at the burial of Hizbul Mujahideen’s Sabzar Ahmed Bhat at Rathsuna village in Tral, about 45 Kilometres south of Srinagar on Sunday. (Waseem Andrabi /HT PHOTO)

Major minor

Recruiting minors in direct hostility, by any party in a conflict, violates international humanitarian law, specifically the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. According to a report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights, published in 2013, there were about 500 children involved in conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir and the states of northeastern India.

Parvez Imroze, a lawyer and human rights activist based in Srinagar, acknowledged violations by militant groups that recruited minors, but said “such cases are rare in Kashmir”. He added, “The pertinent question is whether the state distinguishes between a minor and major combatant.”

Imroze said the response of the state, which enjoyed both legal and moral impunity, did not discriminate between children and adults even in civilian protests. “The state is dealing with everybody [combatants and non-combatants] alike,” he said.

On their part, the Army and the police in Pulwama and Shopian districts have assured the families of Malla and Dar that they will try to bring their boys back alive. But with the escalation in violence in the Valley and an increasingly assertive security establishment, the fate of these teenagers hangs in the balance.

“It is the militant commanders who should have thought before taking along a minor,” said Shafi.

Begum has steeled herself for what might come. “Those who leave home leave to die,” she said. “The day they leave their homes, they have died even if they are still alive.”

Larger society is indifferent to the fact that mere children have taken up arms, she said. “When they face trouble from militants, they will also churn out abuses at my son,” she added.

Schooled in violence

Kashmiri children have known violence at close quarters since the onset of militancy in 1989. Over the years, thousands of minors have faced police detention and long-running cases. In the last few years, the Valley has seen a growing trend of children, many of them pre-teens, taking part in stone-pelting or rushing towards gunfights between militants and security forces.

Children have been absorbed into the iconography of conflict. Images of young boys with toy weapons have become common. During the mass protests last year, popular separatist leaders had children armed with mock weapons, playing bodyguards during anti-India rallies.

On May 31, the gates of Evergreen Public Middle School, where Dar studied, were locked. The district was still in shutdown mode after the encounter in Tral. A “shaheed park” next to the school has a large billboard with pictures of slain militants on one side. On the other is an appeal: “The martyrs are telling you to not forget their blood.”