Sometime in June 2015, a poster went viral in Kashmir. It showed 11 young men, carrying guns, clad in military fatigues, somewhere in a forest in Kashmir. Almost all of them came from the four districts of South Kashmir: Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam, Anantnag.
At the centre of the group was Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander from Tral in Pulwama district who left home in 2010 to become the face of the new militancy in the Valley. As the residents of Tral observe, Wani spread his influence through social media rather than by the gun. The poster of the 11 militants, most of them with their faces defiantly uncovered, became the iconic image of the second wave of militancy in the Valley. It made them household names here.
Two years later, seven of the 11 men are dead and one has surrendered. Wani himself was killed in an encounter with armed forces on July 8, 2016. His death triggered months of protests in which nearly a hundred civilians lost their lives.
Nearly a year later, Scroll.in went back to the famous picture, to scrutinise the faces in it. Where did they come from and what did their decision to take up arms mean for the places they left behind? This series is the story of those places, what the departure of their youth and a year of protests have done to the people living there. Together, these places form a geography of the new militancy in South Kashmir.
“It all started in my village,” began Ghulam Rasool Pandit. “Baat poney ek bajey ki [It was quarter to one]. The army was passing through, they went into the martyr’s graveyard. There were a few boys there and they tried to move them out. When the boys would not go, they opened fire.”
It was a Friday but there were no afternoon prayers in Karimabad, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, that day. The episode was recounted on mosque loudspeakers, a shutdown was declared and everyone started marching towards Pulwama. “In the evening, we heard news of Burhan being shaheed [martyred], then all of Kashmir came out to protest,” said Pandit.
That was on July 8, 2016, the day Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces, triggering months of protest in the Valley. The graveyard that Pandit described is down the road from his house. His son, 29-year-old Naseer Ahmad Pandit, is buried there.
Three graves and surrender
Karimabad was once called Madan, Ghulam Rasool Pandit says. Then it was renamed after a luminary called Karim Dada, who lived 100, perhaps 200 years ago. Nobody remembers when, exactly. It is a prosperous village of 3,565 residents, going by the 2011 Census.
Separatist sentiment has always been strong in Karimabad, Pandit says, partly thanks to zealous residents who held panchayat-like meetings to mobilise political opinion. Decades ago, they had allied with Sheikh Abdullah, but he was a “gaddar” [traitor] and did he not speak of “azadi [freedom]” and “rai shumari [the plebiscite recommended by the United Nations to settle the Kashmir dispute]”.
As the Valley grew disillusioned with mainstream politicians and militancy erupted in 1989, Karimabad shifted its sympathies. According to Ghulam Rasool Pandit, militants passing through have always received a royal welcome, from Mast Gul in the 1990s to Zakir Musa in the present day.
Village boys are now drawn to the graveyard where the militants of Karimabad are buried. “We go there every day,” said one gangly young man perched on a wall by the local mosque. “We talk about the dead, we talk about jihad.”
Behind the row of white tablets bearing the names of militants from the 1990s there are three new tombstones, black and laden with garlands. Afaq Ahmad Bhat, died October 26, 2015, Bilal Ahmad Bhat, died April 5, 2016, and Naseer Ahmad Pandit, died April 7, 2016. There is another name that Karimabad is known for, Tariq Pandit, the militant who surrendered.
Afaq crouches in the front row in the group photo that made Burhan Wani and his cohort household names in the Valley. Naseer’s gaunt face can be seen on the extreme left. Tariq hovers at the back. Over the last year, Naseer and Tariq’s names have become entwined in stories told in the Valley.
Naseer’s story is well known: the policeman who was allegedly beaten up by his colleagues after he tried to crack down on a local drug ring. Soon afterwards, he went missing with two rifles and reportedly became the new arms trainer for Burhan Wani’s group. Conspiracy theories now swirl around the encounter that killed him, almost all of them involving Tariq, who surrendered less than two months later.
Ghulam Rasool Pandit dismisses these theories. But even if Tariq were not complicit in a darker plot, the village that reveres its “martyrs” does not approve of him. At the wall by the mosque, ageing men had joined the old, and both groups shook their heads.
“Tariq was wrong to surrender,” said Muhammad Abdullah Pandit, chairman of the village auqaf (wakf) committee.
Ghulam Ahmed Bhat, another grizzled resident of Karimabad, was more emphatic: “Tariq was a traitor, there is no place for him, his sons or his grandsons in Kashmir.”
The surrendered militant’s family, some say, is boycotted by the rest of the village. They might have been attacked by now if Pandit had not interceded on their behalf. Others say, there is no boycott; the family has simply lost the social standing it once had as the kin of a militant. Once, people would volunteer to help out in their orchards, recalled a resident, now nobody goes.
The twin stories of “shahadat” and surrender have made the village of Karimabad famous in the Valley. Besides, not less than three faces in the poster can be traced back to the village. So it was not surprising that Karimabad became a focal point of the protests last year. As the months progressed, the “martyr’s graveyard” would also become a site for the new militancy to define itself.
“On July 8, the first rally came out from here, lakhs of people turned up for the Pulwama chalo call,” said Pandit. ‘About 25 to 30 quintals of rice were cooked in this village alone and 10 to 15 quintals came from surrounding areas. Food was made for 50,000 people. For weeks afterwards, 30,000 to 40,000 people would come to Karimabad.”
When Scroll.in visited him a year ago, his face was still soft with grief for his son. Now the grief has hardened to anger against the government and a quiet pride in the protests. In local memory, these have swelled to epic proportions.
With protests came raids by security forces. September 11 brought “qayamat”, the day of judgement, to Karimabad, Pandit says. Early in the morning, he recalled, joint forces of the army, the state police and the Central Reserve Police Force descended on the village, breaking windows, beating up people, arresting local youth under the Public Safety Act. In his own house, window panes were broken, letting tear gas inside.
Older residents of Karimabad are now weary of the beatings, the arrests, the promise of release in exchange for cash. “They take our money and they beat us as well,” said Mohammad Abdullah Pandit, chairman of the village auqaf committee. “They beat us, they fire on us, they spray pellets on us.”
Younger residents, in contrast, have gained new confidence. “The army has come many times but never during the day,” said a college student. “Because there will be stone pelting. They come during the night, steal the banners at the graveyard and leave. Aisa dar hai humara.” Such is their fear of us.
Some youth see only one way out. Last Ramzan, said one of the boys sitting on the wall, a youth who lived nearby was taken away by the “cargo waaley”, the local term for the special operations group of the state police. “They locked him up for many days, they said you have links with the mujahideen,” he said. Last month, he left to join militant ranks.
Meanwhile, the graveyard has had visitors apart from local boys. Residents say that during the thick of the protests, Abu Dujana, the shadowy Lashkar-e-Taiba commander in Kashmir, had made an appearance.
Then, on the first anniversary of Naseer’s death, six gunmen paid a visit. According to local lore, they were led by a militant called Musaib Wani. “They said, do not raise the Pakistani flag. They asked us to say our nimaz, to nurture and protect Islam,” said the college student. “What they said about jihad even after azadi was a very good thing. The Quran tells us to strive for the truth, to preach. When they spoke of nizam-e-Mustafa, everyone gave their shabashi [approval]. That is real Islam. The Quran tells us nationalism is haram [forbidden].”
Though Burhan Wani had mentioned “khilafat [or caliphate]” in his videos, the graveyard address by Musaib Wani put it in sharp focus. Former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Zakir Musa would soon echo the militants at Karimabad. In a video released this May, he warned the separatist leaders of the Hurriyat not to call the Kashmiri struggle a political fight for azadi; it was a jihad for Islamic rule. The Hizbul Mujahideen and the United Jihad Council quickly distanced themselves from Musa. But it has not cost him many supporters in Karimabad.
Pandit is uneasy about the video. “I still suspect someone had a hand in it,” he said. His quarrel is not so much with Musa’s demand as with his logic – it had to be a political struggle first. “Kashmir is occupied,” he said. “How can we have a khilafat until we have azadi?”
But the younger generation is less critical, because Zakir Musa “has taken Burhan’s post” and “because he is spending his precious life for Kashmir and for Islam”. They vow to lay down their lives for militants and to join up themselves, if only they could find the “samaan” or arms.
For now, Karimabad knows how to guard its “mujahideen”, one resident remarks, a militant has never been killed here. Over time, this fortress of support has become the “markaz e tehreek” or centre of the struggle in South Kashmir’s turbulent Pulwama district.
“Even Modi knows about Karimabad and Pulwama,” he sniffed.