On November 17, Ayesha Khan’s prayers were answered before she could reach the Makhdoom Sahib shrine in Srinagar. Her footballer-turned-militant son Majid Khan had left the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Ayesha Khan’s emotional appeal to her son to return, which was recorded and went viral a few days ago, had perhaps worked. As the weather turned gloomy outside, the Khans’ home in Anantnag district bustled with joy after news of Majid Khan’s return broke.

“For me it was as if he had just been born,” Ayesha Khan said of the moment she heard the news. “It is time to leave the past behind and start a new life. We will make sure he does not feel any lack.”

The Lashkar-e-Taiba issued a press statement in which it claimed that Majid Khan was “permitted to leave” at the request of his mother and because “he was the only guarantor to his household”. It went on to say that it has “never sought violence or barbarism”, Majid Khan’s return was proof of it. Days after he reportedly left militant ranks, however, Majid Khan had not returned to his Sadiqabad home. According to the police, he is at a “safe location under the supervision of his family”.

Breaking the ice

Since Majid Khan’s return, at least seven families in Kashmir have asked their sons to come back through videos circulated widely on social media. On November 24, the family of Zahid Rashid Bhat, a 16-year-old from Kathpora village in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, went on camera to plead for his return from militancy.

Another resident of Kulgam, Mohammad Iqbal, said a calamity had forced him to leave his dry cleaning job in Punjab and return home to Ringath village last month. His eldest boy, 17-year-old Aqib, had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Iqbal said the family had been living in a constant state of worry since then. As each day passes, Aqib inches closer to danger. On November 15, as an encounter raged in Kulgam, Iqbal’s wife Rafiqa suffered a minor cardiac attack at the thought of seeing her son dead.

On November 23, strips of medicine lay on a windowsill in their home in Ringath, within reach of a teary-eyed Rafiqa who repeatedly kissed a photo of her son. Iqbal has spent the past month looking for his son at various security camps in the area, thinking he might have been picked up, but in vain. “What can we do, whom do we contact for our son? Where do we ask for directions?” he asked. “I will wash the feet of the commanders and drink the water if they give me back my son.”

Not knowing where to look, the family took to social media after they heard of Majid Khan’s return. “We request them to give my son back,” said Iqbal. “I am a vagrant, begging. Do not send me back empty handed. That is what the Prophet also says.”

The family has been in mourning for a month. “I will set myself on fire if I have to live without my son,” Iqbal added.

Mohammad Iqbal and Rafiqa have been searching for their son at various security camps for the past month. (Photo: Rayan Naqash)

In neighbouring Shopian district’s Reckpora village, the family of Ashiq Hussain Bhat also waits for him to return. Twenty-seven-year-old Bhat was a salesman in a hardware store in Shopian town before he joined the Lashkar on November 9, the same day as Majid Khan. The family said they took to social media immediately but the hype around Majid Khan drowned them out.

Bhat’s father, Mohammad Isaq, worked in Punjab for 20 years before returning home. He said that after that, Bhat became the sole breadwinner of the family and had responsibilities at home. “He has a wife, if he wanted to go for jihad he should not have married and spoiled the life a woman,” said the distraught father.

Isaq’s youngest son, Omar, said his studies were made possible because of Bhat’s support. “Now I have no option but to quit and look after the family,” he said. “He was the son of our father but he was actually the father to us all, running the household.” His sister, Aliya, denied that anyone had pressured the family to appeal for his return. “We just want him back home,” she said.

In several houses, a common refrain is heard from the parents of boys who have taken up arms: they say the first jihad or struggle is the one at home, to shoulder the family’s responsibilities and take care of ageing mothers and fathers.

Under pressure?

The same day that Zahid Rashid Bhat’s family asked him to return, Riyaz Naikoo, operational commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, issued an audio statement. He alleged that security forces were pressuring families to make such pleas and strike at the morale of militants. Naikoo said that besides Majid Khan’s mother, “no mother wants her son back nor does anyone want to go back”.

Naikoo also claimed the mothers of militants were actually happy with their decision to take up arms. “We tell our parents that if the Army and police pressure you to issue a video, you should go ahead and issue these videos without any worry,” Naikoo said. “Your issuing or not issuing videos will make no difference to us.”

After acquiescing to Majid Khan’s departure, the Lashkar seems to have taken a stern stand. It issued a fresh statement saying, “From now on, no freedom fighter will ever return to his home.”

Yet, families remain hopeful.

A complicated surrender

Munir Khan, inspector general of police in Kashmir, refuted the militant outfits’ claims and called Majid Khan’s quitting of militancy an icebreaker that had encouraged more families to come out with their pleas. Earlier, parents tried to intervene in person, he said. Now, social media acts as an intermediary. “We never interfered with Majid’s case,” he added. “He joined his family on his own.”

The officer did not give an exact figure of militants who have apparently surrendered. But he claimed that “in the last seven months, around 60 boys across south and north have come back”.

Yet the decision to surrender is fraught with perils. This is especially true today, but it was also difficult during the first phase of the militancy, when surrenders were more common. According to figures compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 3,195 militants surrendered between 1990 and 2001, while 51,588 were arrested.

A former militant, who took up arms in the early 1990s, said the transition to civilian life was as “difficult as the solution to the Kashmir issue”. And that leaving the militancy was not simple. “There isn’t a choice to not be political,” he said. “When you decide not to be with someone or something, that in itself is a [political] choice.”

He pointed out that the youth who joined militant ranks in the 1990s were swept up by the euphoria of the times and for “purely political reasons”. He said the motivations were more explicitly religious today. In the discourse that surrounds the new phase of militancy, surrender and shahadat, martyrdom, are the two choices before a fighter, and he is revered if he chooses the latter. Given these changes, the former militant said it was unlikely that surrenders on the scale seen in the mid-1990s would occur.

A number of militants who surrendered or were arrested in the 1990s were then used by security forces for counter-insurgency, including in the notorious militia called the Ikhwan, held responsible for several excesses. The association has stuck in the Valley.

“Majid will be a poster boy, a success story for the government,” said the former militant. “But it will always haunt him in his life. The realisation of betrayal.”

Already, there are mixed reactions to the idea of militants returning home. In South Kashmir, young men speak of betrayal. “There is anger because of Majid’s surrender,” said a resident of Kulgam. “People say that he should not have joined in the first place.”

He also questioned the press’ selective sympathies. “There is also anger about the hype and media sympathy around Majid,” he added. “There are many other militants, only sons of their parents, but the sympathies of the media have been restricted to the good-looking boys of towns. There has not been similar sympathy for boys from villages who joined the militancy and even got killed.”

The parents of Ashiq Hussain Bhat, who was the family's sole breadwinner before he joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba in November. (Credit: Rayan Naqash)

After the crackdown

According to the former militant, the police today genuinely want militants to return to the mainstream. New gestures of conciliation have followed a sustained crackdown and police officers hint at a new surrender policy.

Inspector General Munir Khan said the aim is to bring normalcy and peace to the Valley and not to simply kill militants. “When all the means of getting a person back to the family fails, we have no option but to go for encounters,” Khan said. To support his case that there had been a shift in policy, he pointed to recent arrests of militants, even when it cost the lives of security personnel.

This year’s “Operation All Out” saw the highest number of militants being killed in the Valley in the last decade. According to an Army statement on November 19, 190 militants have been killed this year, including 80 local boys. While encounters continue, there seems to be a new emphasis on pulling the youth out of militancy.

Security forces have made repeated pleas for militants to come back home. The Central Reserve Police Force has thrown open a helpline for militants who wish to establish contact. Munir Khan said a new surrender policy would be formulated to suit the demands of the time. Previous policies, floated in 2004 and 2010, had become dated.

Unlike the early militants, the current generation of militants is largely drawn from youth who have never crossed the Line of Control to train as fighters. “The policy needs to be dynamic to suit the present scenario,” Khan said. “The previous generation were illiterate and not 17 to 18-year-olds. Today, they are young and they need counselling and a chance at education or skill development.”

He said the police would not press charges against youth who give up arms before engaging in any offence. “We have stopped using the words surrender or apprehension,” he said. “We are simply saying that the fellow is rejoining [the mainstream] unless the person is involved in a heinous crime.”

But security forces make a clear distinction between foreign and local militants, which will also find mention in the surrender policy. Local militants are “our children”, Khan said. “No, this policy is not applicable for foreign terrorists,” he pointed out. “They commit their first heinous offence by crossing the Line of Control.” However, if a foreign gunman wished to surrender, he would be allowed to do so. “But they will have to face the law of land, no exemptions for them,” Khan warned.

Under the new policy, the police are considering providing financial support for the education and skill development of youth who come from families under the poverty line, as well as counselling to keep them away from violence, said Khan. “We are working on a policy, sending recommendations,” he said. “The spectrum of the policy would be wide. It is up to the government to take up those recommendations.”

The officer added, “We want our own children to come back. There is no other satisfaction.”