Framed by machine guns and with grenades arranged before him, 16-year-old Fardeen Khanday told the camera he faced: “By the time this message reaches you, I will be far away, a guest in god’s paradise.”
Early on December 31, not long after the video was recorded, Khanday, 21-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Baba and another gunman stormed the heavily guarded Central Reserve Police Force training centre in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The fidayeen attack – a term used to describe suicidal strikes that are launched by militants with the intention of a prolonged stand-off – stretched over 37 hours, and left five paramilitary soldiers and all three gunmen dead.
Both Khanday and Baba were Kashmiris from Pulwama district, a fact that took many by surprise. In nearly three decades of armed conflict in the Valley, fidayeen attacks have been the forte of the better armed and trained Pakistani militants. There have been few instances of Kashmiri militants being involved.
On December 31, there were Kashmiris both among the attackers and their victims.
A funeral in Budgam
Thirty-two-year old Shareef ud Din Ganai, one of the two Kashmiri paramilitary personnel killed in the attack, was a physical training instructor with the Central Reserve Police Force. He came from the Chadoora area of Budgam district in central Kashmir. On January 1, his home in Nagam village was packed with mourning relatives.
Ganai had got engaged recently and was to marry this summer. “But it was Allah’s will,” said his uncle, Hilal Ahmad. The son of a postman, Ganai had joined the force in 2006, after he cleared his Class 10 examination. “He wanted to make ends meet and support the family.”
Mourners mingled with paramilitary officers for the funeral, his uncle said. “We told the officers that there was no need for a cordon, this is a safe area,” said Ahmad. “The officers stayed till the entire funeral proceedings were over, an hour after dark.”
A funeral in Pulwama
In Hyuna village, Khanday’s policeman father, Ghulam Mohiuddin, sat among mourners at his home. This was in the Tral area of Pulwama district, home to several militant commanders. A banner erected at the gates of the house said “Shariat ya Shahadat”, sharia rule or martyrdom. No one can say who put it up. Visibly disturbed, Mohiuddin refused to speak about the circumstances that ushered his son towards jihad.
Relatives expressed shock over the fidayeen attack and the video in which Khanday spoke of his impending death. “We just did not expect him to do such a thing,” said a relative. “He spoke with such calmness. It made us all numb. He was just a school boy.”
The few young boys and men loitering around the house spoke of how Khanday had made a mark. “He left just few months back and in that time he managed to carry out a fidayeen attack,” said one boy. “It shows Kashmiri boys are not afraid of anything. All one needs is faith to do it.”
Older men in the neighborhood, however, took a grim view of the fidayeen attack. “If this picks up among our children, it will be a disaster,” said a middle-aged man. “There is already insecurity because of this attack. Our boys are not meant for this and it is unlikely that society will accept this. It will be counterproductive eventually.”
He added: “Already we are killing our own people every day. Only Kashmiris will be killing, and only Kashmiris will die.”
Plunging into the battlefield
In the video, Khanday gave his reasons for joining the Pakistan-based outfit, Jaish-e-Muhammad. The common assumption that unemployment had driven youth to militancy was nothing but “propaganda”, he said. Khanday announced: “The truth is that Islam is a complete way of life. In the same way that prayers, charity, fasting, and Haj are mandatory in Islam, jihad in the way of Allah is also one of the important duties.”
In the nearly eight-minute long video, he invited more youth to join the Jaish’s fidayeen group. “My friends and I have listened to the call of Quran and plunged into the battlefield of jihad,” he said. “This will continue till the last occupying soldier is present in Kashmir.”
The Class 10 student also echoed a growing disenchantment with separatist politics in the Valley. He said: “Those who play politics over the blood of martyrs, these materialistic and power hungry people cannot be the well-wishers of Kashmir. When the time comes they will sell the [Kashmiri] nation with their own hands.”
Then he went over the story often repeated in the Valley, of “Indian occupation”, of the threat to women and Islam, of the “merciless loot” of Kashmir’s natural resources. But he also addressed Muslims across the country, reminding them that Ghazwa-e-Hind – the conquest of India – was yet to be achieved. “Sara Hindustan baaki hai [all of Hindustan remains],” he said at the end of a couplet.
The local fidayeen
The last Kashmiri fidayeen before the New Year’s Eve attack was Manzoor Ahmad Bhat from North Kashmir’s Sopore area, who was part of a 2010 attack at Lal Chowk in the heart of Srinagar. Before that, during the Inter-State Council meeting at Srinagar, held in 2003 and presided over by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, two fidayeen attacked Hotel Greenway in the state’s summer capital, killing three people, including former militant turned National Conference leader, Javed Shah. At least one of the attackers was a Kashmiri, whom contemporary reports described as a “quiet engineering student living in downtown Srinagar”.
Over the years, the security dragnet has hit the operational and training capacities of militant groups. But security officials now feel that religious motivation may have compensated for strategic shortcomings. Khanday had joined militant ranks barely three months ago. Baba, the other local fidayeen, had been an active militant for just two months, after having served as an Over Ground Worker, police said.
According to police officials, a joint fidayeen operation, involving both foreign and local militants, had been planned since at least August. “The goal is to gather more cannon fodder,” said a police official. “The video was the most substantial part [of this attack].”
The involvement of local residents in fidayeen attacks was also aimed at shaking the security establishment, the official said. “Fidayeen was the superior tactic and claim of foreign terrorists,” he said. “Burhan [Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander killed in July 2016] followed the old hallowed way of being popular but fidayeen is the way of committed terrorists. It breaks a psychological barrier in the current era of media hype. It puts all fighters on an equal platter and breaks the myth of the need of Pakistanis for leadership.”
Police officials say that, coming in the wake of recent militant surrenders, the attack was meant to show “what else we are capable of”. For now, said one police official based in South Kashmir, Sunday’s fidayeen attack could set an example for more local youth and prevent surrenders.
But eventually, an official based in Central Kashmir said, the prospect of having to carry out such attacks could eventually drive some youth away from militancy. “Fidayeen or not, a militant goes with the intention of dying,” he said. “But when he has to think in terms of delivering something like this, it sticks at the back of his mind. If this is the case then fewer but highly radicalised youth will join.”
For now, security officials are on high alert, expecting more violence in February when panchayat elections will be held in the state.