On August 30, three Lashkar-e-Taiba militants were killed in Parray Mohalla in Hajin, a town in the North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. The next day, two boys who lived in the area went missing.

Until then, very few in the area had known about the friendship of Saqib Bilal Sheikh, 16, and Mudasir Rashid Parray, 15. They had little in common. They studied in different classes in different schools. Saqib Bilal belonged to an affluent farming family. Mudasir lived in a makeshift hut. In his free time, Saqib would usually slip under a blanket and sleep for hours. Mudasir would do odd jobs whenever there was a day off from school, to help out his poor family.

But on August 31, these differences would vanish under a single choice: to join militant ranks. Three months after taking up arms, Saqib and Mudasir would return home, dead. Both were killed in a gunfight on December 9.

On Saturday evening, security forces cordoned off Mujgund on the outskirts of Srinagar and launched a search operation. An 18-hour-long gunfight would soon follow, killing three Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, including Saqib and Mudasir. The gunfight would also leave seven houses destroyed and five security personnel injured.

A relative holds up a picture of Saqib Bilal Sheikh, 16, also killed in the gunfight.

‘Not allowed to mourn’

“If I had known that something like this was on his mind, I would have never allowed him to step outside his home,” said Mudasir’s mother, Farida Bano, her voice hoarse from mourning. “I didn’t have much in life. We are very poor and my husband is also a patient. My other son is mentally challenged. He was our hope. I wanted him to study and become something in life.” While her husband has spinal problems, Farida herself suffers from cardiac problems. Then she added: “But he made his own choice. I respect that.”

Tariq Ahmad, Farida’s brother, was among the mourners in the tent where she sat. “Look, they are not even allowing us to mourn,” he said. “These police and CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] men know that we have lost a son, yet they are firing tear-gas shells towards the mourners. I know young boys are pelting stones at them but why can’t they avoid the confrontation today and stay in their camps?”

Saqib Bilal’s mother, Mehbooba Begum, was steely in her grief. She feels satisfied, she says, with her son’s choice and eventual end. “I haven’t shed a single tear since yesterday,” she said. “Days before his martyrdom, through an emissary, he had promised me that he will come home and sleep with me for the night. When his dead body arrived on Sunday night, I begged my family members to let me sleep with him. He fulfilled his promise even in his death.”

But Saqib’s father, Bilal Ahmad Sheikh, seemed to fumbling for explanations. “He had everything in life,” he said. “Whatever he asked for, I would provide him. In his matriculation, he passed with distinction and wanted to become an engineer. The path he chose is not wrong but I personally feel he was too young to shoulder the choice he made.”

Abdul Rashid Parray, whose 15-year-old son was killed in a gunfight.

No answers

After the funeral of the two boys in Hajin on Monday, groups of angry young men hurled stones at security forces, who retaliated with tear gas and chilli-based PAVA shells. Despite the grief and anger, few have definitive answers to the question of what forced the boys to take up arms. Some try to explain the decision as the “duty of Jihad”. Most attribute it to the “everyday humiliation” faced by local residents at the hands of security forces.

“It’s wrong to ask why Mudasir chose this path,” said a teary-eyed Raashid, 20, a local resident. “He was so young that he used to fall asleep while playing in the ground, I would often carry him home. Today he’s dead. We want to tell India and Pakistan that we are not someone’s jugular vein or atoot ang [integral part]. We Kashmiris want to live with dignity and respect. We want our Azadi. What option do you have when forces enter your homes, abuse your sisters and mothers and beat up your old father for no reason?”

According to Tariq Ahmad, a few months before he disappeared, Mudasir was picked up by the police from a playground on charges of stone-pelting. “He was a minor and kept in jail for a week. Though they didn’t beat him up or file an FIR against him, it affected him a lot,” his uncle said.

Nazir Ahmad, another local resident whose son joined militant ranks and was killed in a gunfight last year, took a different view of the situation. “It doesn’t matter whether he was 14 or 15. Even if he was 10, he could have made that choice. Jihad doesn’t need an age,” he said. “These boys understand the situation much better than all common men like us. They have now become an inspiration.”

According to the police, their choice was far from ideological. “They were young boys. There’s no doubt about that. In childhood, a child can aspire to become anything whether that thing makes sense to him or not. This decision to join militancy was like that only,” said a senior police official in Bandipora.

Mehbooba BEgum, Saqib's mother, is steely in her grief.

From the Ikhwan to the Lashkar

Bilal’s parents live next door to the family of Mohammad Yusuf Parray also known as Kuka Parray, founder of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, a militia consisting of surrendered militants and raised by the Indian Army as a counter-insurgency force. In 2003, Kuka Parray was killed by militants. The two houses represent the two ideological extremes that Hajin has swung between.

In the 1990s, Hajin was the hub of the Ikhwan, who were instrumental in crushing militancy in those early years and often accused of human rights violations. Over the last couple years, however, Hajin has become known as a new hub for the Lashkar in North Kashmir.

In January 2017, Abu Musaib, a top Lashkar commander in Kashmir and nephew of Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, was killed in a gunfight. In April that year, Rashid Billa, another Ikhwan commander was killed by unidentified assassins. Then in August, Abid Hamid Mir was killed in a gunfight, the first local boy from Hajin to die as a militant in 22 years. While more local boys joined up, residents also speak of foreign militants in the area. Since 2017, the town has seen a number of assassinations and beheadings.

According to police officials, more than 100 militants are active in the three North Kashmir districts of Kupwara, Bandipora and Baramulla, most of them foreigners. The four districts of South Kashmir were initially the epicentre of the local militancy that has gained ground over the last few years. But Saqib and Mudasir’s killing have already triggered fears that more local boys from North Kashmir are beginning to join militant groups.

Need for introspection?

On Sunday, social media in Kashmir was abuzz conversations about the spiral of violence in Kashmir. Many pointed fingers at security forces and what they felt was a muscular approach. But some also asked whether the militant leadership should stop recruiting such young teenaged boys.

“Under international law, no side can use minors during any military or militant operations, be it aas informers or as militants,” said Khurram Parvez, convener of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. “Some introspection needs to take place at each and every level of society.”

Political observers in the Valley, however, do not see the trend of recruiting minors letting up any time soon. “In order to permanently renegotiate their relationship with the Indian state and to look for a solution outside of the ambit of Indian Constitution, people in Kashmir see violence as the only alternative,” said Basharat Ali, a research scholar from North Kashmir who examines political violence in the Valley. “This alternative has not been criminalised and is in fact celebrated. And such celebrations are not a new phenomenon. They continue from the 90s. Today, the heroism attached to militancy in Kashmir is kept alive by the public support it gets and is carried forward by a young and educated generation, which is a function of the youth bulge and a high literacy rate. In such a situation, one should not be surprised by the recruitment of a 15-year-old. Rather, we should prepare ourselves for more such recruitment as long as either or both the sides involved do not relent.”