...[A]rmed resistance against Delhi’s rule in Kashmir has to be seen in the context of Kashmir alone. There are proponents of the argument that mass mobilisation after Burhan’s death is proof of the people’s approval for the path chosen by Burhan [Wani] and possibly others like him in the future, but one must not lose sight of the fact that the number of people to have joined the ranks of rebels remains small and largely symbolic.

Emotional scenes of people carrying militant commanders on their shoulders during pro-azadi rallies in the aftermath of Burhan’s killing were indeed a throwback to the early 1990s, when large sections of Kashmir’s population endorsed armed revolt en masse, unaware of the entire gamut of its ramifications. This time around, there exists the history of the last twenty-nine years. This overt support for azadi and militants like Burhan tells us a story that New Delhi perhaps does not want to listen to, because it would like to remain in denial mode.

The public backing of this renewed armed rebellion should have provoked New Delhi to do a rethink on its tried, tested and failed strategies of managing the conflict over different waves of agitations in Kashmir.

But, New Delhi chose to look the other way, in what can only be described as wilful self-deception. Though New Delhi made statements and a joint parliamentary committee visited the Valley, these were largely perceived as firefighting measures and a denial of ground reality.

The uprisings of 2008-10 should have forced Delhi to do some soul-searching and adopt a judicious approach in dealing with widespread anger in the Valley. Unfortunately, it has again, and wrongly so, taken refuge in a blame game involving Pakistan, which boomeranged on multiple fronts. All attempts to paint Kashmir’s indigenous movement as ‘Pakistan-sponsored unrest’ have proven to be counterproductive.

New Delhi and its representatives in Kashmir lack respect and sanctity among the common people. As vast sections of the Indian media, especially electronic media, indulge in populist “Pakistan bashing”, a greater number of Kashmiris than ever before raise slogans like, “Pakistan se rishta kya La illaha illallah” (“Our bond with Pakistan is the Kalima, article of faith”).

Perhaps Delhi needs to discredit Kashmir’s indigenous mass uprising and make an argument at international forums that it is a victim of “Pakistan-sponsored terrorism” in Kashmir. However, facts on the ground in 2016 tell a different story.

Going by official statistics, there were less than 250 militants in Kashmir, which was a testimony to the fact that these boys – most of them neither battle-hardened nor well-trained in guerrilla tactics – had chosen the path for symbolic reasons.

In Kashmir, many are of the view that even militancy is a political statement. If Kashmir were a jihadi hotspot, Kashmiris would have embraced the armed guerrilla movement in droves, but the numbers suggested otherwise. These young men enjoyed popular support because they were mostly locals, and people respected the choices they had made in fighting Delhi’s rule.

People may not prefer joining the ranks of armed rebels themselves, but they also do not want to take away the agency from those who do become militants out of their volition. The fact that they did not usually target civilians and limited their actions only to armed forces and the police also gave them credibility as “freedom fighters”.

Any assertion linking Kashmir’s struggle with forces of global jihad has no factual evidence to back it. Rebels in Kashmir do not blow themselves up in the manner of the recruits of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or even the Taliban, in markets and public/religious places to cause civilian casualties. There are no suicide bombings that target common people.

That’s one more factor behind the immense popularity of these rebels among the locals. Militants in Kashmir mostly target Indian Army patrol parties, convoys and military installations to make their presence felt from time to time. HM continues to be Kashmir’s largest homegrown rebel outfit.

Pakistan does support Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), JeM and Al-Badr, and makes infiltration bids to send their new recruits to Kashmir, but their numbers are far less today than HM’s local rebels. Analysts in Kashmir often insist about making a clear distinction between political radicalisation and religious radicalisation/violent extremism.

As I tried to make sense of the deep-seated pro-azadi sentiment in Tral along with its religious underpinnings, I met a retired seventy-year-old government school principal, Abdul Gaffar Khan. He had retired as in-charge principal at a school located in Panzgam in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. He now runs a hardware shop in Tral.

The elderly man’s eyes speak as if they’re witness to many historical events. For, he has lost two sons, Maseehullah and Rizwanullah, in encounters with government forces. Maseehullah died fighting government soldiers in September 2010 while Rizwanullah, according to his family, was killed in a suspected encounter at Panthal in south Kashmir, close to the Srinagar-Jammu highway.

Though Khan is clear about Maseehullah’s direct involvement in Kashmir’s armed rebellion, he told me that Rizwanullah, a graduate and an expert mobile phone repairer, was killed by government forces and falsely declared a “militant sympathiser” in police records.

Abdul Gaffar Khan told me that all land and territories belong to Allah, and what belongs to Allah should be governed by Hhis laws alone. That implied the implementation of shariah law in Kashmir, but he was quick to add, though, that this was a call that only leaders, Islamic scholars of various schools of thought in Islamic jurisprudence and learned people could take.

Maseehullah was working as a mechanical engineer at Jalandhar in Punjab, Khan told me. He returned home in 2009, saying that he had come to Kashmir for a holiday. Maseehullah was well-versed in Islamic teachings and had completed several rounds of tafseer (interpretation and translation) of the Quran, despite his young age. He was sensitive and influenced by Islamic history and literature. With a sense of pride, his father told me that he himself had taught his son. Apart from the father-son relationship, there was also a teacher-pupil bond between the two.

On his return from Jalandhar, Maseehullah began to preach at a local mosque. On noticing this, his father asked him whether he had sought permission from the mosque’s management to deliver sermons. Maseehullah had already done so. Maseehullah’s fiery discourses on jihad granted him instant popularity and also made his father nervous. He had also come under the radar of the local police and intelligence sleuths. Anxious, his father tried to enquire why his son was not returning to his job in Jalandhar, but got no straight answers.

Khan says he tried his best to reason with his son, saying that the people of Kashmir, or even Tral, were still not “mentally ready” for the kind of teachings he was imparting in the mosque. One cannot invoke jihad when the leaders of Kashmir’s freedom struggle have not come to a decision on the issue, Khan would often argue.

However, his father’s suggestions could not stop Maseehullah from treading a path he obviously felt was right for him. Due to his oratorial skills, Maseehullah’s popularity grew with each passing day. For the Khan family, there was more to see, more to follow and more to endure.

Maseehullah’s mother intervened. She tried to reason with her son that the head of the family was not happy with his preaching jihad in the mosque because people’s minds were not “fertile” enough for such a change. It was then that Maseehullah revealed to his mother that he had seen the Prophet of Islam, Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH), in his dream, and the Prophet had asked him, “If you know so much about jihad, why do you not do anything about it?”

That dream was a turning point in Maseehullah’s life. In July 2009, he left his family quietly to join the ranks of the HM to wage jihad. “Jihad” is an Arabic word that essentially means “struggle’”. It can be interpreted as a struggle to feed one’s family, or for justice; to help the needy and poor; or against oppression and a perceived enemy.

There are enough people in Kashmir who think they are in a state of war with New Delhi, and feel that India treats Kashmir as “enemy territory”, to be grabbed for its land, even if it means oppressing its people. Some of them say they are militants sans weapons.

For young men like Maseehullah, the Indian State is the real “enemy” against whom they believe they are waging a religiously sanctioned and righteous jihad. Maseehullah, once a mechanical engineer, became a mujahid and eventually, HM’s area commander. The life expectancy of a militant in any conflict zone is said to be between two and three years. Government forces zeroed in on him in September 2010, and he was killed in a gunfight in Posh Pathri village in Tral.

Upon noticing that he had been surrounded, Maseehullah offered special midnight prayers, tahajjud, and raised slogans of freedom and Islam. He was finally killed along with three associates. For Khan and many other Kashmiris, Maseehullah had achieved martyrdom. “Jaam-e-shahadat nosh kar gaya” (“He tasted martyrdom”), his father said to me, proud of the “sacrifice” his son had offered for a cause.

Kashmir: Rage and Reason

Excerpted with permission from Kashmir: Rage and Reason, Gowhar Geelani, Rupa Publications.