Abdul Hamid Malik, a government employee, never dreamt his 21-year-old son would join militancy. He disappeared on May 19, while on a visit to relatives in Arihal village, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Abdul Malik assumed he had been picked up by the army or the police on his way home.

“My wife went crazy,” he recounted. “When my son didn’t return, she told me to check for a dead body in the village orchards.”

The Maliks live in Heff Khuri village in South Kashmir’s Shopian district. Four days before their youngest son, Nadeem-u-Zaman Malik, went missing, soldiers from the nearby army camp at Chillipora had cordoned off their village for a search operation.

“It was the night of May 14-15,” said Abdul Malik. “The soldiers barged into our house. They threw away all our stocks of food or ensured that it could not be used. They mixed rice with red chilli and other spices. Not a needle in my house was left untouched.”

The day after the alleged raid, Abdul Malik said, he and one of his older sons were summoned to the army camp at Chillipora. “They had seized our laptops and mobile phones,” he said. “We went to the camp and met the major, who let us go after abusing us and damaging my son’s phone. He also told me that he would pick up my youngest son, Nadeem, whenever and wherever he wanted. When we returned home, we told the rest of the family what the Major had said. Nadeem heard it too.”

Army spokesperson Rajesh Kalia called the allegations “baseless”, saying no soldiers were “involved in vandalising or damaging any civilian property or harassing any civilians”.

But the Malik family stand by their story, though they did not file a complaint with the police against the alleged raid. “We were afraid that they might get angry and harass us more,” Abdul Malik said.

After his son disappeared, the family went to the police to file a missing report. The distraught parents also put out a video, appealing to “those who might have held him” to let him go.

They stopped searching when an audio clip surfaced on social media and went viral. It was Nadeem Malik. Unlike most other local militants who disappear quietly, he explained why he had decided to take up arms and join the Hizbul Mujahideen.

“I am the son of that oppressed community which, for the last 73 years, has been bearing the oppression of India’s rule,” said the former student, speaking in Urdu.

Then he grew more specific, naming Wajahat Hussain, deputy superintendent of police, Shopian. “He made my life hell, he would torture me daily and harass my family,” continued the voice in the audio clip. “I am not the only one who suffered at his hands. There are thousands of youth in Shopian who have become his victims and are still becoming. The civil administration knows all this but is silent on his actions.”

The only way to fight such “oppression”, Nadeem Malik concluded, was to join militant ranks.

Within a month, he was dead, one of eight militants killed in gunfights with security forces on June 19. Army officials in South Kashmir said that he had been given the chance to surrender during the gunfight in Shopian district. He turned it down.

A few days before his death, Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police in Kashmir, had declared militancy in South Kashmir was nearly wiped out, and that the focus would shift to North Kashmir next. This was significant since, over the last decade, the four districts of South Kashmir had been at the centre of the revival of local militancy.

But stories like Nadeem Malik’s suggest militancy has not dried up after August 5, when the Centre moved in, removing special status and splitting the former state into two Union Territories.

Nadeem Malik joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in May 2020 and was killed in less than a month.

Joining the ranks

A surge in gunfights through the month of June had prompted Kumar to speak of the end of militancy in South Kashmir. By June 30, 48 militants had been killed in 17 gunfights. Most of these operations took place in South Kashmir.

On June 26, the Jammu and Kashmir Police tweeted that, for the first time since 1989, there were no Hizbul Mujahideen militants left in the Tral area of Pulwama district. An epicentre of anti-government sentiment, Tral has been home to two of the most prominent militant commanders in the recent past: Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen militant whose death triggered mass protests in 2016, and Zakir Musa, who broke away from the Hizb to form the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind.

Soldiers leave the site of a gunfight in Meej Pampore in Pulwama district on June 19.

“Not only have the top commanders been killed, but militants are also short of support from across the border in terms of logistics, training and weapons,” said a senior police officer who did not want to be identified. “You see, in many of these encounters, militants don’t have proper weapons. The entire overground worker network has been exposed and as a result it has become easier to target militants. The flow of information to the police is enormous.” Overground workers is a common term used for non-combatant members of militant groups, usually tasked with arranging logistical support.

The current phase of anti-militancy operations in South Kashmir is among the most lethal since a new phase of local militancy gained ground. In the first six months of 2018 – the bloodiest year in a decade – security forces had killed 100 militants and lost 43 personnel. In the first six months of 2020, 118 militants have been killed but security casualties have fallen to 26.

According to official data compiled by Scroll.in, 1,543 militants have been killed in Jammu and Kashmir since 2010. From 2013, the year that was supposed to have the lowest number of active militants in the Valley since the spread of militancy in 1989, the number of youth taking up arms grew steadily.

This upward trend continued till 2018, when 218 local youth joined militancy. The numbers only started going down in 2019, when 139 local youth joined militant ranks. Currently, there are over 200 active militants in the Kashmir Valley.

Even if militant casualties are rising, recruitment has not petered out. Many of those killed in recent gunfights had been youth who were fresh to the ranks. Nadeem Malik was one of 49 youth who joined up this year – 27 have been killed so far.

Former senior police officers fear the decisions of August 5 and the decision to grant domicile status to those who were previously considered outsiders to Jammu and Kashmir, may have fuelled recruitment. “This has surely added to the grievances of the people,” diagnosed AM Watali, who was deputy inspector general of police in Kashmir in 1989. “People are really afraid of demographic change in Kashmir. My feeling is that things will explode.”

Another former police officer, speaking off the record, also worried that the political vacuum in the Valley since August 5 had made matters worse. “There’s so much arrogance,” he said. “There’s no space for politics. Not a single political forum is explaining or making any effort to articulate the apprehensions of people. That’s why it’s the militants who are filling the gap. Even if it was not their principal fight, it’s they who are fighting against the adventures of New Delhi after August 5.”

Prison circuit

But it is not just political grievances since August 5. A complex mix of reasons has motivated the new batch of recruits to militancy. Some, like Nadeem Malik, blame a growing security crackdown. Over the past few years, security forces have scaled up presence in the districts of South Kashmir. Post August 5, most stories of alleged harassment and torture by security forces emerged from Shopian district.

According to his family, Nadeem Malik’s run-ins with security forces had started in December 2018. “One day, he was stopped by the army on a road in the village,” said a relative who did not want to be named. “They snatched his mobile phone. After that incident, the army accused him of stone-pelting during a militant’s funeral. However, we told the army that he’s not involved in any such thing and the matter was resolved.”

But in March 2019, he was picked up and detained at the Zainapora police station, the family alleged. “He was arrested on March 17 and detained for weeks by DSP Wajahat,” said the relative. “After three weeks, they booked him for stone-pelting under the UAPA [the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act]. The FIR for the charges dated back to 2016. Apart from fighting it out in court, we met every top official in the police and the civil administration to seek his release.”

A senior police official in Shopian, who did not want to be named, confirmed that Nadeem Malik was booked in various FIRs under sections of the UAPA. “All of those charges involved terror activities and that’s why UAPA was invoked,” said the officer. “He got several bails in those cases.”

But at a press conference on June 16, Kumar had said the police had investigated Nadeem Malik’s claims of harassment by Wajahat Hussain and found them “baseless”. The youth came from a Jama’at-e-Islami background, Kumar said, as explanation for him turning to militancy.

Nadeem Malik was released in April 2019. “But he had been home for only two or three days when the police came again and booked him in another UAPA case,” continued the relative. This time, there was no release. Within months, Kashmir was under a severe lockdown to contain the fallout of the August 5 decisions. The courts did not function for weeks. “He eventually walked free on 17 December.”

Once released, the undergraduate student focused on passing his exams. “He had missed some papers due to his imprisonment,” said Abdul Malik. “But in all the examinations he could manage to appear after his release, he passed them easily. He was very studious and we gave him every support.”

The family says Nadeem Malik was left alone by security forces until that raid in mid-May. “In retrospect, I feel the army major’s threat that he will pick up Nadeem had an impact on him,” said Abdul Malik. “Maybe he would be with us today if he hadn’t threatened him.”

Abid Khan, a 26-year-old resident of Hirpora village in Shopian district, says he was tortured by the army in the security crackdown launched after August 5.

‘Either an informer or a militant’

Seventeen-year-old Syed Munasar Shafi also died with Nadeem Malik in the Shopian gunfight on June 19. A Class 12 student, he had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen just two weeks before his death.

“I don’t recall anybody harassing him or him being summoned to any camp,” said his father, Mohammad Shafi Shah. “In fact, he didn’t roam with boys of his age but those younger than him.”

The family lives in Shopian’s Nazneen Pora village. “I met him in the afternoon [of June 5],” said his brother, Syed Zakir Shah. “He told me he had a cricket match and needed to be there.” That was the last time he saw his brother alive. “His teammates told us that after his batting, he was supposed to field but he took a break from the game and told them that he would be back in five minutes.”

Later, a video surfaced on social media, with Munasar Shafi asking militants to give him a gun so that he could fight along with them. The family was taken by surprise. “I am sure that he was forced to say that in the video,” said Zakir Shah. “It’s unbelievable to hear such a thing from him because he wasn’t that type at all.”

The teenager’s family had asked the local police post in Keegam to inform them whenever a gunfight broke out. “My intention was to go to the site and persuade him to surrender,” said his father. “But when the encounter on June 19 broke out, they didn’t inform us. When we came to know about it, he had already been killed and his body was on the way to Baramulla for burial.”

Munasar Shafi is the fifth boy from Nazneen Pora to join militancy in recent years. The village is also home to Naveed Babu, the militant being ferried to Jammu by Davinder Singh, the Jammu and Kashmir police officer accused of being involved in the 2001 attack on Parliament. Since Singh and Babu were apprehended, the area has received close attention from security forces.

But another local resident, the father of a slain militant, believes the security crackdown affected the teenager. “Whatever happens around here makes an impression on everyone’s mind – it’s natural,” he said. “You can’t step out of your home after last light due to fear of the army. Why should boys be summoned to the camp? Why are they snatching their mobile phones for no reason? Why can’t they go out freely in the evening? The youth in South Kashmir have only two choices: either become their informer or become a militant.”

‘No worldly cause’

In the outskirts of urban Srinagar, another teenager made a quiet transition into militancy. “When he became a militant, he didn’t upload his photo or anything,” said Ghulam Nabi Khandwaw, who did not want to speak to video journalists who had gathered at his house on June 23. “He didn’t want to have a worldly reputation. I have to honour that.”

On June 21, Ghulam Nabi Khandwaw’s 19-year-old son, Mohsin Gulzar, had been killed in a gunfight between militants and security forces in the congested Zadibal area of downtown Srinagar. He had left home about three weeks earlier to join the Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir.

The Khandwaw family lives in the Anchar locality of Soura, on the outskirts of Srinagar. After Kashmir lost special status and statehood, this locality had been the epicentre of protests against the government. Local residents had barricaded themselves in and dug up roads so that security vehicles could not enter.

According to Ghulam Khandwaw, his son also joined the protests that swept the neighbourhood, but only for a few days. “He was more interested in religion and studying religious literature,” said Ghulam Khandwaw, who recently lost his job as an accountant. “He offered prayers regularly and would never indulge in frivolous activities.”

The family claim he had only one brush with the law, way back in 2017. “He had gone to Soura hospital, from where police picked him up for no reason and kept him in jail for nine days,” said his father. “But there was no FIR or case. He had never seemed inclined to join militancy.”

He could not explain why his studious son, who was doing an undergraduate commerce degree, wanted to take up arms. When Gulzar left home on May 26, it was a regular day in the Khandwaw household. Until he failed to return after evening prayers. After a frantic search, the family filed a missing complaint with the police. But it was not until June 21 that the family learnt where Gulzar was – cornered in downtown Srinagar in the thick of a gunfight.

“He didn’t make any last call, he didn’t announce his decision to us,” said Ghulam Khanwaw. “Whatever he did, he concealed from us.”

But his son was a “thinking boy” and would have been affected by the changes around him post August 5. “See, mosques are being closed and liquor shops are being opened,” he said. “These things do have an impact.”

According to residents of Anchar, Gulzar is the first boy from the locality to join militancy since the 1990s. While he belongs to the post August 5 batch of militants, his family insists the sweeping political changes had little to do with his decision to join up. “Those who fight for Allah don’t care about territorial or material things like Article 370,” said his brother, Faisal Gulzar. “He fought for the establishment of a caliphate across the world.”

Smoke rises from the site of a gunfight in Nawa Kadal, in downtown Srinagar, on May 19.

‘Demilitarise South Kashmir’

Former police officers feel the government and security forces need a complete change in approach if they want to make militancy unpopular in Kashmir. “Militancy in Kashmir has become a faith now,” said Watali. In 1988, he had been the first police officer to face an attack on his house. “Unless there is a political approach and engagement with the core issue of Kashmir, militancy is not going anywhere. Numbers may vary but the idea will stay. The Pakistan factor is also important. They have stakes here and they also have to be on board.”

He also spoke of giving youth who had laid down arms a real chance at moving on with their lives. “I am talking about rehabilitation in a real sense,” he explained. “Don’t push these boys but allow them the space to shun this idea. For example, if a boy is given a chance to shun the path of the gun, he should be allowed to do it in a real sense. Why should he be harassed and summoned again and again?”

The other former police officer felt the militarisation of South Kashmir had spurred militancy. “If the government wants my suggestion, they should demilitarise South Kashmir and bring the army back from there,” he said. “There will be a significant improvement in the situation.”