The day after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Srinagar, the city remained in a state of suspended animation. It was the anniversary of Molvi Farooq’s assassination, the one-time Mirwaiz of Kashmir and separatist leader having been murdered 18 years ago. A march had been scheduled, as it is every year, and would have wended its way through the old city that afternoon. But the powers that be had decided that no such march should take place, citing security concerns, and the city was brought to a standstill for the second day in a row by the mutually reinforcing pressures of the military’s lock-down and the separatists’ shutdown.
It was, Kashmiri journalist Sameer Yasir told me, as good a day as any to get out of the city and into the militant heartland.
Our driver was a veteran fixer of the insurgency’s 1990s heyday and claimed to have ferried around everyone from CNN to the Washington Post. Despite his bona fides, he still had to stop and ask directions on occasion, so deep into the boondocks were we going. It occurred to me that we could have followed the signs. Not the road signs, of which there were none, but rather those scrawled on the sides of houses and the roller doors of shuttered shop fronts: “We want free.” “We want peace.” “We will become Pakistani.”
If it was difficult to find the village of Heff—a mealy string of concrete buildings along a rocky, unsealed street in the district of Shopian—it was easy to find the home of Bilal Ahmad Mohand, a militant also known as Bilal Molvi who had been killed in a shootout with Indian security forces only two weeks earlier. One only had to look for the signs of martyrdom and mourning, with which the facade of the building was festooned.
Above the front door, fixed to the awning, photographic enlargements of Bilal had been erected that showed him posing with various weapons, his children, and his comrades-in-arms. He had been a large man, a leader of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen separatist group, and sported a beard that brought immediately to mind those of other militants—terrorists, we could call them in the West—the world over. His father, Muhammad Yousuf, met us at the door and quickly ushered us upstairs.
It was only now that I became aware of a misunderstanding that existed between Yasir and me. As we settled in against the cushions that lined the walls of the otherwise bare room, he asked me what I wanted to know. I had assumed he was here to report a story of his own, where in fact he had brought me to help me with mine. That I hadn’t a story in mind yet was a problem. Indeed, I had spent most of the morning’s commute marveling at the poppy plantations on the side of the road—private paddocks of potential heroin—rather than coming up with questions. I asked, a little pathetically, how Muhammad Yousuf was feeling.
He cocked an eyebrow, almost bemused. “My son just died,” he said in Koshur, which sounded to me a little like Urdu, not that I understand Urdu, either. “How does he think I’m feeling?”
He continued talking, primarily to Yasir, as though to save me the embarrassment.
“My son was prepared to die this way,” he said. “We have always known that this is how it would end.”
He said the family’s primary concern was now Bilal’s wife, whom he said had been diagnosed with a “tumor”—meaning cancer—and his two school-aged children.
“We cannot be concerned for Bilal, who is in paradise,” he said. “He died a martyr, as Allah wished it. But now there is no one to care for his family. This is what we must focus on.”
I was better prepared at the next house, the home of Saddam Hussain Paddar, who was killed in the same altercation as Bilal. Paddar’s mother, Feroza Bano, came to join us on the porch, a large woman in a pink floral headscarf, and we settled in again on the cushions provided.
In early May, Bano became something of an internet sensation when footage of her at Paddar’s funeral went viral. In the video, which is available on YouTube, Bano stands atop the roof of the house with a group of militants and fires an AK47 into the air. The video was a gift to both sides. In south Kashmir, separatists rallied around it. In the Hindu heartland—and in the Indian press—it was seized upon as yet another example of how such separatists are ultimately all terrorists.
“I did what I did because I loved my son and was pleased when he became a martyr,” she said. “We need more martyrs, more boys like my son. It is Allah’s wish.”
Speaking to both Yousuf and Bano, I was struck, not by their sense of pride in their sons, which, commingled with their inevitable grief, seemed befitting of the families of fallen soldiers, nor indeed by their fatalism, which befitted their situation. There are between 150 and 200 militants in Kashmir at any given time, roughly split between locals and Pakistani infiltrators, with more than half a million Indian security forces ranged against them. Given the odds, I’d be fatalistic, too.
No, what I was struck by was their rhetoric. They spoke, not in terms of national liberation, but in those of Islamic fundamentalism. While these are by no means exclusive registers, the complete absence of nationalist feeling in what they were saying did seem somewhat curious. Yasir had noticed it, too, he told me: something did appear to be shifting in the narrative.
“This is why I wanted you to meet Paddar’s mother,” he told me. “I had never seen anything like [her behaviour at the funeral] before.”
We were standing at the gate to Heff’s “Martyr’s Graveyard,” a grassy knoll in which the militants had been recently interred. Their headstones dutifully faced Mecca, which at that moment meant into the early afternoon sun.
Militant funerals have become all too common in this part of the world, often drawing thousands of mourners. The February funeral of 19-year-old Ubaid Shafi Malla, who dropped out of college to join the Hizb, as the group is sometimes known, was representative of their tone and tenor.
According to Yasir’s BBC report of the event, Malla’s mother addressed the crowd:
“Would you like to become a police officer?” she began, to which the angry crowd chanted back “No, we won’t!”
“Would you like to become a militant?” she continued.
“Yes, we will,” the crowd roared in response.
“Would you like to become Tiger?” she said, pointing to a nearby village where a famous Kashmiri militant Sameer Bhat, also known as Sameer Tiger, was killed the previous week.
“Yes, we want to!” the crowd responded.
“Then say it loudly,” she shouted.
“Azadi! [Freedom!],” the crowd responded.
“This is what killing militants does,” Yasir told me. “It creates martyrs and brings their families honor—and, as a result, it creates more militants.”
We had a sneaky bite to eat nearby—neither Yasir nor the driver were observing Ramadan—before continuing onto Beighpora Awantipora in the district of Pulwama. Here, bathed in soft afternoon light, and the pollen floating visibly on it, we found the house of Hizb commander Riyaz Naikoo, who styles himself as Mohammad Bin Qasim, and asked after the man’s father.
It had again been easy to find the place: the otherwise candy-colored building had been desecrated with black graffiti and its windows broken and patched up with cardboard. Naikoo’s father Assadullah told us it was the work of the Indian security forces, which have allegedly been harassing the family since his son became a militant.
“They have treated us like dogs for six years,” Assadullah said. “They have raided our house more than 30 times, often beating us up. They think we know where Riyaz Saab is.”
A former math teacher, Riyaz Naikoo is representative of what the Hindustan Times has labelled Kashmir’s “new breed of militant”: educated, middle-class, and social media savvy. “The [militants’ social media] videos are affecting the psychology of Kashmiri youth, who spend hours watching videos uploaded by local militants and by Islamic State,” Pulwama’s Superintendent of Police, Tejinder Singh, told the newspaper earlier this year. “Their only role models are militants with guns. ... We haven’t been able to provide them with alternative role models."
Naikoo’s family spends hours watching such videos as well. They have only seen Riyaz twice since he went underground in 2012, Assadullah told us, and await his Facebook sermons eagerly: his digital dispatches are the only way they have of knowing that he’s still alive.
“Why would he tell us where he is when he knows the Indian military is hounding us?” Assadullah said. “We wait for him to make his statements like everybody else does.”
I asked about the graffiti outside: the name “Musa” was clearly discernible on the walls. This, I was told, was a reference to Zakir Musa, a militant who split with the Hizb last year after it refused to back his calls for Kashmiri separatists to join the wider struggle for an Islamic caliphate. In April 2017, a group of unidentified militants addressed a gathering in Pulwama. “We love Pakistan only because it was created in the name of Islam,” News18 reported them as saying after obtaining an audio recording of the meeting. “But there is no Islam in today’s Pakistan. We have to do jihad in Pakistan, just like in India.”
“[The] Taliban wants an Islamic system in Pakistan. We should love [the] Taliban,” they said.
This was not the opinion of others in the Hizb, and Musa broke away from them to form the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind. “The Indians wanted us to think that we were being harassed by Musa’s supporters,” Asadullah said of the graffiti. “But we know the truth.”
Naikoo’s family were hesitant to discuss the internal politics of the Hizb with me, though Indian intelligence agents have credited Naikoo with holding the group together in the wake of Musa’s defection. (Indeed, some estimate that the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind may have as few as ten members.) They were far more keen to discuss the way that Indian security forces have made their lives a living hell.
Wearing an olive-green sweater vest and sitting cross-legged on the carpet in the family’s front room, Naikoo’s uncle, Ghulam Qadir, said he had been held for six months under the Public Safety Act in 2016, a year before Naikoo ascended to the leadership of the Hizb.
“I kept asking why they had arrested me when I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said. “They beat me regularly to make me answer their questions. It was a terrible time. This is why young men like Riyaz Saab want to fight them and become martyrs.”
By now, the matter of the families’ rhetoric—the constant references to martyrdom and Allah—had become my overriding obsession, and I put it to Naikoo’s family plainly. To what extent was their struggle for independence? To what extent was it religious in nature?
They didn’t seem to understand the question.
“Riyaz Saab and others like him are fighting for the Kashmiri people,” Assadullah said. “Our country and our religion are the same to us, you understand?”
I did, of course, but only intellectually. I couldn’t understand it in my bones. This is what separates me from them, and indeed, in large part, the West from so many of our professed enemies. Until we understand the interpenetration of these seemingly contradictory motives—which continue to define conflicts from the Caucasus to southern Thailand—we will continue to flail aimlessly, making as many militants as we kill, ensuring yet more forever wars.
At Ghat 7 on Dal Lake, where my shikara man was waiting for me, a large family of Indian tourists were piling their suitcases onto boats. I made a bee-line through them to my own ride and asked that I be taken home. On the boulevard that traced the lake, a man sat at a pedal-powered grindstone, and went about sharpening the locals’ knives.
A few months later, in August 2018, Assadullah Naikoo would be among eight people detained in a series of raids in south Kashmir. According to my contacts there, he has not yet been released.
Tomorrow: Rape Threats and Roadside Bombs