- There's a spike in trend of young Kashmiri men picking up arms
- If eliminated, their deaths fuel the martyrdom narrative
- Police data shows 126 local youth joined terror groups in 2017
Aetimad Hussain had joined a terror group and was in the middle of a fierce gun battle in south Kashmir's Shopian. He figured this was going to be his last. His friend had already been shot and this was his goodbye call to his parents.
In the conversation, Aetimad Hussain is heard telling his father that he was trapped and there was no way to get out. "Look, I cannot tell you to surrender. I can't tell you that," his father responds, inquiring if there was no way he could escape. "No, we tried; but there is no way out. Abrar Bai is injured, he has received bullet in his head," Aetimad Hussain tells him, asking him to take care of the family.
Aetimad Hussain was killed moments later on 1 April.
He had done his MPhil from Hyderabad University and had been filling forms for a government job in 2016. Last year, something snapped and he went missing in November last. News that he had joined a terror group came soon after.
Fayaz Ahmad Malik explains why he didn't ask him to surrender that day.
"When I met him earlier, he had told me that I should never ask him to surrender. That's why I didn't ask him to surrender. He had himself chosen a path. There was an objective and goal. He has succeeded to achieve that goal, Thank God," Fayaz Ahmad Malik said, suggesting he had no regrets.
A spike in the trend of young Kashmiri men picking up arms has many in the security establishment worried. If they are eliminated in encounters, their death only goes to fuel the martyrdom narrative.
Like the massive operation on 1 April in Shopian that was counted by the security establishment as a huge blow. Twelve terrorists were killed in this operation.
Security sources say that after these encounters, over a dozen more local youth had gone missing and were believed to have joined terror groups.
Among them, was a young soldier, Sepoy Idrees Ahmad Mir, posted in Bihar. He was home on a holiday. His family says he left home to return to his post in Bihar on Sunday last. By Monday, news came that he had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen.
His father, Mohammad Sultan Mir, told NDTV that his son knew that he had been diagnosed with a tumour and had already undergone two surgeries.
"Through you, I appeal him to return. He knows my condition, I can't move around," he said.
The security forces do try to ensure that people don't stray, Swayam Prakash Pani, the police chief of the Kashmir said.
"Recruitment at times is a challenge. I would say it can be contained with sustainable efforts from all quarters. Like our SOP (standard operating procedure) which we have improved a lot.... The cooperation from society which is very important," he said.
But once they join a terror group, the officer said it wasn't easy to get them return.
"This is not that easy as it looks. We have been successful in bringing back 11 to 12 people in last seven months. In that I would say families played most important role," he said.
But that outcome pales in comparison to the challenge before the security establishment.
According to police records, 88 local youth joined terror groups in 2016. The number shot up to 126 in 2017. This year, more than 40 have already joined militant ranks.
There is hardly any instance where a son has sought permission from his parents to pick up gun. In fact, in most of the cases, parents have tried to persuade their children to come back home but often fail to win an argument with their educated sons.
Once they join, parents often support the cause and ideology of their children.
Abdul Hamid Wagay's son Waseem Ahmad was also trapped with Aetimad. But he managed to escape after breaking the security cordon. He doesn't seem to mind that his son would, sooner than later, die in an encounter. Abdul Hamid Wagay says it would be an honourable death.
"Because, the reality is that everyone has to die one day. He who follows the path of God's religion and sacrifices his life for Gods religious, it will be greatest death," he said.
It is this glorification that is making things worse.
Abdul Majid, whose son Abrar was killed in Shopian, blames the prolonged conflict in Kashmir for pushing young men to taking up the gun and creating a martyrdom cult.
"Who turned this freedom struggle into martyrdom cult, Earlier all those who died in Kashmir died for Azadi. People were hanged for demanding Azadi. Our children are also fighting for Azadi and they know they will die in this path. If they don't get Azadi, at least they get reward of it from God," he said.
There are also those who say their sons joined the militant ranks because of police harassment.
Bashir Ahmad Turray, 75, is one of them. He says his son, Zubair Turay, was repeatedly jailed under the tough public safety law on charges of throwing stones that one day, he escaped from police custody and went underground. This was in 2017.
"There are atrocities from every side. He was forced to pick up gun. I once told DC (Deputy Commissioner, or the district chief) sahib that I may also pick up gun" said Mr Turray.
It is an allegation that the police denies, insisting that he had 30 cases registered against him and had a long criminal record.
But there is growing recognition that the support to terrorists during encounters was just another facet of the same challenge that lies before them. Civilians normally run for cover in gun battles. In Kashmir, they have been seen to try help the terrorists. This is Kashmir's new normal that signals the bumpy, and increasingly bloody road ahead.
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