Walking Dead - a story about counter - insurgents and their fate in Kashmir
Walking Dead - A story about counter-insurgents and their fate in Kashmir
by Tanya | June 18, 2009 at 1:42 AM
The Sunday Indian
15-21 June, 2009
Used by the armed forces in the war on militancy and then dumped once the job was done, Kashmir’s socially ostra-cised counter-insurgents and their families have hit a dead-end in life, writes Zubair A. Dar
Hajra, 68, was busy cooking on her mud hearth when she heard the sound of an explosion, followed by gunshots. Gripped by nervousness, she rushed out. Her aging limbs quivered in anxiety. Her son, Bashir Ahmad Parray, a government-sponsored gunman had left minutes earlier. Along with six other men, he had boarded a Gypsy to take a round of the area. As Hajra reached the market, a rumour came like a wrenching wave to her. They said her son was probably dead.
“The men said the Gypsy had been attacked. A mine blast had killed all the seven people on the vehicle, shopkeepers talked in whispers,” Hajra says. She says she fell there. Some neighbours later brought her home from the bus stand. “When I regained consciousness, the police was bringing out the body of my son from an ambulance.”
That evening in 1997, Hajra wept alone. It was seven years after Bashir Ahmad Parray, fondly called Bashir Yaar by his accomplices, had returned from across the line of control (LoC) with a gun on his shoulder and a pouch of bullets and grenades around his waist. He had gone there for arms training and spent more than a year in a camp. Hajra remembers that sunny afternoon when Bashir returned.
“Other boys who had gone for training along with Bashir had already returned. There were rumours that Bashir had been killed while crossing the border. But I never gave up hope,” says Hajra. “That afternoon, I was cooking for my family. I heard people talking aloud on the road outside. They said Bashir had come. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw him approaching with several other men.”
Bashir had made a tough choice by walking the rugged tracks across the LoC for arms training. He operated as a militant for three years. But a tougher choice he made in 1994 had no comeback. Led by Mohammad Yousuf Parray alias Kuka Parray, his militant organisation – Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen – switched sides to fight militancy in Kashmir.
Despite their militant past, the government allowed them to operate as counter-insurgents. They were largely controlled by their own commanders. The government paid them 1,500 rupees a month. Ikhwan commanders promised them assimilation in the state’s police force once the counter-insurgency was over. Insurgency survived. Bashir did not.
At the family’s ancestral home – a mud and brick structure – at Hajan township in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, Hajra now brings up Bashir’s two sons – Hilal (12) and Yasir (11). Her daughter-in-law, Sharifa, whom Bashir married in 1995, doesn’t live with them anymore. She married another man after Bashir's death. Bashir’s younger brother Manzoor now has the responsibility of bringing up the children.
“My younger son has five children. With Bashir's two children, he now has the responsibility of seven. He works in the fields and rears sheep,” says Hajra. “The government has never cared to find out whether Bashir’s children even survived or not, let alone do anything for their welfare.” Hajra says that Hilal stands in front of his father’s photo and speaks to him. “This morning while leaving for his aunt’s home in the neighbouring village, he told his father that he would come back by the evening. He even sought his permission. That traumatises me,” she says.
Neglected by the government and ostracised by society, Hajra and her family now live a life of poverty. Thousands of other families across Kashmir suffer the same fate despite the fact that their male members paid with their lives to fight a war that the armed forces found difficult to handle. A sketchy record maintained by Kuka Parray’s personal assistant, Fayaz Ahmad Dar, at Hajan reveals that the number of men who fought as counter-insurgents across Kashmir was around 4000. “Almost 2500 of them were killed. Many died in encounters. Some died in ambushes. In the cases of a few commanders, we are not certain who the assassin was,” says Dar.
Across Kashmir, they operated the same way as militants did. “Each group of 20 to 25 men was controlled by a commander. They shifted bases frequently and planned ambushes against militants. In coordination with the armed forces, they planned combing operations,” Dar says. But their reign is considered to be one of the worst in terms of human rights violations. While they killed militants, civilians and sympathisers were not spared either. In south Kashmir's Anantnag town, the free hand given to counter-insurgents triggered a new wave of militancy.
Aijaz Ahmad Turrey was killed in a precision strike by suspected militants along with an accomplice, Nisar Ahmad Mir, in Janglat Mandi market near his home in Anantnag. Turrey's wife, Rubi, was away in Amritsar for the treatment of her son, Irfan, who had lost his eyesight in an accident. On her return, Rubi learnt her husband had already been laid to rest in the graveyard. “A woman in a burqa (veil) came to their camp with the news that an IED had been planted in the market. The two rushed to the spot where militants shot them dead,” she says. Rubi's journey of grief began from the graveyard itself: there was no one to share her pain.
The taboo of being a renegade’s widow led to instant social boycott. Relatives, except for some close ones, stopped visiting. Feeling the hateful stares of neighbours, she caged herself in her home until another catastrophe struck. Her husband had bought a migrant Kashmiri Pandit's house through a middleman but died before the deal could be sealed. "We could not pay the dues and had to leave the house. For three months, we lived in a shed in my brother's house," says Habla, Aijaz's mother. The women say they sold their jewellery to buy the house they now live in, a brick and cement box with three rooms atop each other. Their story – like those of thousands of other such families – is part of a harsh but hidden reality of today’s Kashmir.
Four years after her husband’s violent death, Rubi is still an outcast. “I don't go anywhere now, except my parents’ place. No one visits us except them,” says Rubi. After Aijaz's death, Rubi and her mother-in-law earned a living by roasting cattle heads to clear them of hair. The trader shifted his business and Rubi was left jobless. “We do not go seeking jobs anymore. We dread a reaction,” she says.
The government too did not care to rehabilitate them. Counter-insurgents, pawns in a larger battle, were left to their own devices after they were done with the dirty job. They weren't soldiers. Thus a payment of one lakh rupees as ex-gratia became the price of each of their lives. While some have accepted the ex-gratia payments, others refuse to use the ‘blood money’. “I’d better beg. I cannot spend the blood money to buy groceries for feeding my children,” says Taja, while caressing her grandson’s hair. Her son, Nisar Ahmad Mir from Mir Danter neighbourhood of Anantnag town, was killd by the same booby trap that consumed Aijaz.
Unlike Aijaz, Nisar had joined to overcome an emotional ordeal. His wife, whom he married after a long affair, had died due to a brain haemorrhage. Taja says she tried to persuade her son to quit. “But he wouldn't listen,” she says. “He did a job for those who never bothered to check what his children do for a living. I haven't touched the money they paid me after his death. I've put it in an account. May be the children will use it when they grow up.”
For this elderly widow, her children are her world now. The eldest among them, Zubair, works as a labourer. Taja says that Nisar rarely came home after joining the renegades. “He didn't even bother to care for his three children,” she adds as the wrinkles on her face deepen. “If my son hadn’t joined Ikhwan, we would have been better off. No one comes here now, no one except Allah,” she says.
“Some days back, I heard Zubair’s name had appeared in some list. I went to the Deputy Commissioner's office to check. But no one told me anything there.”
Like Taja, Rubi too aspires for a job. She wants to remind the government her husband had laid down his life for them. “I've filed a job application in the DC’s office. They say they would pay me more money,” Rubi says. “But I want a job. I am ready to work even as a peon in some office.” Other renegades, who survived the 13 years of war against militants, are similarly uncertain about their future. They feel guilty of killing their own people, some of whom they knew closely.
Jahangir Khan, a renegade commander who survived the 20 years of war – first as a militant and later as a renegade – says that they were “used - to fight their own people and then disposed off”. Jahangir now lives in a Kashmiri Pandit’s house in Islamabad town. He says he is living as a migrant in his own community because no one owns him.
“We were exploited by the security forces as well as our own commanders,” he says. “We gave our lives. We brought down militancy, floated a political party (Awami League) and announced our participation in the elections in 1996. The political leaders who now oppose us were hiding in other countries then,” he says. “What did we get in return?”
Jahangir remembers the beginning of the counter-insurgency movement. “The commanders would meet army officers and then tell their boys what the strategy was. To keep them going, they would promise jobs and money,” he says. “No one now cares about them anymore. Every boy who survived now feels pangs of guilt. We killed those whom we knew personally. There were excesses as well in certain cases. But who made us do that?”
On a roadside pavement in Ananatnag, a vendor yells to customers at the top of his voice. He sells used clothes. On a good day, he earns 200 rupees. “Otherwise, the earnings are around 100 or 120 rupees a day,” he says, pleading anonymity for the fear of being kicked out of business. “I have participated in more encounters than any of the Ikhwan commanders you see around. They made money; I was left to starve till I decided to work as a vendor.”
Comparing the lives of ordinary renegades and their commanders, Jahangir Khan says that unlike the foot soldiers of Turrey’s rank, commanders amassed huge money out of counter insurgency. He says: “At Taqiya Beram Shah (a village in Ananatnag), Liyaqat (a renegade commander) lived in a hut. Now he has made crores. He went to Gujarat to distribute relief after the earthquake. Did he provide any relief to the boys who fought with him?”
“No family members of those killed have been provided any jobs,” Khan says. Around 50 of those who survived have been adjusted in the Territorial Army. Some still work with the police as SPOs and are paid 3000 rupees a month. “Others are hiding. Few who dare, go out, work as vendors on pavements,” Khan says.
The Territorial Army has accommodated 250 counter-insurgents. A few more have been absorbed by CRPF. But the families of renegades who were killed have been abandoned. They are fighting a battle against ostracism and poverty.