Long before the street violence in Kashmir's apple hub, terrorists silenced those who might have helped prevent them

Freshly cut from the trees, the wooden rods landed with furious precision on the backs of the three men who had been dragged to the clearing through the russet autumn leaf fall. The men had been stripped down to their underwear and their hands tied behind their back before the torture began. It did not take long for the skin on their backs to turn into ugly red pulp.

“I swear to god,” a man screamed out, as one of his tormentors held a pistol to his head “I will pray, pray five times a day.”

The Hindu has obtained a video documenting the torture of three north Kashmir residents in the autumn of 2008. The video provides grim insight into the Islamist movement which began to acquire power across the region from earlier in the decade. The young men who participated in these mobilisations now form the organisational backbone of the street protests raging in Kashmir.

Nine men have been killed in rioting in Sopore since June 26, when a mob attacked police who had killed Lashkar operative Feroz Gojri and a second, still-unidentified terrorist in Krankshivan.

Long before these killings, though, the town saw the silencing of those who might have helped prevent them. In May, terrorists assassinated Ghulam Nabi Khan, president of Sopore's powerful Traders' Federation, who had initiated a dialogue with the government to contain street violence. Local video operator Ashiq Husain was killed in April for broadcasts Islamists found offensive.

In June, after the Traders' Federation's acting head, Mohammad Ismail Khuroo, met with bureaucrats to begin a dialogue on the violence, local Islamists attempted to set his home on fire. Khuroo, along with his associates Javed Bhat and Hashmatullah Hashim, resigned his position.

Islamist power in Sopore began to grow around 2006, when a new generation of young leaders in Kashmir began gaining influence on the back of campaigns linked to questions of religious identity. The former Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen terrorist, Massrat Alam Bhat, the Dukhtaran-e-Millat leader, Aasiya Andrabi, and Mehrajuddin Kalwal spearheaded campaigns against migrant workers, prostitution, sexual freedoms and alcohol use — all cast as Indian plots against Islam.

The new Islamists' ideological moorings, though, lay in a global jihadist project at some distance from the traditions represented by their ageing leader, the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Mr. Geelani called for a political movement to bring about an Islamic state; the new Islamists made no secret of their support for jihadists. Ms. Andrabi's husband, Ashiq Faktoo, who is serving a life term for murder, emerged as the new Islamists' ideological mentor.

Figures like the Sopore cleric Riyaz Ahmed, Ghulam Hassan Ghazali and Mohammad Malik formed the core of Sopore-based cells involved in the campaigns against vice. Like the new Islamists in Srinagar, they were closely linked to pro-jihad elements in the neoconservative Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith religious order. Their cadre came, for the most part, from poor neighbourhoods like Batpora: insurgents released from prisons, without hope of a job or marriage; school dropouts; daily-wage labourers.

“Sopore's rich,” says the town's Special Commissioner, Mohammad Shafi Khan, “abandoned these neighbourhoods a generation ago, and so did the government.”

Islamist power

Instead of unleashing the kinds of indiscriminate violence jihadist groups had engaged in a decade earlier, the new Islamists targeted representatives of a religious order and élite who had failed their constituency. In June, 2006, the Lashkar-e-Taiba attempted to assassinate Abdul Ahad, one of the best-known custodians of popular Islam in Kashmir. The Sopore mystic escaped unhurt — but two members of his congregation were killed in the grenade attack, and nine injured.

Earlier that year, in May, two Sopore residents were assassinated by the Lashkar for gambling. In October, dental surgeon Mushtaq Shah was tortured in the cornfields around the village of Nopora Kalan before his throat was finally slit with shaving blades — this, as villagers begged for his life.

Four months later, in February, 2007, terrorists bombed the home of Shah Rasool Memorial High School head Inayatullah Hajani. Mr. Hajani's Bangalore-educated daughter, Baseema Hajani, was charged with apostasy for putting up portraits of Mother Teresa and Bhagat Singh in the school office. The school, which caters to Sopore's secularised élite, was targeted by stone throwers earlier this summer, along with banks and insurance offices.

In June, 2007, Islamist-led protesters torched a children's' computer centre, laboratory and library after rumours spread that the members of the trust, which ran these institutions, had made blasphemous remarks. The violence ended after the allegations were heard by Sopore's chief religious judge, Mufti Muzaffar Shah — and police arrested two employees who he determined had made false allegations. Ironically, the trust was closely linked to Mr. Geelani.

Last August, terrorists kidnapped the principal of Sopore's Degree College for failing to enforce Islamist edits that women students wear the veil. Mohammad Ashraf Pir was eventually released — but his car was torched, in public view.

The young Islamists on the streets in Sopore see themselves as waging a war against India. Their battle has also, however, overthrown the town's traditional structures of power.

Keywords: Kashmir violenceLeT