In south Kashmir, families divided by hatred united in grief

Praveen Swami

A tragic tale of two landless peasant families in Kulgam

Death is familiar to most local residents

9 of 10 Wakai men who joined terror groups have been killed

KULGAM (J&K): Back in the summer of 2005, Shabbir Ahmad Wani applauded as Sartaj Ahmad Shah led Wakai’s cricket team to a historic win against Chawalgam village.

In the last moments of his life, Wani watched Shah draw a Kalashnikov assault rifle and press the trigger, ending two hours of brutal torture on a paddy field outside Wakai. Since the cricket match, Shah had become a local commander for the Hizb ul-Mujahideen, while Wani became a special police officer. Less than a week after Wani’s killing, the Jammu and Kashmir police shot Shah dead.

Neither of their families will celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr on Sunday, second day of the three-day ceasefire declared by the United Jihad Council.

In search of better life

Shah and Wani belonged to landless peasant families in south Kashmir’s affluent apple-orchard belt — and both took the course they did in search of a better life.

The oldest of Abdul Hamid Shah’s seven children, Shah dropped out of school in eighth grade to join his father’s wicker-work trade. Eight months ago, he stole Rs. 16,000 worth of Kangri baskets — the earthen pots Kashmiris use to stay warm in winter — and disappeared. “I would never have let him leave had I known what he was about to do,” says his cricket-partner Gauhar Bhat, “because this movement has brought us nothing but death.”

No ideological passion

Unlike the young Islamists who joined the Hizb ul-Mujahideen soon after 1989, Shah had no real ideological passions. His pockets bore evidence of just what he found in a Hizb ul-Mujahideen operative — photographs of a girlfriend, impressible in a conservative peasant society, expensive western clothes, and a mobile phone.

Bhat recalls: “He always used to say a man should feel rich inside his heart. I think he just got fed up with being poor.”

Land washed away

Wani, too, tired of being poor. His family’s land was washed away by floods, which afflict parts of Kulgam, and the only job on offer was as a special police officer assigned to guard a relative of the former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Given that the family had repeatedly been harassed by the Hizb ul-Mujahideen — both uncles of Wani serve in the Indian Army — he knew the risks.

Death is familiar to most local residents. Nine of the 10 Wakai men who joined Islamist terror groups have been killed. Eight local residents have died at their hands.

The surviving Hizb ul-Mujahideen operative Nasir Ahmad Beig now lives across the Line of Control in Muzaffarabad. Next month, his family recently learned, he will marry a Pakistani woman.

Come-back wish

Like over a thousand other Hizb ul-Mujahideen operatives stuck in Pakistan, Beig wishes to come home with his new bride — but knows he most likely never will. It is, in a tragic way, fitting. The first terrorist Wakai gave birth to, Mohammad Yusuf Mir, was killed in 1989 while trying to cross the LoC back into Jammu and Kashmir from the same Muzaffarabad training camp where Beig now lives.

No escape

Fayyaz Ahmad Naikoo, a Hizb ul-Mujahideen operative killed on August 21, hoped to join Beig. Police in Kulgam traced Naikoo after he applied, under a pseudonym, for a passport that would have allowed him and his new wife to travel to Pakistan.

Both Naikoo and his brother Manzoor joined the Hizb ul-Mujahideen in 1990. Their father Ghulam Hassan Naikoo was a long standing Jamaat-e-Islami activist, who still makes a living selling Islamist magazines and newspapers.

While their father belonged to Ghulam Mohammad Bhat’s anti-violence faction of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the sons were drawn by hardliners’ promise that the creation of an Islamic state was imminent.

While Manzoor was killed in 1994, Naikoo was imprisoned. He emerged from jail in 2005, but struggled to make a living. “I wanted him to marry,” says his father, “but no one would give their daughter to a one-time terrorist with no prospects. In the end, I found him a woman from Bihar, a migrant worker’s daughter. But there were no children, so we sent her back.”

Last year, under intense pressure from local army units to join their counter-terrorism operations, Naikoo finally decided to rejoin the Hizb ul-Mujahideen. A month ago, his father met him for the last time. “He told me he had married again and wanted to start a new life in Pakistan,” Ghulam Hassan recalls. “I begged him to come home instead, but he was adamant,” Ghulam Hassan says. “He wanted a new life, or death.”

“Take these walnuts,” the ageing Jamaat-e-Islami activist says in a gesture of farewell: “It isn’t much, I know, but it’s Eid tomorrow.”

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