New faces join fray in Kashmir

An April suicide bombing points to a new insurgent group manned by local boys.

Ashfaq Ahmed Shah was a good student in the 12th grade, close to his grandmother, and shy. Always a devout Muslim, lately Ahmed had been spending a lot of time in the local mosque.

At 11:10 a.m. on April 5, Ahmed's father got a call at work. "asalam o alaikum," his son said in greeting. "I'm leaving." And Ahmed hung up.

Two weeks later, the Shah family learned what he meant: Ahmed drove to the 15th Indian Army Corps Command in Srinagar in a stolen sedan, and set off a car bomb that was heard for two miles in all directions. His suicide bombing was the first such incident in Kashmir.

Ten years into an uprising that has claimed an estimated 60,000 lives - more than US troop casualties in Vietnam - the militancy is entering a new phase. Effective Indian infiltration had nearly nullified the insurgency. Yet today, a new generation of "boys," as they are called, is joining the fight from all parts of Kashmiri society.

Unlike previous militants who posed defiantly with homemade guns and made political statements about Kashmir's independence, these young new militants are more sophisticated. They keep their identities hidden from family members, attack mainly military targets, and act out of what they say are Islamic motives, which often include the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan.

The new militancy, combined with the mujahideen fighters who cross into Kashmir from Pakistan, is designed to indefinitely perpetuate the conflict. The Kashmir Valley dispute is the bitter fruit remaining from India's partition in 1947. It is the largest crisis in a newly nuclear South Asia - one that forces India to keep more than 300,000 troops in the picturesque Himalayan valley that Pakistan says is an integral part of its national identity.

Young Ahmed's attack is said by fellow militants to be the inaugural act of a new group, Jais-e-Muhammad, or Army of the Prophet. It was formed in recent months by Maulana Masood Azhar, one of three jailed Kashmiri militant leaders released in January as part of the ransom for the Indian airliner hijacked en route from Kathmandu to New Delhi last December.

Two other young Jais-e-Muhammad members in Srinagar, both local Kashmiris, say they are prepared to commit similar suicidal acts. Such militants are known as fiyadeen warriors - those who die in the name of the Prophet. Out of frustration after the Kargil conflict in Kashmir ended last July, some eight fiyadeen attacks have taken place in the valley in the past six months, adding to a fight against Indian troopsthat already includes rocket launchers and land mines.

"There are more than a thousand of us in Kashmir of the same temperament as Ahmed," says one young boy who attends a local school. "So you can guess what the future here is going to be." When asked if the young militant didn't want to start a family, he replies, "Yes, but I want freedom for Kashmir even more."

Even if the figure of a thousand members is grossly exaggerated - experts say it is - it represents a formidable new problem for India.

"You've got a new generation here," says Gen. B.N. Kapu, second in command of the Border Security Force in Kashmir, a group that tracks down militants. "They were age 5 when the uprising started. They are 15 now, and all they know is this awful, violent world. They are frustrated, and they are hardened."

Moreover, the new militancy is incubating in a valley where - whether or not individual Kashmiris support violence, and many do not - the anti-Indian sentiment is nearly total. In the Shah family neighborhood of Khanyad - a series of winding alleys and dark wood houses with decorative carvings - most can relate stories of abuses by Indian security forces. Some men have physical scars they claim were the product of interrogations.

In a gathering at the Shah home, one cousin tells of a 10-month stint in prison in the early 1990s, when the security forces often shot Kashmiri boys on sight. During that period, one of Ahmed's cousins, a militant, was shot. Ahmed himself, according to his younger brother Husain, was picked up at age 12 and interrogated, though he never complained or expressed anger, his brother says.

Family members say they are proud of Ahmed, and at his English language high school, Ahmed is regarded as something of a hero.

"No father and no mother are sure they will see their sons and daughters again, after they go out in the morning," says Mohammed Yusuf Shah, Ahmed's father. "Ahmed saw how the security forces are treating the youth, and he couldn't run away from it, even when I got him a good job in Bombay."

The new militancy presents a serious problem for Indian security. Using counterinsurgency forces made up of former militants who were turned to the Indian side, New Delhi had nearly crushed the uprising. Today, Indian officials maintain that most of the militants in the valley are from Pakistan - a point that is often used against Pakistan in diplomatic negotiations regarding Kashmir. While the US State Department's new antiterrorism report did not add Pakistan to the list of states sponsoring terrorism, it was critical of Pakistan for harboring and aiding terrorists.

Yet the Army's own statistics belie the claim of the insurgency as being populated mainly by foreign mujahideen coming from Pakistan. According to official Indian statistics, some 12,000 militants have been killed in the past ten years; of these only 1,500 were foreign. Some 180 militants have been killed in the valley since January 1. Of these, 49 were foreign - and five of the 49 are logged in as the militants killed by Army forces, who allegedly shot 35 Sikhs in a massacre at the village of Chitti Singhpora on the day US President Bill Clinton arrived in India in March. It now appears the five men shot were local villagers picked up by zealous security forces under pressure to find the killers. (In an interview, General Kapu of the BSF admitted the killing of the five is "a cause of shame for us.")

Perhaps most important, local frustrations are increasingly mediated by an orthodox message of Islam. The mosque is the place where boys pick up new ideas and are often approached by recruiters. While Kashmiri Islam is famous for its tolerance, and while Kashmir is known for its unique blend of many traditions, including Sufism - the insurgency is bringing a harder-line message to the valley. In the mosques, new groups are bringing a message of justice as found in the holy Koran and appealing to the young men.

The most powerful of these is the the broad-based Jamati-Islami, which seeks to unite Muslims on both sides of the Kashmir border. There is a rise of the Al Hadeez movement, a strict Saudi-based faith. In recent years, the Alle Wale group has been gaining power - itinerant preachers that move from mosques to houses, spreading a literal version of Islam. These groups often have close links to the armed militants such as Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-toiba, Al Badr, and Harkat ul Mujahideen, to name the largest organizations.

"We are going through an epic Islamization, and if the militancy doesn't stop, or if the Indian government doesn't figure a way to win back Kashmiris, there will be nothing left of the tolerance that used to characterize my home," says a respected Muslim Kashmiri intellectual here.

Moreover, in a city where Army and security forces patrol every few blocks, the mosque is a safe place for the boys. Security forces don't dare go into them. Under the occupation in Srinagar, too, there is no night life, no moving around. The electricity is often shut off in homes, and in the winter the young men can't play cricket. Since they stand a good chance of being picked up if they start to loiter, many parents want their kids to go to the mosque, where they will learn about piety and good character. That is where the Al Hadeez and the Alle Walle often meet them. It is also where they can be in touch with the militant groups.

"The present boys are growing in a homogenous attitude of Islam," says Surinder Oberoi, a local journalist. "They don't have Hindu friends or Sikh friends that they meet in the markets or schools any more. All the Hindus have been driven out."

According to Indian Army statistics, the Kashmir Valley today is 98 percent Muslim.

Where Ahmed met the Jais-e-Muhammad organizers is unclear. What is clear is that during Ramadan this past winter, the young man spent 10 straight days praying in the mosque, his father says.

"The boy came home and read the Koran for hours afterward. He lit a candle to read when the electricity went out, did not want to see TV, and would weep over the scripture," Shah says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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