When a rectangular piece of green cloth with a white crescent and star embossed on it is waved in the Valley, it is a lot more than just a piece of cloth. It’s an unmistakable statement as to where the hearts of the Kashmiris lie.
Around 8 a.m. on August 14, a sea of humanity – men, women and children – walked through paddy fields, dirt tracks and link roads to reach Nagam village, almost 18 kilometers from Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar. The main road to the village was sealed off by government forces after a spontaneous shutdown that was in place as a mark of tribute to a slain militant from the village, the 40-year-old top Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander, Yaseen Yatoo alias Mehmood Gaznavi, killed with two associates in a 16-hour gunfight in southern Kashmir’s Shopian village. Yatoo, a thinking militant commander, was the lynchpin of Hizb in South Kashmir around whom the party cadre rallied and who was seen as a master strategist by intelligence agencies that see his killing as a major success.
Tens of thousands of people poured onto the Nagam village school grounds where four rounds of funeral were held, with Pakistani green flags fluttering in the air.
Hoisting or waving the green flag is as old in the Valley as the anti-India sentiment, but oflate, it has come to be seen as something really unsavoury by New Delhi and its armed forces and intelligence agencies stationed in Kashmir. That the Indian media gives prime time slots to Kashmiris’ obsession with Pakistani flags, in an attempt to create frenzy and jack up the TRP’s, has only strengthened the resilience of the youth.
After Burhan Wani’s killing instigated uprising in 2016, the Pakistan flag was a more common sight on the streets, with people holding parades to salute it and wave it. In February, its popularity prompted the Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat to issue a stern warning. In his statement, the COAS said that “we will treat them (those waving the Pak flags) as anti-national elements and go after them.” But just days after Gen. Rawat’s warning, clashes broke out in Downtown’s Jamia Masjid and the Pakistani flags were at display as usual.
On the death anniversary of cop-turned-militant Naseer Pandit, two months later, anonymous gunmen surfaced in Pulwama village. They had almost the same warning to issue as Rawat, although by invoking religion. “Why do you wave Pakistani flag? Anyone who waves Pakistan flag will be our enemy,” one among them told the April 7 gathering at Naseer’s grave. Following that, Zakir Musa, who is a part of Al-Qaeda’s Ansar Gazwat-ul-Hind, denounced the waving of the Pakistani flag or using it to wrap the bodies of slain militants, which is a common practise at such funeral ceremonies. That, however, hasn’t diluted Kashmiris’ love for the sabz hilali parcham or for the country, for that matter. It is business as usual as far as Pak flag is concerned.
At Yaseen Yatoo’s funeral, pro-Musa slogans rent the air, even though Yatoo as a Hizb operational commander was averse to Zakir and his fetish for global jihad. I ask a young man, Hamid, who was at the forefront of the turnout, why he shouted pro-Zakir slogans while Yatoo wasn’t too fond of him. “I am not supporting Zakir, but the slogans rhyme well. Don’t you see my flag (Pakistan flag) fluttering atop,” demands Hamid, speaking a few blocks from Yatoo’s house. A scarf-wearing woman simultaneously shouting pro-Zakir, pro-Yatoo and pro-Pakistan slogans in women’s gathering has this to say: “Zakir Musa is our youth who has gone astray. If my son commits a mistake, I don’t throw him out, I, rather, forgive him.” She quickly adds: “Musa is a young boy who has no understanding of the situation.”
Another protester in his mid-fifties believes Indian media is overstating the presence of the ISIS flags because it suits New Delhi’s narrative on Kashmir. “Pakistan is dear to us. We cannot tolerate anything against that country. Did you see any black flag here? Indian media is highlighting black flag because it is helping India, as Yaseen (Yatoo) sahib had said in the video. Ye chhe makkaar Hindustanich chaal – it is cunning India’s conspiracy,” says the man angrily. “What you find at such processions is the green Pakistani flags and pro-Pak chants.”
When Zakir’s videos started floating initially, it did find traction among the youth and he was started being seen as the new symbol of resistance, but it all fizzled out soon after the militant leadership publicly denounced him and urged him to refrain from such “anti-movement remarks.”
A senior journalist, who has been to almost every funeral in Kashmir since 2014, says the split was wide open after Zakir renounced Hizb some months ago. Signs of not just discord but a major clash were feared during funerals, he remarks. “But the dust is settling now. The flag discourse is almost over, especially after Hizb commanders Syed Salahudin, Riyaz Naikoo and Yaseen Yatoo issued public statements.”
Thirty year old Naikoo, who was a postgraduate student before joining militant ranks in 2015, appeared at the funeral of slain militant Shariq Ahmad Sheikh of Pulwama in July. The sole reason for his public appearance was to counter the repudiation of the Pakistan flag as announced by Zakir. In a veiled reference to his former Hizb comrade, Naikoo said, “Pakistan flag is our flag. Linking our struggle with Al Qaeda and ISIS is a ploy to defame it.” He went on to remark that people holding the flag of Islam “are not necessarily our own,” another veiled reference to Zakir. His message was transmitted to the public as his video went viral on social media.
In a cauldron of summer heat, almost a week after Ayub Lelhari’s killing, along ripening paddy fields and apple orchards, the road leading from Srinagar to Pulwama is somnolent. Markets are open and traffic is plying normally. That, however, is merely on the surface. Deep inside, the discourse generally manoeuvres around militancy, with Naikoo’s presence at the funeral being especially foremost. In Lelhar, the ground, where Arif Nabi Dar alias Arif Lelhari and Ayub were buried, is open. In the first week of August, the place swelled with crowds, majority of whom were displaying black flags to mark Arif’s funeral. By the third week, however, a canopy of green flags covered the air, showing support at Ayub’s funeral. What changed people’s minds in the two weeks intervening is Naikoo’s clarion call censuring Zakir, I’m told.
Zahid (name changed) participates in funerals and goes to encounter sites to help militants escape the siege. A trendy youth in his early 20’s, Zahid has cases dating back to the 2010 summer uprising. Initially a diehard Zakir supporter, he is not one anymore because he expected him to act against the forces and inflict casualties on them rather than issuing fatwas.
“First he wanted to behead all Hurriyat leaders, and then he excluded Geelani sahib. That is not the sign of a mature militant. You have to be firm and focus on your enemy instead of doing politics, which divides people,” says Zahid, matter-of-factly. Zahid believes that instead of Hurriyat leaders, Zakir’s target should have been India and its forces.
In Kulgam village, a group of youths at a shopfront admit they were initially willing to support Zakir because they expected him to be “aggressive and brutal” on his targets. “But we were proved wrong,” say some of them, laughed at by others who join them a little later. That batch of youth never supported Zakir again as they were sure he was being “misguided by some conspirators.”
On the night of August 3, the mother of Yawar Nissar Shergujri alias Al Gazi of Anantnag town received a call to reach the district JIC. She was under the impression that her son, who left his home on July 18 to join Hizb, might have been arrested. Along with the family, she rushed to the spot, only to be told that her son, a militant of 17 days, had been killed in a gunfight. Next morning, his body was wrapped in a black flag, not in line with the Hizb stand, who rap the bodies of their cadres in the green.
Generally, however, people, including Yawar’s friends, have started disapproving the act and blame a religious outfit in Anantnag for circulating not just black flags but also the flags of Pakistan-administered Kashmir during 2016. “Everyone knows who circulates these flags here. That party has a grudge against Hizb. Before IS, they would support Lashkar and even before that it was Jaish,” says a youth, who had been arrested and has served detention with Yawar. The sly remark is aimed at late Qazi Nissar’s party which is headed by his son, Qazi Yasir. Qazi Nissar was assassinated on 19 June, 1994 by unidentified gunmen at Dialgam village of South Kashmir.
Former chief of the United Jehad Council, a conglomerate of militant outfits fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir, Azam Inqilabi, who was the chief commander of Operation Balakote in the 90’s, believes anyone who takes a stand against India, irrespective of religion, will gain public support in the Valley. “Be it Sikh, Hindu or anyone,” says Inquillabi.
After JKLF gave up arms on 21 May 1994, the infighting and schism between militant outfits ceased. Inqilabi says people heaved a sigh of relief, and then it was a “collision between government of India and militants.” But Zakir’s bursting onto the scene and asking people to wave a particular flag, Inqilabi believes, is sentimentalism.
Says the former commander: “Do you know which agencies are behind it? Popular sentiment is pro-Kashmir and pro-Pakistan. Ours is an indigenous movement; we should not support elements who want to disturb the movement. IS and Al Qaeda have no role here.”
He believes the militant resolve of the youth is strongest in Kashmir’s fourth generation post-47: “They want to intensify it.”
That might answer the query as to why Zakir found a huge support initially among the youth – the idea that he might speed it up and bring the much cherished freedom quickly. But he started losing ground after targeting Pakistan through his statements and warning against waving the green flag.
“People in Kashmir can take anything,” says an emotionally charged Downtown youth, “but they can’t tolerate anything against Pakistan or the sabz hilali parcham which is a symbol of our defiance.”
The young man, in his early twenties, believes Pakistan is the backbone of the Kashmir movement and anyone issuing statements against it, even after invoking religion, is either an agent or is misguided.
“I don’t know who Zakir Musa is, but I think he has distracted from his mission. Let him fight the Indian forces and that is the only way he can gain respect. Without Pakistan’s support, India will finish us off in a single day,” warns the youth. “We shouldn’t be ungrateful and foolish.”
Almost 30 kilometers from Zakir’s hometown Tral, an intelligence officer in Srinagar makes an interesting observation: “For a few months, Zakir was a darling, but now he almost doesn’t exist. Nobody is joining him anymore.”
There could be other factors as well, but perhaps the single major factor for Zakir’s falling popularity graph has been to challenge the waving of the Pakistani flags. Zakir, perhaps in his overzeal, forgot to assess the emotional value the sabz hilali parcham has for the Kashmiris and how central it has always been to the Kashmir movement.