A defiant populace and new crop of militants are challenging the might of the State.
The phenomenon of Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen (Muslim brotherhood), a paradoxically named militia propped up by the State in the mid 90s across Kashmir to fight militancy, is permanently imprinted on the landscape of Hajin area of Bandipora district. So much so that nearly all the recent media analyses have been linking the resurgence of militancy in Hajin to the dark era of Ikhwan. Local residents also have been saying that they risk their lives to save militants during gunfights because by such an embrace of the “gunmen on the right side,” they believe the Ikhwan taint would be shed off once and for all. Militancy, they believe, is also an antidote to the Ikhwan in case it rears its head again.
In the mid-nineties, Muhammad Maqbool was a 30-something teacher at a school run by Valley’s largest religio-politico organisation Jamaat-e-Islami, the prime target of the Ikhwanis.
He recalls the day when singer-turned-Ikhwan chief Kukka Parray entered his school along with a band of his Ikhwanis.
“He asked me to come down from the second storey of the building. I didn’t oblige. They beat me up badly and left me bleeding in front of the students. I didn’t surrender before him. They held me captive for 30 days. During that month they tortured me,” Maqbool said.
Such persecution forced many families, especially those affiliated with Jamaat, to flee to Srinagar and other places. Those who couldn’t afford to run away bore the brunt of the Ikhwan atrocities.
“One case is permanently etched onto my memory. In fact it has pained everybody here. It always gives me pain,” said Mohammad Rafiq Parray of Hajin.
“There was this beautiful girl in Paribal, Hajin, daughter of Mohammad Yousuf. Fayaz (Mir) Nawabadi who was their commander-in-chief kidnapped her. He forced her to marry him at gunpoint even though he was already married,” Rafiq said.
Fayaz was killed in an IED explosion at Wasikhen, Sumbal.
“That innocent girl was left a widow,” Rafiq said.
Abdul Khaliq Hanif, who once represented the Jamaat-e-Islami in the Syed Ali Shah Geelani-led Hurriyat Conference, has been one of the worst victims of Ikhwan reign.
The Ikhwanis burnt his house, along with a library that housed several hundred volumes. Many copies of the Quran were desecrated. A newly bought car on the lawn of the house was also set ablaze.
Why was Hanif’s family handed this punishment? He said that army had brought a bunch of innocent local boys to his house and were torturing them. Many of the Ikhwanis used to operate from army camps and the installations of the Special Operations Group (then Special Task Force) of the police.
“When we asked them to stop the torture of these boys they burned the house,” Hanif said. His was one of the many families that migrated to Srinagar. The family returned to the place in 2012.
Recalling the persecution at the hands of Ikhwanis, Hanif said that in July 1993 he was blindfolded, handcuffed and taken to a house in Nawabad, Safapora area of Ganderbal.
“After four days they took me to an orchard. They removed the blindfold. I could see only walnut trees. They probably intended to kill me. One of them pulled the trigger but it didn’t fire. They again blindfolded me and took me to some other place. Then, all of a sudden, they released me,” Hanif said.
The Ikhwanis wanted him to quit Jamaat-e-Islami and stop supporting Geelani. In fact, they wanted him to work for Ikhwan.
Such was the impunity with which the Ikhwanis operated that they murdered 17 people from various areas of Sonawari in a single day once. Hanif’s brother was among the dead.
“I don’t remember the exact date,” said Hanif. “It was June 1 or 2, 1993, while I was on hajj pilgrimage, that the Ikhwanis swooped on a number of villages including Ajas, Hajin, Sumbal and Argam and murdered 17 civilians, one of them my younger brother.”
Militants killed a substantial number of Ikhwanis over the years. Kukka Parray was shot dead in the town but not before becoming a lawmaker in the state assembly twice. Fearing his body might be dug out if buried in a community graveyard, his family had him buried in the courtyard of his own house.
Another Ikhwan commander Javed Shah became a legislator in the upper house of the assembly during the National Conference rule. Usman Majid, who was associated with Ikhwan, is currently the legislator from Bandipora constituency. The rest of the Ikhwanis were rehabilitated in the army or police.
Enjoying such political and military patronage, Ikhwanis also resorted to loot. Hajin was famous for its massive nurseries. Kuka Parray’s notorious associate Abdul Rahman Parray alias Dilawar, remembered as Kukka’s “finance minister”, is believed to have convinced his handlers to cut down plantations and trees in the nursery and nearby forests “to flush out militants.” Tens of thousands of trees—by one estimate about 4-6 lakh– were felled. It later transpired that Dilawar had planned to make a quick buck by selling timber.
The militiamen wantonly looted willow nurseries, especially in Madvan, Shahgund, Banyari and other villages.
Hanif recalls that the Ikhwanis did not spare even hundreds of willow trees that had been planted along the banks of Jhelum at Hajin. The gunmen are believed to have sold all the trees for a mere Rs 80,000.
“They were a gang of rapists, murderers and looters. They sold these trees to bat manufacturers in Jalandhar. I went to Jalandhar once along with a group of lawyers. We were on a tour of 15 jails in India. During a stroll in the city, a tall pile of bats caught my attention at one place. I asked the manufacturer where he got the willow from. He said Kashmir. I asked him ‘where exactly in Kashmir?’ He said Hajin. ‘Kukka Parray supplies us’. It didn’t come as a surprise,” Hanif said.
The magnitude of the loss to forests during Ikhwan era, Hanif said, can be gauged from the fact that a divisional forest officer once told him that the forest department used to suffer losses worth Rs 10 crore a day, that too in Ningli Forest Range alone.
“You can imagine the loss in the entire belt,” Hanif said.
Hanif had a willow plantation worth Rs 6 lakh then in the forest compartment no. 19 at Hajin.
“All were looted by that notorious Ikhwani Rashid Billa. We had worked hard to raise those trees,” he said.
Hanif contested the 1996 assembly elections as an independent candidate, which was seen as a ploy to escape the Ikhwan wrath. He, however, couldn’t manage to win.
Rashid Billa, whose real name was Abdul Rashid Parray, was wanted in the murder of seven members of three families in Saderkote Bala area of Bandipora district on 5 October 1996. Although the police had been directed by the High Court in March last year to arrest him, Billa had been declared as an “absconder”, giving credence to rights groups’ claims that the state was shielding him.
However, on 16 April this year, Billa was shot dead by militants inside his home in Hajin.
A police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Billa’s killing couldn’t have been possible without the support of locals. In fact, Billa’s son alluded to the local involvement when he spoke to the media.
Rights groups felt vindicated, asking how come an “absconder” had been at home most of the time, as testified by the locals.
Drawing comparison between the dark era of Ikhwan and the contemporary times when militancy is resurgent and hugely popular in the area, Nazir Ahmad Mir, a local resident, said, “Ikhwanis used to chop off the beards of our elderly. But scriptures and the right path of our religion guides today’s generation. They want to fight the oppression in our midst and make their hereafter better,” said Mir whose son Nasrullah Nazir Mir was a militant who was killed in a gunfight with forces at Paribal, Hajin recently.
Mir said that about 30 insurgents have been killed in Hajin area during the past one year.
“But if they kill one, dozens are waiting to fill his place. India should realise that nothing will be gained by killing us,” Mir said.
His son’s embrace of militancy was, in fact, catalysed by the appearance of three Pakistani militants—Abu Abdullah, Abu Muawiya and Abu Zargam—in the local Jamia Masjid on 12 May this year. Zargam had delivered a sermon at the mosque, inspiring Nasrullah to join the militant ranks the same day.
Mir is proud of the fact that his village did not support the Ikhwanis who virtually ruled the area in the mid nineties and whose ruthlessness had silenced nearly all.
“Many of them (who were not rehabilitated into army or police) are living a normal life. They are repentant for involvement with that despicable horde in the past. They support freedom movement fully,” Mir said.
Speaking of his deceased son, Mir said, “He picked up the gun because he wanted a resolution, he did not want to live under the Indian occupation. We are a well-off family, but still my son chose the gun.”
Many others in the town echo this rebelliousness, in words and in deed.
From June this year, people have resisted government forces during cordon-and-search operations to help militants escape. And many of those who participated in these protests come from families who had supported Ikhwanis, many local residents told Kashmir Newsline.
“The Ikhwan is dead. What is alive is these youths who are dying for this land,” said Ishaq who requested that he should be quoted by first name only.
“People have forgiven them (Ikhwanis) and the bad name they gave this area is also becoming a thing of the past,” Ishaq said.
Emblematic of the raging spirit are the words of Ishfaq Ahmad, a 21-year-old student who has several cases against him and has been detained under the draconian Public Safety Act, under which the government can imprison a person for up to six months without a trial.
“Whenever government forces come to the alleys of Hajin or its adjacent villages for patrolling, youths assemble and pelt them with stones. This will continue till we achieve our goal,” he said.
(with inputs from Sajad Gul)