No sooner does the news of encounters spreads than an army of young boys, and even girls, attempt to break the siege by resorting to violence and help the trapped militants to escape. Sheikh Mudasir Amin meets some ‘juvenile warriors’ who have made ‘rescue ops’ a mission of their lives.
On July 1, as the word spread that the army has trapped the Lashkar-e-Toiba militant, Bashir Lashkari and his comrade, Abu Ma’az in a house in Anantnag’s Brinty Dialgam village, Nisar Ahmad rushed to the encounter site with a red Nike rucksack stuffed with stones and a lunch box slung on his back. He wanted to help the militants in escape.
Nisar, a student in his twenties, is one of the growing breed of young boys, and even girls, in south Kashmir who have made it their mission to help the militants in escaping from encounters by attacking the army and the police with stones. Over the past year, they have scored many successes.
In Lashkari’s own village, Soaf-Shali in Anantnag, he was helped by these young boys and girls to escape few days before his killing at Brinty Dialgam. Many similar incidents were reported from Tral and Pulwama areas. The daring enterprise has cost life and limb, but these ‘brave-hearts’ are not deterred. But, what motivates them, really?
Nisar had arrived at the encounter site from Shamaspora in Bijbehara, about 20 km away. He had joined the early morning push by the villagers to free the militants holed up in Bashir Ahmad Ganie’s house, but the army fired at them and pushed them back. Bashir and his family were in the house at the time. The army alleged that they were held hostage by the rebels, but he flatly denies it.
“They were asking us to forgive them for the impending loss of our house when we heard slogans outside,” Bashir recalled, referring to the militants. “From the windows, we saw people trying to get close to the house to rescue him (Bashir Lashkari). But the soldiers fired at them.”
In the firing, Tahira, of Brinty was killed and many people injured, including Tariq Ahmad Chopan in his twenties who lives in Dehruna Badasgam village and later died at a hospital. Tahira, her family said, had gone after her teenage son who was reportedly part of the crowd that trying to rescue the rebels.
By 11 am, as the gunfight raged and the crowd was unable to find a way to break the cordon around the house under attack, Nisar, growing restless, was wandering around Dailgam’s Reshipora with stones in hand.
“I have come from far to free Bashir Lashkari and his comrade,” he said. “I don’t care for my life.”
“Seeing me like this, carrying stones,” he continued after a pause, “you might think I am some vagabond. I am doing B. Tech in Electronics and Communication but it is my duty to help our fighters. That’s why I am here and not in college.”
A small crowd gathered as Nisar spoke. Someone was inviting him to his home for lunch. “I have not come here for lunch or tea,” he said, declining the invitation. “My mission is to get closer to the house where Ukasha is and pelt as many stones as I can and help him escape,” he added, referring to Bashir’s nom de guerre.
Shortly, he was off with a group of youth from the village and started pelting stones at soldiers stationed at Main Chowk in Dialgam. The soldiers retaliated by firing teargas shells, pepper shells and pellets. Nisar was hit by a pellet, an eyewitness said, but he kept battling until the soldiers chased them away by firing in the air.
The ‘rescue team’ of stone-pelters hid in the graveyard nearby. Abutting the village’s main road and covered with dense shrubbery, it is a haven for this mobile army. Intermittently, they would drift onto the road and try to remove the concertina wire the soldiers had used to barricade the road.
Abid Sultan, a 15-year-old student from Qoimoh village in Kulgam with the hint of a beard sprouting on his face, was one of them. “I won the Kani Jung!” he exclaimed, waving a helmet a panicked soldiers had left behind when his team came under heavy stone-pelting. “I will take it home as a trophy.”
Abid too had also been in Dialgam to help Lashkari in escaping. Some villagers implored him to throw away the helmet lest he’s caught with it by government forces, but he would not listen. He wore it and looked quite amused.
Mohammad Amir, 24, from this ‘rescue group’, is doing Bachelors in Science. He has come from Arwani, Bijbehara, to rescue Bashir Lashkari. When the stone-pelting started, some residents of Dialgam asked him to stay at the back since he looked frail.
“I left Arwani right after the morning prayers when I heard Bashir Lashkari was trapped. My friends, too, advised me against coming here. But I have come to help,” he retorted. “I don’t care if I am arrested, beaten, shot with pellets. I will only stop throwing stones when they put a bullet in my chest.”
Stone-pelting at the security forces involved in counter-insurgency ops has become a new headache for the security forces who are battling a renewed surge in Kashmir militancy. According to officials, more than dozen civilians, mostly young boys, have died during clashes with forces at encounter sites.
A short walk from where Amir was battling the soldiers, another group of youths brought two mangled Maruti 800 cars from somewhere and parked them in the middle of the road near J&K Bank, apparently to stop an armoured vehicle of the Rashtriya Rifles, christened Badri Vishal, from getting to the gunfight in Brinty. As soon as the vehicle halted at the blockade, stones rained. Finding no way out, the troops fired indiscriminately. The stone-pelters dispersed but they had scored a “psychological victory”.
“It’s a big achievement for me to have stopped the forces here with these vehicles” said Muzafar Ahmad. The 22-year-old, doing post graduation in Political Science at Indira Gandhi National Open University, had come all the way from Kakpora in Pulwama, 40 km away, to help the trapped militants.
By the time he reached Dialgam, just past noon, the encounter was winding up. But he was hopeful. “Maybe this will help Ukasha and his associate give a slip to the security forces,” he said, referring to the roadblock.
Why did he travel so far for a seemingly lost cause? “Whenever I hear that a militant is trapped somewhere, I just rush,” he replied. “This is I think the fifth time I have reached an encounter. I have heard of Dialgam but I have never been here before. If I hear that a militant is trapped even as far as Sopore, I will try my best to go there.”
And he was doing this of his own initiative, right? “I am not a paid agent, if that is what you are implying,” he retorted, growing visibly angry by the accusatory tone of the question. “I am not with any political party, not even with the Hurriyat. I don’t need anybody’s money. My father is a contractor.”
Why then? “My cousin was martyred last year while pelting stones at the forces in Pulwama,” Muzafar let in on his motivation. “I took an oath on his grave that I will keep pelting stones at them until we get freedom.”
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the stone-pelters.