Shopian, Kashmir: It was chemical spraying season for the apple farmers of Kashmir. Ghulam Mohuddin Paddar, 57, shouldered buckets of chemicals that he hoped would control a pest infection in his orchard.
Along both sides of the road here, 60 km south of Kashmir’s capital, there are orchards. Beyond, there are snow-capped mountains and open skies, which Paddar gazed at occasionally.
"The sky comes crashing down on me every day," said Paddar in evident sorrow, which began three years ago on 5 July 2018. That was the day Saddam, then 24, the elder of his two sons, called home.
“Forgive my sins, I am trapped,” Saddam said. Hours later, the police brought home the body of Paddar’s son, once a mild teenager who, his father said, jumped at even the sound of vehicle horns.
Eight years ago, Saddam left the family home in Heff, in Shopian’s Shermal area, and never returned. In 2013, he appeared in a photo that became iconic to many of Kashmir’s youth, one 10 young militants—all since slain— who posed with their leader, the popular militant leader Burhan Wani, in battle fatigues.
In 2017 and 2018, Saddam figured in the Army’s list of most wanted militants, classified A++, or the most dangerous, carrying a bounty of Rs 12.5 lakh.
A month after Saddam’s death, on 14 August 2018, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police arrested Shakir, 20, Paddar’s younger son, during a night raid on the family home. He has been in jail since, accused of kidnapping and later torturing a man to death.
Article 14 sought comment from the police about Shakir’s case, but a senior official, refusing to comment or even be identified, said: “We are not allowed and authorised to speak on the subject.”
Ever since Wani was killed on 8 July 2016, a flood of young Kashmiris, almost all men, have taken up arms. Almost every day in Kashmir is marked by a media report of a young man or teenage boy gone missing. Days later, his image holding a rifle appears on social media; and months, weeks or days later, comes the news of his death.
The surge in militant recruitment after Wani’s killing sparked widespread protests in 2016 are borne out by data, but what they mask is a cycle of militancy and alienation, made stronger and possibly widened, said experts, by retribution against families, especially after the revocation of J&K’s special constitutional status in 2019.
After imprisoning local politicians and thousands of others since, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attempting to restart the political process in J&K. But there is no indication widespread alienation and human-rights issues will be addressed.
The Cycle Of Militancy, Retribution And Resentment
Paddar alleged his younger son was only arrested because his brother was a militant; another father alleged security forces cut the family’s apple trees as punishment because a son turned a militant; and another alleged that his son was in jail for the last two years because his two slain brothers were militants.
Article 14 sought comment from J&K director general of police Dilbagh Singh about these allegations. He did not respond. A senior security official from South Kashmir, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media, denied harassment of and retribution against families of militants.
“When someone is booked under some act, it is always with solid evidence,” said the official. “Most of the time families are not aware of what kind of activities their kin willingly get involved in. Social media is everywhere and cell phones keep inimical activities very discreet and difficult to detect.”
From 31 militants killed in 2013, just before Modi became prime minister, the number nearly tripled to 88 in 2016, and increased more than five times to 170 militants by 2017, rising and falling thereafter but staying high: 257 in 2018; 148 in 2019; and 220 in 2020, according to data compiled by The Kashmiriyat.
The civilian protests of 2016 became the centrestage for reviving contacts between militants and locals in the Kashmir Valley and widening the militancy to mostly unaffected rural areas. Since security forces were then mainly restricted to urban areas, militants moved freely through villages, establishing links with local youth.
In 2017, the Army also launched ‘Operation All-Out’, which led to a spate of arrests, mostly of sympathisers—or “over-ground workers”, OWGs, to use the Army term—who provide logistical support to militancy.
Though official estimates suggest that the count of arrested OGWs was 800 in 2018, the last year for which data are available. Most of those arrests targeted the families of slain militants. Many families denied all allegations outright.
Retribution against families of militants and sympathisers is not just illegal but is a contentious policy, said experts, because it creates further resentment in a region that is one of the world’s most militarised and where alienation is rife.
Kashmir’s pro-establishment political parties believe the policy of retribution causes further alienation. “Such tactics of harassment can further alienate Kashmir’s young and old,” said Najmu Saqib, spokesman of the People’s Democratic Party, which was in power till 2018 in coalition with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), accusing it now of using “an iron hand”.
“There has been no policy of rehabilitation and reconciliation in Kashmir,” said Saqib. “The union government has been trying to hit hard against militants, separatists or any ideology that contradicts its own. The government needs to stop the policy of aggression and assimilate diverse thoughts.”
In December 2020, an right-to-information (RTI) query filed by two Kashmiri law students revealed that the 11 prisons of J&K hold 747 prisoners allegedly involved with militancy: 1.8% of those arrested in such cases had been convicted.
India Adopts Some Bits Of Israeli Strategy
While unofficial retribution is not uncommon, the government’s official policy has been to assist those who may have links to militants, provided there are no cases against them.
Manoj Joshi, a security expert who was formerly a member of a task force on national security said India had adopted some parts of what he called the “Israeli strategy” to deal with militants.
Joshi, who has written two books on the Kashmir issue, noted two strategies to deal with militants. “One, you try to win the hearts and minds, and convince people that they should avoid militancy. This is the hearts-and-minds strategy,” said Joshi. “There's another strategy, for example the one that Israel follows, where you keep on hitting hard in the bid to deter militancy.”
The Indian strategy is somewhere in between these two: currently, since there's no check by an elected government in J&K, security forces are operating in an unchecked environment, said Joshi.
In 2017, the BJP government nominated Dineshwar Sharma as an interlocutor to the Valley. Sharma met a group of youth representatives who said that their passports were not being cleared by the police because they were related to current or former militants.
Shortly after, in December 2017, the Centre advised the J&K government to ensure that Kashmiri youth applying for passports were not hindered by a relative’s name being connected to the militancy.
But in an atmosphere of death, terrorism, torture, preventive detention, extrajudicial killing and mass repression in a region without an elected or representative government, it is not difficult to label anyone an OGW.
"There is no proper definition of the term," Khurram Parvez, spokesman of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, an advocacy group, said in a 2018 interview.
That lack of definition was apparent that year in a dispute between the government and the Army. In March 2018, the Army shot dead four persons in Shopian, Kashmir and stated, "All the people killed were linked to militancy, four of them were OGWs."
Mehbooba Mufti, the then Chief Minister, tweeted on March 05, 2018 that the four were "civilians." Then Army chief General Bipin Rawat in 2017, had warned that all protesters would be considered OGWs.
Rawat’s broad definition at a time when an unelected government runs J&K has blurred the definition of OGWs and cast the families of militants into a situation where redressal appears almost impossible.
“In the absence of an assembly that represents the local people, there's no process through which people get relief from their elected representatives, (so) the impunity of the security forces has increased manifold,” said Joshi. “And there’s no way to control the security forces, there’s no mediation.”
‘My Heart Aches For My Younger Son’
Ghulam Nabi Khan, 56, a walnut farmer, had lowered the coffin of his son, Ishfaq, in April 2018 in the Tral area of South Kashmir when barely a month later his younger son, Showkat, bid farewell to the family to pick up arms. In November that year, the family brought Showkat’s bloodied body to their courtyard.
Soon, as they often do, security forces followed the trail. Khan's third and remaining son, Sajjad, who left for Delhi to sell shawls, according to the family, was arrested by the Delhi police in the aftermath of the Pulwama bombing that killed 40 paramilitary soldiers on 14 February 2019.
"The family got to know of Sajjad's arrest around 22 February 2019," Ghulam Nabi Khan told Article 14. The National Investigation Agency, claimed that the Delhi police arrested Sajjad, who they described as a “Jaish-e-Mohammad militant”, on 21 March 2019—the family disputes the date—from near Delhi’s Red Fort.
The Delhi Police said Sajjad, "arrested on March 21, 2019, Thursday night”, was in contact with one of the planners of the Pulwama attack, Mudassir Ahmed Khan. Ghulam Nabi Khan alleged his son was being framed in a “false case”.
“My heart aches for my younger son,” said Ghulam Nabi Khan, “Because I know that there is no firm reason for his imprisonment apart from the fact that his brothers were militants.”
Ghulam Nabi Khan alleged his son was arrested with six others on 16 February five days before the police said he was. The others, he said, were released the next day. Within the next three days, Ghulam Nabi Khan was in Delhi to meet Sajjad.
“I met him (my son) on 22 February 2019,” said Ghulam Nabi Khan. “And I was promised that my son would be released. After I reached home, through TV news, I came to know my son had been called a militant operative.”
Ghulam Nabi Khan’s house is a far cry from the joyous place it used to be. "Do you know of the spring joy?” he said. “My house used to witness spring every morning, as the family woke up to the laughter and the cries of three young children."
“For me, the house was like an almond orchard and every day was like the season of blossoms. I only have memories now,” Khan said. “My sons were obedient. The eldest one was a Hafiz (someone who has memorised the Quran). But we are people of faith, so whatever happened, the aftermath of the life my two sons chose was a narrative already destined.”
Parents Lose Sons And Old-Age Support
Families that come from underprivileged backgrounds, such as Paddar’s and Ghulam Nabi Khan’s, are left without the support they assumed they would have in their advancing years.
"Had my two sons been alive, my old age would have been comfortable,” said Paddar. “But here I am, doing all the labour and all the hard work with nobody to watch my back."
Feroza Begum, Paddar's wife, fell seriously ill in May 2021, but he and his daughter could not carry her to a car. "My daughter and I used a cart to pull her to the vehicle, which I drove to the hospital," said Paddar.
Most families of the youth who opted to wage a battle to “liberate” Kashmir openly support their sons or have found a way to justify it. Paddar is proud that his son "sacrificed his life for Kashmir".
Asked how the family managed now, Ghulam Nabi Khan said: “Glory to the almighty that we are not left to beg. We are managing, somehow. We try to spend Rs 500, where we have to spend Rs 1,000.”
“I wish my three sons were here. My wife and mother are not very healthy and therefore, expenditure on medicines and doctors takes away most of my earnings,” he said. “But what can one do? We have to live nevertheless.”
The Extrajudicial Nature Of Justice
Families we spoke to said—some asked not to be quoted for fear of reprisal—they had been subjected to arrest, torture and raids. Relatives, friends and local neighbourhoods have reported (here, here and here) harassment after militant arrests or killings by security forces.
“Punishing relatives of someone who has allegedly done something wrong is completely illegal in the Indian System, or it should be,” said Joshi, the security expert. “Under the law, there's absolutely no justification for that.”
In August 2019, when the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi unilaterally abrogated J&K’s semi-autonomous status, redrew its internal boundaries, and scrapped Kashmiris’ exclusive rights to immovable property and access to government jobs, hundreds of Kashmiris were detained to quell potential protests. The authorities ordered an unprecedented crackdown which also included a months-long communications blackout.
On 4 August that year, apple farmer Ghulam Hassan Shah, 52, father to a militant commander called Zeenat ul Islam, was picked up from his residence at Shopian.
"That was not the first time,” said Hassan. “We have been facing this for several years. Vandalism, physical beating, abuse and destruction, we have seen almost everything. In 2018, hundreds of apple trees from our orchards were cut down, merely because my son Zeenat was a militant," he said.
Paddar of Heff in Shopian alleged his imprisoned son Shakir was tortured into confessing his guilt in the torture and murder of fellow local Tariq Ahmed Mohand, whose corpse was found in August 2018 in Bijbehara, Anantnag, about 45 km south of Srinagar.
Police said there were witnesses to the torture and killing, but Paddar denied all charges.
"When I met him (Shakir) after several days of detention at the Zainapora police station, he had been brutally tortured,” said Paddar. “The torture in there is so immense that it forces one to do three things—join militants after release, escape from the custody or to accept the false charges."
Newly married, Shakir was sleeping at home when the police entered. "Had he committed the offence, he would not have been sleeping at home," Paddar said, alleging that Shakir was “framed” only because his elder brother was a militant.
Mujeeb ur Rehman, a senior lawyer who practices at the Anantnag District Court narrated the legal battle he fought on behalf of Syed Tajamul Imran, the brother of a militant killed during a firefight in 2018. Imran was arrested after he organised a cricket match in the memory of his slain brother.
“Such allegations, where the families accuse the forces of targeting them for their militant kinship have increased multifold,” said Rehman. “They may have their own history, but as far as the legal issues go,nobody can pre-judge such matters in terms of merit from either side.”
Rehman said families of militants usually faced charges of abetment or, sometimes, conspiracy as main offences under the Indian Arms Act, 1959, the Indian Explosives Act, 1884), or under the RPC, replaced since 2019 by the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
“Under the judicial process, you can only be punished if you are convicted,” said Joshi. “But if you are kept in jail for two years under the UAPA, you are already being published for a crime that has not been proven. As far as I can see, the judicial remedies are there, but the judiciary is not playing its role.”
Ghulam Nabi Khan said the judicial process in Kashmir was “paralysed”.
"Why does it take decades for Kashmiris to prove their innocence?” he said. “In the process, I fear my son might not be able to see his ailing mother and dying grandmother, given their collapsing health."
Rahman accused investigating agencies of delaying the court process.
“The prosecution uses investigation to its fullest use to lengthen the detention of people, mostly those booked under anti-national charges," said Rahman.
Paddar said the conflict had taken two of their sons, and the “third generation of Kashmir is being victimized for their beliefs".
Paddar was hopeful that his remaining son, Shakir, would be released. He provided a detailed update.
"Almost all the witnesses have spoken in favour of my son's non-involvement. The legal process is very slow,” said Paddar, displaying a photo of his wife, who chanted slogans at the funeral of their elder son, Saddam, and was verbally harrassed for doing so.
“There are 12 witnesses in total, out of which, more than 10 have spoken in favour of Shakir’s innocence,” said Paddar. “I have stopped hoping from the judiciary but I know that in the court of Allah, we will hold the collars of men who have harassed us and traumatised my wife."
(Qazi Shibli is an editor at The Kashmiryat. His work focuses on human rights, conflict and politics.)