Young Kashmiri terrorists who choose to fight the State are suspected for managing to stay under the security forces' radar, but their deaths breathe fresh lease of life into Jammu and Kashmir’s morbid politics.

In Kashmir’s public domain barely anyone has escaped the label of a “collaborator” or an “Indian agent”, not even militants whose funerals become spectacles of sorts. For many, proof of loyalty in Kashmir boils down to a single litmus test: death at the hands of the Indian State. It was the price that 25-year-old Zakir Musa paid on 24 May, like many others before him.

In 2015, Kashmir was taken aback by a new crop of militants who circulated their pictures online. At the centre of this social media deluge was the Hizbul Mujahideen’s Burhan Wani, a 21-year-old who dropped out of school to fight the Indian State.

Yet, that did not prevent him from being a target of the Valley’s rumour mills. Sometime in late 2015, in Srinagar's cafes and shopfronts, Wani was declared a “collaborator” by the rumour mills. How else could he have survived since 2010 when, the rumour mills concurred, most militants survive two years at the longest?

Wani’s death on 8 July, 2016, cleared the air and precipitated an outburst of the undercurrent of commitment to defy the State even in the rural crevices of the Valley, where anti-India sentiments run deep, but public demonstrations were largely been restricted to urban areas in the recent decade.
In death, Wani was vindicated in the eyes of his followers.

The Rise of A New “Collaborator”

About a year after Wani’s death, his close aide Zakir Musa rebelled against the Hurriyat leadership and threatened to chop their heads off for terming Kashmir a political dispute instead of a religious one. In his lifetime, Wani also called for establishing a global caliphate.

Months after dissociating himself from the Hizb, Musa figured in the propaganda of a new outfit called the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, whose launch was announced by Al-Qaeda linked propaganda networks.

Musa’s statement made him the new focus of the Valley’s rumour mills. In the wake of his statement, it was said that Musa had been chosen by the security establishment to derail the separatist movement and link it with global terrorism. Musa’s criticism of the Hurriyat’s politics of convenience and his opposition of Pakistan that, according to him, was exploiting the jihad in Kashmir for its own advantage, turned the campaign against him even more bitter.

In an early statement issued by the joint separatist leadership in the Valley, Musa and his newly-floated outfit was termed a “deceitful game” of the Indian intelligence. After the Hurriyat’s initiative, armed outfits followed cue. The Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir based chief of the Hizb and the patron of the United Jihad Council (UJC), Syed Salahuddin termed Musa’s call for “Shariat ya shahadat (Sharia or martyrdom)” a ploy to “misguide” Kashmir’s “pro-Hurriyat people.”

The UJC’s called termed Musa a “facade” for a “new Ikhwan”, referring to the infamous pro-Pakistan militants in the 1990s who defected to the Indian side and carried out atrocities against civilians. The rift widened between the Hizb and the Ansar in the Valley as well.

In early 2018, Ashraf Sehrai, newly-appointed head of the Syed Ali Shah Geelani faction of the Hurriyat, asserted that global jihadist outfits such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda had no links with Kashmir’s separatist movement and Musa — whom he described as “light of my eyes” — was “doing India a favour.”

The Game of Whispers

As the year ended and Musa had more or less become a recluse, word was spread that Musa had abandoned his outfit to join the Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed. In May 2018, when the Srinagar district president of the now proscribed Jamaat-e-Islami, Bashir Ahmad Lone was arrested for leading funeral prayers for the academic turned militant, Rafi Bhat, the Jamaat alleged that he was arrested for preventing Musa’s supporters from chanting his slogans and raising black flags.

In south Kashmir, the father of a slain militant — both prominent figures — claimed an army officer told him the operation in their neighbourhood was “based on Musa’s information.” In another instance it was said that the Islamic State inspired militant, Dawood Sofi, who gave the first public speech against Pakistan at a cemetery in Pulwama, had arrived at the venue in a police vehicle.

Rumours are a key tool in the Valley’s murky conflict. It is strategic to both the State that uses it to prepare the populace to brace for events or cause discord within the separatist camp and for the separatists themselves to weed out any rivals and further their hegemony. Whispers in the Valley, the former secessionist turned unionist politician, Sajad Lone had said, have been the cause of killings in the decades since the armed conflict erupted.

For the Hurriyat, parents of slain militants who have a social stature and its various activists play a leading role in spreading the counter narrative. Two of the early defectors to Musa’s outfit, the Pakistani Abu Dujana and Pulwama resident Arif Lelhari, were tainted as “bank robbers” by the Hizb’s Pulwama cadre for a series of robberies the duo carried out for their initial outfit, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The two outfits have worked in tandem in recent years.

In the years before Wani or Musa, the Hizb used its arsenal of rumours against 41-year-old Abdul Qayoom Najar, who carried out a series of attacks in north Kashmir’s Sopore, killing a Hurriyat activist and drawing up a list of several more that Najar blamed for the death of his fellow militants. Najar had set up a shadow front to carry out the dirty work.

In the initial fog of his actions, the Hurriyat and the UJC attempted to shift the blame on the security establishment. Activists of the Hurriyat in Sopore, at that time, had a common story to spread: in Nagpur there is a map of Kashmir where a red dot has been placed over Sopore. “They want to finish it off” their activist claimed.

Officially, the Hurriyat questioned the possibility of militants carrying out attacks in broad daylight and managing to escape. Word was spread that the militants arrived in security forces' vehicles to carry out the attacks.

Another Lashkar militant, Muzaffar Iqbal Naikoo alias Muzz Molvi, who was killed in 2017 after six years of being active, was expelled by the Lashkar, which accused him of being an extortionist and an Indian agent. The irony was that the fallout occurred after disagreements with the Lashkar leadership over Naikoo's belief that some Pakistani militants had been co-opted by the security establishment. He was owned by the fledgling Al-Badr, which wanted to establish its presence in the Valley.

Till Death Do Us Part

Even as the secessionists credited Najar’s actions to the Indian security establishment, it later acknowledged his role and expelled him from the Hizb before he crossed over to the Pakistan-controlled territories of the state. Najar was killed while infiltrating into the Valley in 2018 and was claimed by both the Ansar and the ISJK. The Hurriyat paid tribute.

In death, Kashmir’s militants, having paid the ultimate price for dedication to their cause, become torchbearers of the Kashmiri societal and political moral standard. As such, the Hurriyat has always attempted to cash in on the resentment in the wake of killing of militants, particularly those who had run risk of growing larger than the Hurriyat itself.

Geelani is a hardliner among the separatists who doesn’t shy away from expressing his proximity to militants, but only after their deaths. In 2016, he claimed to have spoken to Wani before his death, alleging that Wani reaffirmed faith in his leadership.

In 2017, Geelani expressed his proximity with, while paying tribute, to slain Islamic State militant Eisa Fazili (an engineering dropout like Musa). Geelani said he was “very close” to Fazili who he described as a “passionate warrior” whose “commitment with freedom mission was exemplary and served as moral precedence.” Ironically or not, Geelani later adjudged the emergence of Fazili’s outfit as an Indian ploy to link the Kashmiri separatist struggle with “global terrorism.”

The day after Musa’s death, the Hurriyat’s Ashraf Sehrai said Musa had “proved a mature and dedicated warrior” whose “sacrifice” had now “infused a high spirit in ongoing movement” for secession. Sehrai did not explain how the “Indian agent” had become a hero in death. “I pay my salute to this legend,” he said, adding that Musa “never followed any sectarian ideology, instead pursued a mission to see the glorification of Islam in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Sympathisers of the Ansar have already repeatedly, through propaganda channels on Telegram, stressed upon the fact that it was Salahuddin himself who once extended an invitation to the Afghan Taliban and the Al-Qaeda to wage jihad against India in Kashmir and that it was none other than Geelani who led funeral prayers in absentia in Srinagar, after the global jihadist outfit Al-Qaeda’s chief, Osama bBin Laden, was killed in an American raid inside Pakistan.

It is the resentment against this hypocrisy of the separatist old guard, perceived as “hypocrites” and “political brokers” between India and Pakistan, that Musa has come to symbolise and exposed in his lifetime and even death.

Musa, in his final moments, dealt the Hurriyat a last blow. Recording a short video before the gunfight, deriding hartals — the Hurriyat’s sole weapon against India — as a fruitless exercise, Musa said, “Kashmir’s solution is only jihad, shutdowns and everything else is all a lie.”