The funerals driving Indian Kashmir youth to militancy

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People carry the body of Kashmiri professor Mohammad Rafi Bhat, a suspected militant, after he was killed in a gunbattle with Indian security forces in south Kashmir, during his funeral procession at Chunduna village in Ganderbal district May 6, 2018Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Millions of Kashmiris attend funerals of militants killed by security forces

Security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir have killed more than 50 militants since the beginning of this year. Sameer Yasir reports how funerals in the region, which has seen an armed insurgency against Indian rule since 1989, have become a part of local folklore.

As the body of the militant, draped in green, is finally laid to rest, women sing songs of blood and valour. The body is placed on a makeshift platform so mourners can get a good view. People raise their hands in reverence to touch the body.

Young men push through the jostling crowd to kiss the militant's forehead. Then they touch his feet and rub their hands on their body, as if performing a religious ritual.

The crowd swells with every passing minute. Slogans of defiance rent the air. A group of teenagers grab the microphone, exhorting mourners to continue their "struggle" by singing songs of defiance. The "celebrations" continue till the body is buried in the "martyrs' graveyard".

One recent afternoon in April, a lean old woman, with deep sunken eyes and grey hair, turned up at the funeral for a militant who had been killed in a gun battle the day before. She had a green polythene bag under her arm.

Five things to know about Kashmir

  • India and Pakistan have disputed the territory for 70 years - since independence from Britain
  • Both countries claim the whole territory but control only parts of it
  • Two out of three wars fought between India and Pakistan centred on Kashmir
  • Since 1989 there has been an armed revolt in the Muslim-majority region against rule by India
  • High unemployment and complaints of heavy-handed tactics by security forces battling street protesters and fighting insurgents have aggravated the problem

"I have come to say goodbye to my son," Zoona Begum announced in a thin voice to mourners at the funeral of 19-year-old Ubaid Shafi Malla, who had dropped out of college and joined a separatist group, the Hizbul Mujahideen, in February 2017.

Though she was not Malla's biological mother, she said she had breastfed him when he was an infant.

Wearing a velvet pheran, a traditional Kashmiri cloak, she had walked more than 7km (four miles) in a pair of withered plastic sandals to the funeral in Trenz village of Shopian in southern Kashmir.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
During funeral processions, women sing songs of blood and valour

She had criss-crossed apple orchards to avoid detection by forces manning streets to stop angry supporters of militants from attending the funeral.

The crowd lifted her onto their shoulders and carried her to Malla's bullet-riddled body.

Once there, she kissed his bullet-pocked, deformed face, took a handful of candies from the bag and threw them on his body, a tradition observed when Kashmiri grooms return home with their brides.

She then addressed the crowd.

"Would you like to become a police officer?" she began, to which the angry crowd chanted back "No, we won't!"

"Would you like to become a militant?" she continued.

"Yes, we will," the crowd roared in response.

"Would you like to become Tiger?" she said, pointing to a nearby village where a famous Kashmiri militant Sameer Bhat, also known as Sameer Tiger, was killed the previous week.

"Yes, we want to!" the crowd responded.

"Then say it loudly," she shouted.

"Azadi! (freedom)," the crowd responded.

The woman got down from the platform and disappeared into the crowd.

This was one among the two dozen funerals this correspondent has covered in the last three years, almost all of them in five districts of south Kashmir.

The younger generation of Kashmiris, brought under the shadow of the gun, are joining the militant insurgency in numbers not seen in more than a decade. These young men now risk their lives in front of live bullets to save their "role models" - militants fighting against Indian rule.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Young Kashmiris often risk their lives in front of live bullets

They stand in front of Indian army vehicles and throw stones at them. They block roads and by lanes when rebels are cornered by security forces. Then they throw stones at them. In the process, many of them have been killed - more than 30 this year alone.

Militant leader Burhan Wani's death in a gun battle with government forces in July 2016 sparked a spiral of deadly violence in the Muslim-majority valley.

When his close friend and militant Saddam Padder died recently, his funeral was attended by thousands of people. It was perhaps the second biggest funeral after that of Wani.

One of those killed in that gunfight was a sociologist from Kashmir University who was killed less than 40 hours after joining the group.

'Gun salute'

During these endless funerals, more young men are inspired to join the militants. Most of them were born after the inception of the insurgency in 1989. They are the children of conflict.

One 17-year-old boy, Zubair Ahmad, had evaded six checkpoints meant to stop people from attending Padder's funeral.

This was the 16th funerals of a Kashmiri militant he has attended in the last two years.

He watched as a group of militants with AK-47s in one hand and sticks in another, to keep people at a distance because of the fan-like adulation they receive, arrived at the funeral to offer a "gun salute" to their fallen comrade.

Image source, Hilal Shah
Image caption,
During these endless funerals, more young men see their chances of joining the insurgency

Padder's mother kissed the forehead of one of the rebels, telling the mourners he was her "other son".

"One day they will drag India out of Kashmir," she shouted. The crowd responded with slogans against India.

After the gun salute, the crowd cheered. But Mr Ahmad wept because he failed to get closer to the militants.

The teenager was arrested last year after his pictures appeared on Facebook along with a militant during one of these funerals. Mr Ahmad said his career is "over" because of the multiple police cases against him, rendering him unsuitable for government jobs.

"One day, you will see me holding an AK-47 and firing like this in the air," Mr Ahmad said ominously.

"Then you will recall my words."

Sameer Yasir is an independent journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir.