Kashmir’s war gets smaller, dirtier and more intimate
Decades-long dispute between India and Pakistan is collapsing into itself
Protesters in Srinagar, India, in the state of Kashmir, pictured in February 2018. Photograph: Atul Loke/New York Times
It was 9.30pm when Sameer Tiger came to the door, a rifle slung over his shoulder. Most of the village of Qasbayar, a tucked-away hamlet surrounded by apple orchards and framed by Kashmir’s mountain peaks, was getting ready for sleep.
A few yellowish lights burned in windows, but otherwise the village was dark. “Is Bashir home?” Sameer Tiger asked. “Can we talk to him?” Bashir Ahmad’s family did not know what to do. Ahmad was not a fighter; he was a 55-year-old pharmacist. And Sameer Tiger was a bit of mystery. He had grown up a skinny kid just down the road and used to lift weights with Ahmad’s sons at the neighbourhood gym; they would spot each other with the barbells, all friends.
But Sameer Tiger had disappeared for a while and then resurfaced as a bushy-haired militant, a member of an outlawed Kashmiri separatist group that had killed many people, the vast majority of them fellow Kashmiris.
Kashmir’s war, a territorial dispute between India and neighbouring Pakistan, has smoldered for decades. Now it is collapsing into itself. The violence is becoming smaller, more intimate and harder to escape.
Years ago, Pakistan pushed thousands of militants across the border as a proxy army to wreak havoc in the Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir. Now, the resistance inside the Indian areas is overwhelmingly home grown. The conflict today is probably driven less by geopolitics than by internal Indian politics, which have increasingly taken an anti-Muslim direction.
Most of the fighters are young men like Sameer Tiger from quiet brick-walled villages like Qasbayar, who draw support from a population deeply resentful of India’s governing party and years of occupation.
Anyone even remotely associated with politics is in danger. That included Ahmad, who, when he was not sitting behind the counter of the village pharmacy, was known to host events for a local Kashmiri political party.
“Don’t worry,” Sameer Tiger said, standing at Ahmad’s door, seeming to sense the family’s anxiety. He looked Ahmad’s son right in the eye. “We don’t mean any harm,” he said. “Your father is like our father.”
Ahmad rushed home from work and invited Sameer Tiger in for tea. They sat on the living room carpet talking quietly, then Ahmad nodded goodbye to his wife and son and left with the visitor. He did not have much choice. Sameer Tiger was armed, and insistent, and had arrived with three others who were waiting in the road.
The group moved slowly down the unlit lane. At a bend in the road, in front of a shuttered shop, Sameer Tiger and Ahmad started arguing, a witness said. Four gun blasts rang out. Ahmad screamed. The few remaining lights in the neighbourhood were suddenly extinguished.
Rivers of blood
Just the name Kashmir conjures a set of very opposing images: snowy mountain peaks and chaotic protests, fields of wildflowers and endless deaths. It is a staggeringly beautiful place that lives up to all its fabled charm, yet even the quietest moments here feel ominous.
Kashmir sits on the frontier of India and Pakistan, and both countries have spilled rivers of blood over it. Three times, they have gone to war, and tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict. It is one of Asia’s most dangerous flashpoints, where one million troops have squared off along the disputed border. Both sides now wield nuclear arms. And the two sides are divided by religion, with Kashmir stuck in the middle.
India, which has controlled most of the Kashmir Valley for the past 70 years, is predominantly Hindu. The valley itself is predominantly Muslim, as is Pakistan. But as the days pass, the conflict has become less of a religiously driven proxy war.
The rebellion, says Imran Khan, Pakistan’s presumed new leader, is now “indigenous”. Khan, who clearly has a Pakistani perspective on the conflict, says he is determined to negotiate an end to it. His persuasive election victory last month – and the fact that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, made a friendly phone call to congratulate him – suggests a breakthrough is possible.
But India still loves to blame Pakistan for all its Kashmir problems, and Pakistan, according to Western intelligence agents, continues to send some money and weapons to militants in Kashmir. Many Indian politicians seem in denial that their own politics and policies might be a factor.
India’s swerve to the right in recent years, with the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has deeply alienated its Muslim minority. Many top members of the ruling party have a very questionable record when it comes to treating Muslims fairly. This has emboldened Hindu supremacists across India, and in recent years, Hindu lynch mobs have targeted and killed Muslims, often based on false rumours. Many of the culprits are lightly punished, if at all, leaving India’s Muslims feeling exposed.
In the Indian-administered parts of Kashmir, where there was already a history of bitter conflict, the new politics have spurred more people to turn against the government. Some pick up guns, others rocks, but the root emotion is the same: Many Kashmiris now hate India.
“This is what’s different,” said Siddiq Wahid, a Kashmiri historian who earned his doctorate from Harvard. “Before, in the 1990s, many Kashmiris felt we can negotiate this, we can talk ... But nobody wants to be part of India now. Every Kashmiri is resisting today, in different ways.”
The latest are children and grandmothers. At almost every recent security operation, as Indian officers closed in on houses where militants were believed to be hiding, they have had to reckon with seething crowds of residents of all ages acting as human shields.
Walk through Kashmiri villages, where little apples are ripening on the trees and the air tastes clean and crisp, and ask people what they want. The most common response is independence. Some say they want to join Pakistan. None say anything good about India, at least not in public.
India’s steely response has pushed away even moderates. Soldiers manhandle residents, cut off roads and barge into homes, saying they are looking for militants, who often hide among ordinary residents. When violent protests erupt, the Indian security services blast live ammunition and buckshot into the crowds, killing or blinding many people, including schoolchildren who are simply bystanders. These actions continue despite appeals from human rights groups to stop.
But while protests against Indian rule have grown in number and size, the armed militancy has become surprisingly small, partly because Pakistan is not providing as much support as it used to. Security officials say there are only around 250 armed militants operating in the Kashmir Valley, down from thousands two decades ago. Most of them are poorly trained and militarily lost. But still, the Indians cannot stomp them out.
“I’ll be honest,” said Mohammad Aslam, a seemingly forthright police commander in southern Kashmir. “For every militant we kill, more are joining.”
The hunt for Sameer Tiger began the night he killed Ahmad, on April 15th, 2017. Back then, he was not widely known as Sameer Tiger. To most, he was still Sameer Bhat, a 1 high school dropout at 17 who had worked in a local bakery. The Indian security forces give all the known militants a grade: A through C, with A being the most wanted. Sameer Tiger was a C.
The first place the police searched was Drabgam, his village. The shops are small, tucked into old brick buildings. Jobs are few. Like much of southern Kashmir, Drabgam hangs on the apple business. After the last of the apples have been picked in October and until the new crop is tended in the spring, there is little to do.
Sameer Tiger’s house is one of the more modest: one and a half stories of crudely finished brick, a couple of naked electrical bulbs dangling in the living room, some wet shawls flapping on a line outside. His father is a labourer and farmer who tends just a few acres of orchards. His mother, Gulshan, is chatty and welcoming. They live on a dirt road.
“Sameer loves these,” she said, pressing a handful of coconut candies into my palm and tugging me into their bare living room. The candies were exceptionally sweet and left a milky taste on the tongue.
Sameer Tiger’s parents said their son was a reluctant militant. One afternoon in early 2016, he was accused of throwing rocks at police officers. Sameer Tiger was working in the bakery at the time, his parents said, and they insisted he was innocent.
But the police did not listen and dragged him into a truck by his hair, they said. He spent a few days in jail. After he was let out, he disappeared. Soon his face popped up on separatist websites, his piercing eyes staring at the camera, his bushy hair now down to his shoulders, a Kalashnikov in his hands.
“When we saw that,” said Maqbool, his father, “we said goodbye.” More than 250,000 Indian army soldiers, border guards, police officers and police reservists are stationed in the valley, outnumbering the militants 1,000 to one. Most militants do not last two years. One fighter, a former college sociology professor, was killed in May just two days after he joined.
Their attacks tend to be quixotic and they usually die in a hail of automatic weapon fire. Their assassinations and killings are not militarily significant, more acts of protest against Indian rule. Of the approximately 250 known militants, police officials said, only 50 or so came from Pakistan, and most of the rest, the locals, have never left the valley.
Sameer Tiger’s parents said he changed his last name from Bhat to Tiger in honour of a brawny uncle with that nickname who was known for his immense strength. When I asked about the killing of Bashir Ahmad, his father looked down at the carpet.
For the first time, he seemed embarrassed about his son. “Bashir was a good man,” he mumbled. “Sameer wasn’t there to kill him. It was an accident.” It might have been. On this point, Sameer Tiger’s family and a survivor of the shooting seem to agree.
The night Ahmad was killed, the militants had also pulled another village elder from his home, Mohamad Altaf, a first cousin of Ahmad. Both were among Qasbayar’s elite, landowners who supported the Peoples Democratic Party, Kashmir’s dominant political organisation.
The party used to sympathise with separatism, but to win control of the state parliament, it joined hands with the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party three years ago. Many Kashmiris accused it of selling out to Indian rule. In June, the alliance suddenly broke apart, leaving a vacuum in the state assembly.
India’s central government took over running the state. Kashmiris are now terrified that the government will escalate military operations; the sense of hopelessness is rising.
According to Altaf, as they walked through the unlit lanes of Qasbayar with the militants, Sameer Tiger urged him and Ahmad to renounce their party affiliation. When Ahmad started arguing, Sameer Tiger ordered both men to lie facedown and close their eyes.
Altaf was shot once in the back of his right knee and not critically hurt. He thinks the intent was to send a message. But Ahmad was shot three times in his legs, the bullets moving upward toward his waist, Altaf said. His cousin, a lifelong friend, bled to death on the spot. Maybe the Kalashnikov jumped in Sameer Tiger’s hands. Maybe he squeezed a split second too long.
Altaf can’t stop thinking about it. The betrayal haunts him. “Bashir invited Sameer Tiger in for tea, tea,” he said. His cousin’s death seems so pointless. He wonders if Sameer Tiger did not set out that night to kill. Maybe, Altaf thinks, he just did not know how to use his gun.
Sympathy for a cause
These days, the Kashmiri militants do not have many opportunities to practise shooting, police officials said. It is not like the 1990s, when thousands of young Kashmiri men slipped across the border to training camps on the Pakistani side.
The Indians have sealed much of the contested frontier, which runs about 700km. Israel has been surreptitiously helping them, providing security cameras, night vision gear, drones and other surveillance equipment along the border to stop big infiltrations. All this, coupled with the fact that Pakistan has closed most of its militant camps under pressure from the United States, has pushed the fighting away from the border, and deeper into the villages.
Kashmiris speak of a psychological tension that divides communities, individual families and sometimes even the same person. On one hand, people want to support a functioning society – to have their children go to school, get jobs, see some economic development – and Indian control represents that. On the other, they feel real sympathy for a cause, Kashmiri independence, that they consider just.
“Let’s be realistic: India’s never going to give up this land,” said one young Kashmiri who asked that his identity not be revealed because he could be labelled a collaborator. “I can say such things in my house. But as soon as I step outside, even into my own street, I can’t say that. It has to be ‘Azadi! Azadi! Azadi!’” he said, using the word for freedom. “It’s like you have to be two different people, all the time.”
He sighed. “It’s exhausting.”
The biggest challenge in killing militants, police officer Ashiq Tak explained, isn’t the task of finding them. “Information is coming in all the time,” he said. “We know their friends, their girlfriends, which houses they’re using. “The trick,” he said, “is laying the cordon.”
Tak is another example of how this war is shrinking. He grew up in Qasbayar, a couple of miles from Sameer Tiger. Ahmad was his mother’s brother. This winter he found himself, as the commanding officer of a tactical police unit in southern Kashmir, hunting the man who killed his uncle.
Sameer Tiger was emerging as a militant’s militant. He was increasingly active – and not just on social media. He attacked police stations, he recruited new fighters and he supplied pistols to young men to carry out assassinations, Tak said.
The police often discovered where he was hiding, and set up their security cordons, but he was slippery. “We almost had him,” Tak said in February. “But he escaped, dressed like a girl.” Tak seemed dispirited by all the support for Sameer Tiger, and the fact that many Kashmiris consider police officers like himself to be traitors.
Unlike soldiers in the Indian army, which is recruited from across the country, police officers in the region come from within the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and dozens have been killed.
Many Kashmiris see them as collaborators and call them “Modi’s dogs,” a reference to India’s prime minister, who rose to power as part of the Hindu right-wing movement.
Tak said that Kashmiris had so little faith in the security services that when a police officer or soldier killed a civilian, people did not even bother demanding justice. “Anywhere else, they’d ask for an investigation,” he said. “Here, they just take the body and go away.”
“That’s a bad sign,” he said. “That’s total alienation.”
Sameer Tiger resurfaced in late April, a year after Ahmad’s death. A few kilometres from his house, witnesses said, he stopped a car carrying a local politician and shot him dead. The attack, conducted in the daytime and on a busy road, was unusually audacious. India’s national news media seized upon it, and for the first time Sameer Tiger was front-page news.
The hunt for him intensified but more civilians were rallying to the defence of militants, often barricading the roads as the police closed in and pelting officers with rocks. “It’s getting very hard to do operations,” Tak said.
A few days later, on April 30th, the army got a tip that Sameer Tiger was hiding in a house in the centre of Drabgam. Though he was now a highly wanted militant, upgraded to an A rating, it seemed he had never strayed far from home. This time, the Indian army did not arrive en masse. They used mud-smeared dump trucks packed with soldiers wearing traditional pheran cloaks, guns hidden. The villagers thought they were labourers. The soldiers quietly surrounded the house and called for backup.
The soldiers sent in two rounds of emissaries, including village elders, to persuade Sameer Tiger to surrender. He replied with a burst of bullets, hitting Shukla in the shoulder. The sound of gunfire served as an alarm, setting off an eruption. The village mobilised. Boys, girls, men and women scampered out of their houses and rushed into the road with stones in their hands. Mosque loudspeakers blared: “Sameer Tiger is trapped! Go help him!” The whole town, quite openly, was rallying to an outlaw’s side.
As additional army trucks rumbled in, packed with troops, more civilians rushed forward, trying to insert themselves between the troops and Sameer Tiger. One young man was shot dead; the crowd kept coming. But the cordon had been well laid, growing to nearly 300 soldiers and police officers.
The civilians, however determined, could not break it. Several police commanders said security officers then moved in, firing a rocket at the house. Flames burst out. Sameer Tiger scampered on to a rooftop. The soldiers opened up with automatic weapons from four directions. He was hit several times.
‘We are winning’
A culture of death is spreading across Kashmir. The militants have become the biggest heroes. People paint their names on walls. They wear T-shirts showing their bearded faces. They speak of them affectionately, as if they are close friends. The militants are especially revered after they are dead.
On a Tuesday morning, May 1st, Sameer Tiger’s lifeless body, riddled with holes and soaked in blood, was hoisted on to a makeshift wooden platform in the yard of one of Drabgam’s mosques. Thousands poured in from across the valley. For hours they chanted his name: “Tiger! Tiger! Sameer Tiger!”
Boys scrambled up trees and scurried across tin roofs, the light metal popping beneath their gym shoes, to find any vantage point. Others fought through the nearly impenetrable crowd to the funeral pyre, just to gently stroke Sameer Tiger’s beard or to kiss his pale face goodbye. Many vowed to join the militants.
One woman who identified herself as a separatist leader looked out at the sea of mourners and gravely smiled. “We are winning,” she said. “These bodies are our assets.”
A few hundred metres away, on the rooftop where Sameer Tiger had been cornered, a team of boys wearing religious skullcaps scrubbed a rust-colored splotch.
A crowd pressed in to watch. “Young ones, tell me: What does the spilling of this blood mean?” one man shouted. “Azadi!” the crowd roared back. The boys worked fast, heads down, sweat trickling off their temples. They used wet rags to mop up the splotch. They squeezed the blood-water mixture into a copper urn, to be saved. An imam watching closely told them to capture every last drop of blood. – New York Times