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How Sweet, Smart Kids Under Occupation Come To Worship Militants

In the heart of Kashmir, where happiness was a warm AK-47, the weapon was my voice, and my dream

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
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It was a tense autumn day. We were playing cricket with a tennis ball at an abandoned industrial area, when the crackle of a transistor caught our attention. Delighted to see us, Shafi was brandishing a sleek radio, which set a new standard for Kashmiri rebels. I fantasized that someday I would get that radio too, which for me, at that moment, appeared to be the world’s most hyper-sophisticated gadget. Like Shafi, I would charm the juniors: “Roger that!”

Shafi, 19, a school dropout, looked frustrated with the set, whose many black buttons and weird printed instructions were simply too much for him. Then we noticed something protruding from the back of Shafi’s jacket, and we swarmed around him like honeybees. As he was fiddling with his radio, I just managed to brush my hand over the gun. It didn’t matter that the gun was inside his light-blue jacket or that I could just make out its rough outline: I still had touched the famous gun, the AK-47.

Popularly known as Kalashnikov, AK-47 was the dream of every Kashmiri boy and the nightmare of every Indian soldier. The gun fired. It killed. It announced the dawn of a new age in Kashmir. What Kalashnikov did in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Liberia, India dreaded it would do here. Muslim-dominated Kashmir was annexed by India in 1947 after signing a controversial accession pact with its Hindu ruler, with the promise of a plebiscite and greater autonomy. War soon erupted between India and Pakistan and both countries wound up occupying a part of Kashmir. India never carried out the promised plebiscite, and autonomy was slowly eroded as India aimed to gain absolute control of what it now saw as an Indian state or province.

It was not the lethality of the AK that India feared, for it had a million-strong army to counter it. It was the psychological change that the assault rifle unleashed everywhere it went. AK stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova, and 47 denotes 1947, the year of its adoption by the Soviet military. The assault rifle made its entry in Kashmir in 1988, almost 40 years after its invention in nearby Russia, and shortly after the federal government rigged the provincial elections of 1987 to pave the way for its favorite pro-India party to form the government. A huge crackdown on political opponents was initiated, and thousands of young men were sent to jails and torture centers. Dozens of civilians were killed when the government forces used live ammunition against people demonstrating against a hike in the domestic power tariff. No one hoped for justice from the police or judiciary, as both were tightly controlled by New Delhi. The younger generation of Kashmiris felt utterly helpless and dejected, but the gun became their straw of hope.

As soon as the arrested youths were released, they decided to answer bullets with bullets. Winding through the mighty Himalayan range and crossing the Line of Control—the de facto border dividing Indian and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir—these youths traveled to Pakistani Kashmir to acquire AK-47s. They underwent short arms-training capsules at the militant camps, and then they came back to Kashmir, to change it forever.

On July 31, 1988, the rebels exploded a bomb at the telegraph office in the capital city of Srinagar, announcing the start of an armed rebellion against Indian rule. Two months later, on Sept. 18, AK-47-armed rebels attacked the residence of Deputy Inspector General of Police A. M. Watali in Srinagar. The botched operation left one rebel dead, and the security forces were shocked to recover a new AK-47. The government scrambled its police officers, intelligence agents, and security experts to uncover the mystery of where the gun came from and what it meant. But it was already too late.

AK-47-wielding rebels became bolder. They kidnapped the daughter of the federal home minister; in exchange for her return, their jailed leaders were released. People cheered the daring act. The mere thought of their own men taking on the mighty India was too exciting an idea, at a time when the superpower USSR was defeated by the rag-tag militias of Afghanistan, and everybody kept saying, “Why not India?” Pakistan helped the rebels with more weapons and training. There was also talk of jobless Afghan Mujahideen turning toward their next holy mission—liberating Muslim Kashmir from Hindu India.

Rumors spread in Kashmir about the presence of the AK-47 in the hands of such men. Those who saw the gun mesmerized others with their tales, and those who listened could only imagine how such good fortune might feel. In downtown Srinagar, the gun was shown to the public in an unexpected way. “Actually during one anti-India demonstration, people were charged and they wanted to burn the branch of a federal bank at Bohrikadal, but some of our boys stopped them,” Wajahat Qureshi, an ex-rebel, told me at the Srinagar office of his political organization. “At first people thought that these youth in pherans”—long cloaks worn in winter—“were ordinary people, but during the scuffle to stop them, our boys were forced to show the Kalashnikovs hidden under their pherans.” People were surprised at the sight of the gun and some cried in excitement. They started raising pro-freedom slogans and the entire atmosphere became highly emotional. People hoisted rebels on their shoulders. Before this incident, the only gun people had ever seen was the one in the hands of their so-called “oppressors.” Now they felt that their own boys could tame the dragon, too.

***

Shafi was the first in our area to get the gun when the cycle of violence reached our part of Kashmir. He was among the thousands of youths (experts estimate that in 1991 alone, 10,000 got arms training in Pakistani Kashmir and came back with at least one AK-47 each). Crossing the border to Pakistani Kashmir was never an easy task. One had to pass through dense temperate jungles, climb over 10,000-feet cliffs, escape snow avalanches, cross gushing mountain streams, traverse mined areas, and evade Indian snipers. Thousands died on that journey, and others survived with only horrifying tales to tell.

A masked Palestinian militant using an AK-47 automatic rifle opens fire toward Israeli forces, October, 2003. (ABID KATIB/Getty Images)

Shafi had a narrow escape too, but his was a story of sheer luck. While on the return trip with a group, the frail Shafi fell ill. Fearful of the approaching army, the group had to make a tough decision. They couldn’t carry him, so they relieved him of his weapons and went ahead. After a night’s sleep, Shafi felt better, but he was soon caught by an army patrol in the open meadow. The unarmed Shafi claimed to be the advance party for a group of shepherds, who were expected in the meadow the very next day. The army decided to wait for a day, before deciding on what to do with Shafi. Luckily, some shepherds arrived on the precise day, and Shafi waved, winked, and told them about his situation in his native language in front of the non-Kashmiri-speaking Indian troops. The dramatic hugs between the men convinced the soldiers of Shafi’s innocence, and they let him go.

Hundreds of others weren’t so lucky. Many were killed after questioning—some without questioning. Some were tortured to death, and some were tortured after their death. Soldiers displayed body parts of their prized catches at various locations. Sometimes they hung the bodies on the border posts to deter enthusiastic young men from crossing the border. It never helped.

Nothing could deter the youths. Unbelievable tales of miracles performed by AK-47 reached us from Afghanistan, Vietnam, and African countries. Images of Palestinians waving AK-47s were a testament to its power.

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How Sweet, Smart Kids Under Occupation Come To Worship Militants

In the heart of Kashmir, where happiness was a warm AK-47, the weapon was my voice, and my dream