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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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As we continued to experiment and dream, the situation in Kashmir had taken a deadlier form. AK-47 had infuriated India, and the government reacted like an enraged elephant, trampling everything that came in its way. Bunkers, camps, and watchtowers sprang up everywhere as more troops were deployed to crush the rebellion. Their mission was to control every exit and every entry point of every village, town, and city. If the lake was big, they brought in the Navy, and if the jungle was inaccessible, they called for choppers. Rebels, troopers, relatives of rebels, friends, civilians, kids, women, old men; nobody was spared. Arrest and torture by troopers became common.

AK-47 had dared to challenge the INSAS rifle of the Indian army. Now carbines, AK-56s, SLRs, machine guns, rockets, and mortar rounds had come to the aid of the INSAS, while the rebels responded by getting their hands on pika, sniper, machine guns, and IEDs. But numbers were against them, in a battle being fought between 500,000 to 700,000 organized troopers and 10,000 to 20,000 ragtag militants. AK-47s, which had inspired the Kashmiris to rise up against India, now seemed dwarfed by the might of the world’s third-largest army. But giving up was not an option. So, the bloodshed continued.

Despite the entry of so many new guns, the importance of AK-47 never diminished. It was everywhere, and with every passing day I used to learn something new about this magical rifle: its variants, its rotating bolt, its handle, its cork mechanism—and how Indians tried to copy it. Kalashnikov mania engulfed peaceful protests, too. Slogans like We Want Freedom, Down With India and Indian Constitution Is Unacceptable were accompanied by one peculiar cry. “Sarhad Paar jayenge, Kalashankof laayenge, Bharat ko Bhagayenge.” “We will cross the border, we will bring a Kalashnikov, we will make India flee.” Overlooking its lethal potential, some teenage rebels treated it as a valuable toy. One such rebel decorated his well-oiled brand-new AK-47 with small fluorescent stickers (hearts and stars were his favorite), and he almost got his group killed when his glowing gun revealed their position during an evening gunfight with the army. The young rebel soon became the joke of the town.

***

Stories about the AK-47 continued to surface from all over the valley. My journalistic career ensured that I would have to report on how many men were killed by this gun. Sometimes I had to write how many guns were captured after the killing. I had to suppress my feelings to remain unbiased. After killing most of the rebels, the 500,000 troopers working under federal immunity hunted the remaining few hundred rebels, day in and day out. I quietly let go of my dream of the gun, as I didn’t want to become collateral damage.

Recently, New Delhi revealed that they have recovered 30,752 AK rifles of 47, 56, and 74 variants from rebels during the last 20 years of insurgency in Kashmir. The number of bullets recovered exceeded 4 million. “The arms and ammunition recovered in Kashmir since 1990 can suffice for two divisions of the Army,” a senior Indian Army officer told the media. The death toll according to the Home Department was unbelievably low at 43,746, but civil rights groups claim the number as high as 100,000. So many guns and yet I had remained an untouchable, I thought to myself.

New Delhi was triumphant in that the Indian army defeated the “menace of AK-47” in Kashmir. But they couldn’t undo the psychological change that the gun had inspired. Two decades back Kashmiris were generally reputed to be the weakest-hearted people in the subcontinent: During festivals, we used to make a beeline to the house of those one or two gifted persons in every village who had the courage to kill a chicken, in order to get our own birds slaughtered for the feast. But, those same Kashmiris, when pushed hard, had fought back with the AK-47, and India was forced to use its entire might to subdue our puny race, and is still struggling.

In 2011, I left war-torn Kashmir to pursue a new life in New York where the AK-47 was the last thing on my mind. I was enjoying my first experience of living in a democracy, even as I had trouble adjusting to the guarantee that one can make it back home in the evening, alive.

Malian army paratrooper Soumaila Coulibaly, 26, poses with an AK-47 assault rifle in Gao, some 745 miles north of Bamako, February, 2013.
(JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

But as they say, you can never run from your past, it always catches you. During a holiday, I along with my friends had a chance to visit the Poconos, and there I ended up visiting the Sunset Firing Range, where I fervently started to look for that trademark banana-shaped magazine, after I spotted the name “AK-47” on their brochure. And there it was, at the third booth, the dark-colored AK-47 of my dreams. This time it was certainly within my reach, but I tried to stay calm.

When my bulky instructor asked me which gun I wished to fire, the answer was obvious. It had to be the AK-47. My pulse started racing and I could hear my heart pounding, as he brought the gun down from the wall. The instructor started explaining the mechanics of the gun, but I was lost in faraway Kashmir. I remembered the guns in my village, every single gunman, huge processions of gunmen, guns shooting at the army, the sound of guns, rebels loading guns, and the exact moment when I first saw an AK-47 being fired. A rebel while declaring a shutdown fired in the air, and I stood mesmerized watching him keenly from my classroom window.

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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