Having lived for long at the mercy of gun-toting terrorists, the people of remote hamlets in Surankote have launched a movement of armed resistance.
ON December 9, the residents of Draba, a remote hamlet on the Pir Panjal mountains in Jammu and Kashmir, were getting ready to celebrate a marriage when Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Abu Samla, a Pakistani national, sent a wireless message to his cadre ordering them to disrupt the party. The wedding was that of the brother of Aftab Ahmed, one of the first in his village to revolt against the Lashkar and take up arms against the militant outfit. Fortunately the villagers intercepted the message and a decision was taken to accept the Lashkar's challenge and hold the function as scheduled.
The marriage was conducted amid festivity. However, as the rituals were being performed, there was a deafening exchange of fire not too far away. Members of the Village Defence Committees, who had taken position around the house of Aftab Ahmed, and the Lashkar men battled each other for more than 10 hours. As more VDC members from nearby hamlets descended on Draba, Lashkar commander Abu Samla - for whose head the Indian Army has announced a Rs.7,00,000 reward - ordered his cadre to retreat. The victory over the once-invincible Lashkar gave an additional reason for the villagers to celebrate.
But not every day is a lucky day for the villagers here as their hamlets are separated by long distances and poor infrastructure and communication networks. A few days before the function at Aftab's house, the Lashkar-e-Toiba had embarked on a forcible recruitment of local youth in the deep forests of Sangla. A youth identified as Abrat Hussain Shah, a former Special Police officer, who opposed it, was shot dead by Lashkar cadre.
These battles now form a part of the daily lives of the hapless villagers. After having lived a subdued existence for years, they have now learnt to resist. While the Indian government is engaging Pakistan to bring peace in Jammu and Kashmir, the efforts of these villagers - away from the media glare - have yielded results to an extent. Those in the vanguard of the resistance campaign are local people who came back from Saudi Arabia in 2001-02 to fight the militancy in the State. The resistance, which started in the Marrah area, is now spreading to other remote hamlets in Surankote in Poonch district, once considered the hub of militancy in the State.
This winter, 30 men from the Dandidara hamlet have joined the VDCs. After living for years at the mercy of gun-toting militants, who used this route to go to the north of Pir Panjal, that is, the Shopian area of Kashmir Valley, via Bafliaz-Chandimarh-Pir Ki Gali, the villagers have decided that enough is enough.
The reasons for the success of the resistance campaign are not hard to find. Militants had been using the homes of the local people for shelter, food and clothing. They even demanded the valuables of the families at gunpoint. Thirteen-year-old Yaseen was picked up by Lashkar-e-Toiba militants sometime back and forcibly recruited. His mother Gulzar Bi says: "Our patience has exhausted; we cannot allow our sons to become cannon fodder in the name of religion. No religion including Islam teaches anyone to kill or oppress. Our jehad is against the militants and we will not rest until we wipe out the menace of militancy from our soil." Yaseen's father Talib Hussain, who has taken up the gun, says: "I lost one son and I will not allow anyone to take my second son."
Mohammad Qasim, one of the chief architects of the silent campaign to enlist local people into VDCs, says: "We know we are playing with fire. It is a date with death every day. To tell the truth, the villagers are scared as they have been oppressed by the militants for years now. But they are voluntarily rebelling against them. After all, it is a choice between slavery and freedom from fear."
The authorities help by providing the VDCs weapons. The Saudi-returnees provide training in the use of weapons. The money donated by relatives of the villagers based in various Arab countries gives financial backing to the campaign. This debunks the Hindu Right's allegation that the money earned by Gulf-employed Muslims from the region was channelled into India for anti-national activities in the State's border districts.
Training is given in the use of both weapons and communication equipment. The local people decipher with ease the code language of the militants.
A typical day of a VDC member starts at 8-30 a.m. listening to the communication of the United Jehad Council (the association of the militant outfits operating in the State) from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). Every four hours the United Jehad Council airs messages for its cadre operating on Indian soil. The communication gives the VDCs hints about the movement of militants in the coming night.
Noor Mohammad says: "We can understand the local dialect of the militants operating in the area as they are mostly from POK and converse either in Punjabi or in Pahari. We have broken their communication codes a number of times and have carried out clean operations with no casualties."
Stung by the resistance, Lashkar militants have repeatedly threatened to kill anybody who takes up arms against them. "We know the risk involved, but the question is one of survival. Militants have carried out brutal massacres in the past against villagers who dared to revolt against them," says Tahira Begum, a villager. In the neighbouring Marrah area, militants killed, on July 24, 12 local residents who had dared to form VDCs. Hence everyone has been asked to be on high alert.
But for the Gulf-returned local residents, it has been a big sacrifice. Qasim says: "I used to earn Rs.25,000 to Rs.30,000 every month in Mecca (Saudi Arabia) doing construction work. All my savings along with those of my colleagues have gone into building this resistance force. My Saudi visa has now expired and virtually no resources are left with us. The government has not helped us much."
Mohammad Aslam, who goes to Mecca every two months to get his visa renewed, says, "It is difficult to run the campaign on our own. How long can poor labourers like us fight a war on our own?" There needs to be more support from the authorities than just the provision of weapons which, for that matter, are not sufficient and are vintage in many cases, he adds. For instance, a 20-bed hospital that caters to hundreds of remote hamlets in Surankote does not have a doctor and is usually run by a medical assistant. Many seriously injured villagers have to be rushed to the Rajouri Government Hospital, which is a five-hour drive from Surankote.
The villagers are alive to the fact that their resistance movement, besides being a jehad against religious militancy, is a jehad against illiteracy. Mohammad Aslam says: "Educational institutions in the area exist on paper only as the teachers cite terrorism in the area as the reason to absent themselves." Hamid has passed his ninth standard examination but his father Tahir is worried that he may not be able to pass the tenth standard examination next year.
His fears are not unfounded, as most schools here have recorded zero per cent results in the matriculation examination conducted by the Jammu and Kashmir School Board of Examination. "The quality of primary education is bad to say the least and the teachers pass the students without properly testing their ability. And in the board examinations most students fail," Tahir says. The state of the primary education system in the remote villages here is in sharp contrast to the modern educational institutions proliferating in the urban areas of the State.
The state of the economy is no different. The local people, who make a living by selling milk in the nearby towns, hardly have any institutional back-up. The crucial question is whether these areas figure on the economic road map of the People's Democratic Party-Congress government in the State or the Central government which claims to be ushering in a "white revolution" in the State. Will those recently set-up milk cooperative societies with modern equipment move beyond Chashmashahi (in Srinagar) and Satwari (Jammu) to these remote hamlets where the majority of milk producers in the State live, asks Hamid Chowdhary, a villager elder.