Lolab (J&K): For more than 18 years now, Nazir Ahmad has rarely been out of his home, which adjoins an Army camp at the secluded village of Lolab in Kashmir’s Kupwara district.
Ahmad, now 60, is a former member of the Ikhwan force — the state-backed controversial counter-insurgency militia that played a crucial role in breaking the backbone of Kashmir militancy at its peak in the 1990s.
However, the force, comprising surrendered militants, was accused of having carried out massive human rights violations, extortion and unleashing terror in the region.
It’s a past that has now come to haunt the former Ikhwanis.
Ahmad takes pride in counting the number of militants he killed after 1993 but he lives in fear every moment.
After all, even his comrades in positions of power have been murdered over the years. Among them is Mohammed Yusuf Parray alias Kukka Parray, supreme commander of Ikhwan ul Muslimeen and later a legislator, and more recently Abdul Rashid Parray alias Rashid Billa, former chief commander of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, who was gunned down at his home in 2017.
“Along with the Army, my group had killed nearly 150 militants and made around 250 surrender, of whom 117 gave up arms in a single day. But we have lost our families too,” he says.
Ahmad says soon after word spread that he had joined the Ikhwaans, militants landed up at his village one day and killed his brother, brother-in-law and six of his comrades. His house was burnt down.
A former militant, Ahmad had fled to train in Pakistan when the Valley was hit by militancy in the 1990s. In 1992, after two weeks of training, and two and a half months of being a militant himself, he quit the terror ranks to become an Ikhwani.
But Ahmad says his work did not reap any dividends. “Today, we are afraid that we can be killed anytime,” says Ahmad, running his hands over the wrinkles that crisscross his face. The government, he says, has left him and others in his group in a lurch, without any security cover or job.
Scrapping of Article 370 ignites hope
The Narendra Modi government’s decision to scrap Article 370 in August last year and detain the erstwhile state’s entire political class has now given the former Ikhwanis hope that they can fill the void and revive their relevance.
Their hope to resurrect themselves was also fuelled by the Centre’s green signal to the Jammu and Kashmir civil administration to hold panchayat elections in over 60 per cent seats lying vacant in the Valley.
Of Kashmir’s 20,093 panch and sarpanch seats, a massive 12,565 are not filled. Panchayat elections will now be held in Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh.
Ahmad says he and his comrades would want to join politics and contest for the sarpanch posts before making the step up to the assembly elections.
“We surely want to contest the elections,” says Ahmad, adding the Ikhwanis hope it would not only give them some power but also security cover.
Ahmad has earlier served as a sarpanch in the early 2000s, when the Ikhwanis still had some relevance.
A few Ikhwanis have sporadically tried their luck in politics.
Some like Ashiq Hussain Turk, the deputy sarpanch of the Kuligam North area of Lolab, are not very happy with the little power they enjoy.
Turk says he will actively look at fighting the J&K assembly elections whenever they take place and has met political leaders cutting across party lines along with his comrades.
“We have been in talks with different political leaders. Perhaps that would make us less vulnerable than what we are now,” says the former Ikhwani whose brother’s entire family was wiped out by militants. An act, he says, was to avenge his betrayal.
A long ride back
The mainstreaming of the Ikhwanis, however, will not be an easy ride considering their reputation in the Valley.
“They can’t get back to the same Kashmiri society as they have burnt all their bridges. And because they can’t get back to Kashmiri society, they can’t penetrate militant networks, rendering them redundant as sources to the security forces,” says a senior Jammu & Kashmir government official.
The official adds that most surrendered militants have a sense of guilt as they have betrayed the cause.
“So when put to a corner, they tend to spring back and do something more violent,” the official says. “These people lead agitations when there is a law and order problem but would otherwise work as sources to security forces when there is normalcy.”
“But Ikhwanis don’t have an option. They can’t survive if they were to carry guilt. So they justify and try to assert what they did was correct and in the interest of the nation,” the official adds. “In such a situation, politics is the option for them.”
The official says the Ikhwanis could turn out to be important people in the days to come. “They can’t go back to the Kashmir society. They have nowhere to go. So, they will not betray the state. And if there are poll boycotts, they would even stand a chance of emerging as winners here.”
The official also believes the propensity of surrendered militants to go back to old ways is higher when they aren’t rehabilitated.
“They swing towards forces when the situation is normal and tend to be part of anti-national activities when the security grid is weak,” the official says.
Zafar Choudhary, senior journalist and editor of The Dispatch, says the number of Ikhwanis runs into the several thousands.
The Ikhwanis, Choudhary says, were organised by security forces but had the concurrence, knowledge or approval of the National Conference (NC) when it came to power in 1996. “So when the PDP arrived at Kashmir’s political scene in 1999, the anti-Ikhwan campaign became a major rallying point in its manifesto,” he says.
“The PDP projected the very existence of militancy as one of the fallouts of alleged militarisation and securitisation of Kashmir, the campaign against Ikhwans was a potential argument to gain political space by discrediting the National Conference,” he tells ThePrint.
With significant decline in militancy giving way to mainstream competitive politics, the Ikhwanis began to face the issues of social and moral existence.
Turk agrees. He says his two daughters haven’t yet received a marriage proposal because of his past. “Politics may change and dim this stigma for us.”
A dependence on the Army
Lolab has about 25-30 of the around 5,500 Ikhwanis who joined the ranks in the 1990s.
Most of the remaining Ikhwanis stay close to the Army establishments in the Valley as they feel more secure. It is no different in Lolab.
“We seek the Army’s help for celebration at our homes to medical assistance or financial help,” Ahmad says.
The Ikhwanis are clear on one aspect — they are different to surrendered militants.
“We took part in operations with the Army and police and killed militants, unlike many surrendered militants,” says a third Ikhwani.
Over the years, the Army had employed many of them in various roles, including as porters and casual labourers. Some have also served in the Territorial Army battalions.
After all, at one point of time, they worked rubbing shoulders with each other in Kashmir at the peak of militancy.