Will government let footballer Majid Khan live a normal life?

Majid Khan being presented by the army before the media during a press conference in Awantipora | Photo: Waseem Andrabi (Hindustan Times)

Waseem Ahmed explores the impact of footballer-turned-militant Majid Khan's surrender on armed establishment's surrender policy for Kashmiri militants. The inconsistency in following the surrender policy in the past and the hardships faced by the surrendered militants casts doubt about government’s intentions.

Wearing a pheran and a black skullcap, Majid Khan was presented before the media at the Indian army’s Victor Force headquarters in Awantipora town of Pulwama district on November 18. The 22-year-old footballer turned militant, it was announced, had surrendered barely weeks after joining the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

The surrender followed an emotional appeal, on video, by Majid’s mother, asking her son to return home. Her appeal was widely shared on social media, prompting many people to join in urging Majid to go back and serve his parents.

The police credited the mother’s tearful appeal for bringing back her son who had gone “astray” while the army said Majid had “realized the folly of the path”. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and the opposition leader Omar Abdullah both welcomed the footballer's surrender.

The Lashkar contradicted the state's claims, saying its leadership had sent Majid back to his mother.

Majid was not charged with taking up arms, he was told to go “live normally” with his family, apparently because the armed forces and police establishment want to set him up as an example to persuade more Kashmiri militants to surrender. Indeed, they have already publicly appealed to the militants to shun the gun.

Masjid’s surrender is a shot in the arm for armed forces worried about an increasing number of Kashmiri youth picking up the gun in the wake of the killing of popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani last year. The agencies believe that while they can “neutralize” foreign militants without much difficulty, killing local militants would only inflame the secessionist appeal. Currently, in South Kashmir, local militants outnumber the foreign fighters.

So, what has been their strategy to tackle the indigenous militancy?

General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps, JS Sandhu, told the media recently that government forces were working on two fronts: continuing counterinsurgency operations and persuading local militants to surrender and live a “normal life”.

Currently, Sandhu said, there are 220 militants active in the Kashmir valley, of whom 120 are Kashmiris. Already this year, government forces have killed 190 militants, 80 of them Kashmiris.

Director General of Police, SP Vaid, said local youth joining the militancy remains a challenge for the state. He has repeatedly reiterated that local militants are welcome to surrender, even during an encounter.

The chief minister has spoken in the same vein, recently asking the police to ensure more militants surrender and desist from harassing their families. She has also doubled the reward money for whoever gets militants to surrender.

Inspector General of Police, CRPF, Zulfiqar Hassan, believes that militants shunning the gun and returning home will prevent bloodshed and help bring “peace” in the valley.

“A large number of youth are being weaned away from violence,” he said recently. “The surrender of footballer Majid should serve as an example that it is better to shun violence and return home”.

He claimed that “counseling” of their family members has helped stop more than 60 youth from joining the militancy. The police have also set up helplines to facilitate the return of the youth. “Militants or their family members can call us on those numbers and come back. They will not be harassed,” he said.

Hassan confirmed that the police establishment is formulating a new surrender policy for Kashmiri militants active in the valley as well as those across the Line of Control. “It is true a new surrender policy is in the offing,” he said. “It is still at an early stage. We are trying to address different aspects of the militancy, including how to rehabilitate both literate and illiterate militants. We will take inputs from various agencies to make it more comprehensive.”

The proposed policy fills a strategic void, a senior counterinsurgency police official pointed out, as the government has not had a holistic surrender policy post 2005.

“There was nothing black and white when it came to the surrender of an individual,” the official explained. “There were no visible benefits for the one who surrendered. He would not be harassed as such but he had to face regular legal proceedings and would be subjected to continuous monitoring”.

In place of a surrender policy, the government regularly issued rehabilitation orders for militants over the past two decades. One such order, issued by the home department in January 2004, states: “The authority accepting the surrender shall have reason to believe that the terrorist concerned has undergone a change of heart and wants to renounce violence. The surrenderee involved in heinous crimes like murder, rape, abduction etc will be entitled to benefits only when legal action has been completed, court cases decided and the person has been pronounced innocent.”

It further reads that the militant surrendering with an AK-47 would get a “weapon incentive” of Rs 15,000 while as the one with a pistol would get Rs 3,000. “Immediate grant of Rs 1.50 lakh to be kept in the shape of fixed deposits bank in the name of surrendered for a period of three years which can be drawn by him only on completion of three year period and subject to good behavior,” order reads. “And Rs 2,000 as monthly stipend for three years after surrender.”

A former militant from Srinagar who surrendered in 2000 said these were extremely tough conditions to meet then. “It was a similar order under which I surrendered. Who will decide what constitutes good behavior?” the ex-militant said. “The cases were also kept alive. So we had to fight in courts as well. It was not like anybody would go to the police and avail of the fixed deposits and stipend. The Ikhwanis took that money but that was only because they switched the sides completely.”

After 2004, when militancy started to decline and public protests began to increase, government agencies, far from rehabilitating former militants, including those who had surrendered, started harassing them, calling them to police stations and army camps, denying them travel documents and even jobs.

“There are around 40,000 former rebels in Kashmir,” said Abdul Qadeer, head of the People’s Rights Movement, which counts 400 former militants among its members. “We didn't surrender. We were arrested and then released. The problem with successive governments has been that they never formulated a rehabilitation policy for former rebels”.

Instead, he said, the government sought revenge. “We do not get travel documents. Neither we are eligible to get government jobs. Our relative too suffer on our account,” Qadeer said. “We are not given even bank loans. Former rebels are occasionally called to police stations and camps. Besides, police cases against us drag through the courts for decades. This whole process makes our lives miserable.”

In 2010, the Omar Abdullah government announced the latest rehabilitation policy for militants who are in Pakistan administered Kashmir and want to return. But it is patently unattractive. The policy made it clear that "no general amnesty is envisaged...and the returnees would be duly prosecuted in cases registered against them which are of a serious nature.”

The policy mandated that the rebels wishing to surrender use designated entry routes along the LoC and the international border between India and Pakistan. But all those who returned came through Nepal, which means the J&K government, does not consider their entry legal. The militants and their families avoided the government-designated routes because Indian and Pakistani authorities did not cooperate on the complex documentation process.

Official estimates put the number of Kashmiris who have left militancy but are still staying in Pakistan administered Kashmir at around 3000.

Abdul Rashid Khan is one of the former militants who returned, along with his Pakistani wife and three children, through Nepal to avail of the 2010 policy. He returned with the dream of starting a new life.

“We thought we would live normally in Kashmir,” Khan, who now resides in Kunangam, Handwara, said. “I arrived soon after the policy was announced in 2010-11. When we came here, our life turned into hell. We are cursing the day we decided to come back.”

Khan and other former militants had returned from Pakistan hoping to be rehabilitated. That never happened.

“We fought for our rights for a couple of years but nothing moved,” he said. “We were not entitled to get work. Our Pakistani wives do not get travel documents. We have lost ourselves.”

Khan is so dejected he wants to return to Pakistan. “This surrender policy was bait. It was an absolute failure,” said Khan, who works as a labourer now. “We only ask for passports now. The moment we get them, we will leave for Pakistan. And we will never return. We were so happy there. My wife is from Islamabad and she is a graduate. She is going through hell here.”

As many as 268 former militants, many with their families, have returned from Pakistan administered Kashmir under the 2010 rehabilitation policy. But Khan said they all came in the early years; nobody comes now because they know only hardship awaits them here.

The policy suffered a fatal blow, a top police official pointed out, when one returning former militant, Liyaqat Shah, was arrested by the Delhi police and wrongly charged in a terrorism case in 2013. “It practically ended with the arrest of Liyaqat,” the official said. “In fact, it was doomed to fail from the start when the entry points were designated.”

Majid Khan’s surrender is touted by government and its forces as a “victory” of its attempts to win over youth lured by the gun. However, keeping in view the governments inconsistency in adhering to the surrender policy in past, it needs to be seen whether Majid Khan finds himself in the same boat as Rashid Khan and Liyaqat Shah, when he returns after completing his studies.

(A version of this interview was originally published in Greater Kashmir weekly magazine Kashmir Ink. www.kashmirink.in) 

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