On April 18, 16-year-old Aqib Ahmad Hajam left his home in Redhwani, Kashmir, telling his family that he would be traveling north for a few days. That same day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed an election rally in Gujarat, claiming that his government had managed to contain militancy to only "two and a half districts" in Indian-administered Kashmir. He added that during the five-year rule of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), "no bomb blast took place in any other part of the country."
That is not correct. In fact, since the BJP formed a government in 2014, the three-decade armed insurgency in Kashmir has intensified. In a single suicide attack in February 2019, more than 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers died. The incident brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. Yet Modi continued to sell his security credentials throughout his campaign, which won him a mandate for a second term in May.
Just a few months later, on Aug. 5, the BJP delivered on another of its campaign talking points: repealing a constitutional clause that had granted some autonomies to Kashmir and introducing a bill to divide the area into two federal territories under direct control of the federal government. The move came alongside a harsh crackdown on 7 million Kashmiris—including a months long communication ban and the arrests of some 13,000 people—setting the basis for even greater armed militancy, including among young people such as Hajam.
Hajam was one of 11 young men who went missing in southern Kashmir in April. Soon after he left, his family went out looking for him. A few days after they started their search, a photo of him posing with a gun appeared on social media, said Javid Ahmad Hajam, his older brother. "He had told us that he will be back in a few days and stay well. Until his photo was posted on social media we had no knowledge of him."
Even as Modi claimed that his administration is in control of militancy, in other words, another young person had joined a militant group—in this case, Lashkar-e-Taiba. Hajam's story is not unusual. "In 2018, he was arrested, accused of being an OGW, and spent seven months in jail," his brother recalled, using an abbreviation for "overground worker," or helper of the militants. Following his jail term, he quit school. After that, his brother said, "he was at home and well, taking part in household work. We don't know what was going on in his mind, he was very young."
Many young people such as Hajam who have joined armed groups have also spent time in jail, typically booked under the draconian Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, which allows the government to jail people for up to two years without any trial. In fact, Indian jails are full of people who have not been tried or convicted of any crimes. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 68 percent of prisoners across the country have not been convicted.
In Kashmir, spending time in jail can strengthen a young person's resolve to get revenge. Many of the jailed, who were never part of any protest, decide to join them when they are released. Others who are taken in for small crimes, such as throwing stones, become radicalized in jail. An internal analysis on militancy from the Indian Army found that 83 percent of local youth who had joined a militant organization had a "record of stone-pelting."
Since Aug. 5, the government has used the Public Safety Act to lock away scores of people. And a fact-finding team of several human-rights lawyers that recently returned from Kashmir has reported that, between Aug. 5 and Sept. 30, more than 330 habeas corpus petitions had been filed in cases where a complainant or representatives believes he or she has been detained illegally.
In October, I spoke to a senior counterinsurgency officer in Srinagar who has run dozens of operations to kill militants. Requesting anonymity, he confessed that, in the past, young men had been "picked up for no reason by the police." In fact, in Jammu and Kashmir, the rate of conviction on charges of possession of unlawful weapons is 0.5 per 100 cases, more than 130 times lower than the national average, according to a 2011 Amnesty International report. The report adds that "the conviction rate for attempt to murder in [Jammu and Kashmir] is eight times lower than the national average, seven times lower for rioting and five times lower for arson. … In contrast, the number of persons in administrative detention without trial in [Jammu and Kashmir] is 14 times higher than the national average."
The counterinsurgency officer was quick to add, though, that for the last year, police have had instructions not to pick up people on mere suspicion. Rather, he said, they were to "only bring people in if there is evidence." He claimed that the new policy had helped reduce recruitment of new militants. Indeed, he continued, people expected that there would be an "uprising or … a massive rise in recruitment, but it hasn't been the case." The reason, in his mind, was that "mMilitant leadership has been wiped out, so [that] has also impacted the militancy in Kashmir."