For a former terrorist to make the supreme sacrifice for the nation he originally fought against, makes for a gripping narrative. It happened this Republic Day when Lance Naik Nazir Ahmad Wani was awarded the posthumous Ashok Chakra, nation’s highest peacetime gallantry award. Wani’s wife Mehjabeen received the honour amid the Rajpath pageantry at the hands of president Ramnath Kovind, as a grateful nation watched with respect. Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacted with the Wani family at the President’s At-home at Rashtrapati Bhawan later in the evening. Present there, I could hear some words of consolation and encouragement by the PM to Mehjabeen, who looked pensive, brooding – even unaffected – by the majesty of the Indian State on display.
It would be a tragedy if Wani’s decoration does not mark a policy shift in Centre’s handling of Kashmir. Let me explain why it would be so. Wani was killed in action in November last year while engaging with terrorists in an encounter. He belonged to a group of men identified as Ikhwans. They began as terrorists, picking up a gun in the first flush of militancy that broke out in Kashmir in the early 1990s. This bunch soon got disillusioned with the infusion of Islamic Jihad in Kashmir politics after circumstances changed in the global terror scene and returned to the Indian fold. He belonged to that generation of Kashmiri men who had been there and done that so to say.
It was with the military and intelligence support provided by these men that the Indian forces could clamp down hard on terror leading to the successful 1996 elections and beyond. This collaboration with Indian state earned them twin hatred of Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatists. To add to their woes, an ungrateful Kashmir establishment dumped them with Delhi watching with benign neglect. Only by 2003-04, part rehabilitation happened with the likes of Wani getting absorbed in the forces, perhaps the killing of Kuka Parray acting as a trigger. But this did not end the larger neglect and threats that these men continued to face.
Cut to the summer of 2016, when Kashmir was scorching again after the killing of terrorist Burhan Wani, I happened to meet Liaqat Khan, one of the more famous Ikhwans, at his home in Anantnag in south Kashmir. Liaqat had crossed over to Pakistan in 1989 and trained for terror from Pakistani Punjab to Khosht and Jalalabad in Afghanistan. He waged war against India as a militant till the tide turned in the mid-1990s. Foreign Jihadis, free from the Afghan theatre, were flushed into Kashmir by Pakistan’s ISI, which injected the venom of Islamic Jihad into the Kashmiri narrative of separatism. As Liaqat said, they found Kashmiri cause was being overrun by the Jihad which made them uncomfortable.
This was clearly not their idea of Kashmir and the thought brought him back to the nationalist stream. Living a quiet life now, Liaqat talked about the price he and other Ikhwans were paying, with almost a permanent threat to their lives. Despite facing heat, Liaqat continued to hold the flag of nationalism in the hotbed of separatist sentiment in south Kashmir through his social media engagements.
His disillusionment has increased since then. When I touched base with him for this piece, he said that India does not have the guts to stand with the people who stand with it. ‘Indian State is still trying to find a middle path and not taking on the separatists as it should,” he told me. General Syed Ata Hasnain, who as GOC of Srinagar based 15 Corps of the Indian Army worked closely with the Ikhwans, believes that the neglect of the group is a fact and that more could have been done for them. He, however, sees some hope in Wani’s recognition. “While we tackle with Kashmiri alienation, it is for us to hold Wani as an icon and hero for the nation,” Hasnain said. It is hoped that in Modi government’s acknowledgment of Wani’s martyrdom is evidence of a long term thought of supporting pro-India sentiment to the isolation of separatism in Kashmir valley.