The picture showing the desperate family members of Ehtisham Bilal with folded hands and tearful eyes, appealing the militant commanders to let him return home, marks another tragic chapter in the story of Kashmir conflict. Ever since the picture of Ehtisham, wielding a gun with an ISIS flag in the background, surfaced on social media, his family has been living a nightmare.
It is also a grim reminder of how educated Kashmiri youth, hailing from well-to-do families, shun education and comforts of life to join militant ranks and embrace a certain death. Given the short life-span of new local militant recruits, it’s akin to committing suicide.
Every time a Kashmiri boy joins a militant group, his picture brandishing a gun surfaces on the internet, and days later and in some cases months later we get to hear he has been killed in some encounter. Some only last for hours. Mohammad Rafi Bhat, an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology in Kashmir University, got killed within 40 hours of joining militancy, leaving his students and colleagues in shock.
If all they manage is to get killed, leaving their inconsolable families behind, we don’t need such poster boys for militancy. They leave home only to return home dead. With such promising lives cut short, it’s pointless to expect them to bring new lease of life to militancy.
Apparently, Ehtisham was “forced to join militancy” after he was beaten by a group of students at Sharda University campus in Greater Noida. However, it remains a mystery as to how he managed to find militant recruiters soon after.
Ehtisham’s decision comes close on the heels of the killing of Manan Wani. When Manan left his PhD studies at Aligarh Muslim University midway to join militancy, it surprised many people. After all, a number of other educated youth joined militancy after the killing of young militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016. Perhaps his decision looked out of sync with his impressive academic profile. His joining of militancy came at a time when other youth like Esa Fazli, a B.Tech student from Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University Rajouri, had joined militant ranks. After his joining, an MBA student Junaid Ashraf Sehrai, son of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat Chairman Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, also joined the militant groups.
These young men are seen to epitomize resistance in the face of repression. People eulogize them for some time after their death before they fade away and are consigned to distant memory.
Last year in November, Majid Khan, a bright student and popular football goalkeeper from Anantnag, joined Lashkar-e-Taiba, but soon after the militant group permitted him to leave on the request of his mother. It had prompted two more families to issue similar emotional pleas for the return of their sons. Another LeT recruit returned home after his mother’s tearful appeal in a video that was widely shared on social media.
One can imagine the pain and suffering of families of young militants, knowing that their days are numbered.
This year in April, the last phone call between Aitmad Hussain Dar, a trapped militant, and his father went viral on social media. Aitmad, an M.Phil degree holder and junior research fellow, broke down in tears during the telephone conversation. The brief but moving conversation reflected the personal and emotional cost borne by such families. Aitmad was killed along with his four accomplices in a gunfight soon after calling his family. He sounded exhausted, but he wanted to talk to his family. The helplessness in his voice still haunts me as he sought forgiveness from his Abuji (father).
The hide-and-seek with an over-powering opponent can be punishing. The militants, moving in small groups, grow weary. And when they seek refuge at somebody’s home, they become sitting ducks for the army, police and paramilitary forces. The trend is so familiar, even predictable.
One of the stark realities of armed conflict is that while we venerate the slain militants, we somehow ignore the fact that they are individuals like us with families, dreams and aspirations.
There is a general feeling of helplessness as more and more young people leave their families and studies only to return home dead. They don’t have the wherewithal to achieve their goal.
We may observe a day of strike and write angry social media posts, reporters may come up with heart-wrenching accounts next day, but it is impossible to be in the shoes of the family of a slain militant and bear the pain of separation. The pace with which we witness encounters and militant killings these days ensures that we have little time to ponder over the tragedy of such families before another family elsewhere loses its dear one to the chaos of the ugly war.
Meanwhile, we should spare a thought for Ehtisham’s family. Just imagine what thoughts would be flooding through his mother’s mind- perhaps he would be on his way home or perhaps he would be trapped somewhere and God forbid end up getting killed. His mother must be dying every moment. This is the tragic reality of this ugly war.