Rehmatullah, a 20-year-old who lives in the Akramabad region of Doda district (Jammu), aspired to become a doctor as a child. He no longer wishes to pursue medicine.
Two years ago, Rehmatullah was booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA) for being a threat to the maintenance of law and order. According to Rehmat, he was a boy of 18, when he was arrested from his home in Akramabad on August 12, 2016. After serving 18 months in Kot Bhalwal Central Jail, Jammu, he was finally released after the High Court quashed his detention.
He wants to become a militant now.
Although his story resembles tragedy of several such young militants in the Northern restive state, what is different here, is that this incident happened in Jammu, and not in multifold volatile Kashmir.
Rehmatullah says, "I was just like any other boy. I wanted to become a doctor. But now, I don't think that I will be able to work for India. Now that I know what their policies are and how they are targeting Kashmiris, especially Muslims, I can't work for them. I know that my career has been ruined."
His release from the long captivity was met by celebration in the Doda district. Rehmatullah was feted by throngs of locals, who called him 'chhota Burhan'. (Burhan Wani was a celebrated militant, whose killing had given rise to a slew of protests and unrest in the valley.) For them, Rehmat is nothing short of a hero. He himself believes that he is 'Burhan' and 'Zakir Musa'. "Until we don't get azaadi (freedom), we all are Burhan and Zakir Musa. Right now, I am telling you that I am Burhan and Zakir Musa," he asserts.
However, Rehmat’s release did not become a cause for celebration for everyone in the Chenab valley district. According to Gyanchand Bhagat, retired sports teacher from Doda, the problem with Kashmir and Doda (Jammu) is not political, but is socio-religious.
"This town is heavily populated with Kashmiri Muslims, who are trying to turn Doda into Kashmir. It’s a religious problem, and not political one," he says.
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times and a political analyst says: "Doda has vulnerability to communal polarisation since time immemorial, but even more so since the militancy has begun. There has been a background of communal polarisation. Ever since RSS has been making inroads into the state, the communal polarisation has escalated; also the insecurities of Muslims have enhanced. In Doda, Hindu fundamentalism and Muslim fundamentalism move parallelly. They complement each other and that has been a major concern in the past few years."
The indiscriminate pellet firing on the civilians in Kashmir has left a deep impact on Rehmatullah. The year 2016 witnessed the biggest civilians’ uprising after the death of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani. To control the masses, potentially lethal weapons like pellet guns were used ad libitum by the Indian armed forces.
In the wake of these incidents, Rehmatullah along with a few fellows, took out processions in Doda town. A huge crowd gathered in his support, protesting against the use of lethal pellets in the valley. While addressing the crowd, Rehmatullah had said, “If the Indian government won't stop the humiliation of the youth and civilians, we won't hesitate to pick up the guns. We won't hesitate to become another Burhan." This is how he came to be known as 'chhota Burhan'.
But interestingly, the dossier maintained at the office of the district magistrate, Doda says, "Rehmatuallh raised objectionable slogans, which showed disaffection, disloyalty and feelings of enmity towards Government of India and Government of J&K state. He was also accused of raising anti-India slogans and pro-freedom slogans like "Hume Kiya Chahye – Azaadi! Indian dogs go back!"
Rehmatullah has a different story to tell. His version of the incident has become the reason for his release from the prison. He discounts the police record and claims that the protest was silent; no slogans were shouted.
"I don't know why I was detained. I don't know why they thought that I was a threat to them. I don't know about them but I know about myself. The way pellets were showered on the civilians in Kashmir—as a human being and a Kashmiri—I couldn't bear all this. To condemn this, we led a protest in the Doda town. This is the only reason I think why administration detained me. India wants our generation to turn blind. How can we bear all this? And if we condemn by taking out a protest, they will detain us. This is my crime," he says.
Abdul Arshad, another local from the town, was also a part of the procession which was led by Rehmatuallh. He told Newsclick that the police report was a sheer concoction.
"I was also the part of the protest. It was a peaceful protest to condemn the turmoil in Kashmir. There was no stone-pelting and no anti-national slogans. Yes, he said that if Indian government won't stop humiliating the civilians, youth will pick up the guns. He spoke the truth and that's why he was detained, "said Arshad.
Rehmatullah challenges all the accusations against him and also claims that his age is wrongly stated in the police records. "I have been accused of pelting stones, but I never pelted any stone. After my detention, the locals had pelted stones, but I never did. Police had put all the offenses on me. It was a peaceful protest. Neither did I kill anyone nor did I hurt. They even said that I was 25, but I have just turned twenty. I was eighteen then," he laughs.
Inside the prison
Rehmatullah expressed his anger over the way he was treated in the prison. According to him, he was stripped naked and humiliated in front of everyone.
He also happened to meet Khurram Parvez – J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCSS) coordinator and a renowned human right activist from Kashmir, in the prison. On September 15, 2016, Parvez was arrested from his home in Srinagar, and was also detained under PSA. After spending almost 76 days in the prison, Khurram was finally set free, after the local court quashed his detention.
In the prison, Rehmatullah and Khurram developed an amicable relationship. For young Rehmat, Khurram became his elder brother and an idol.
Parvez told Newsclick, "In the jail, Rehmatullah was known for his melodious voice. He was the one raising azaan for prayers. He was shy, but very keen to hear the ideas of seniors in the jail. His questions only centered around the question: how do we struggle against injustice?"
Recalling how strong Rehmatullah was, Pravez confirmed that he was stripped naked and humiliated, which left “the young boy furious for weeks after the incident”.
While Rehmatullah was in the prison, his father Abdul Gani was facing trouble in hiring lawyers. Ongoing construction work at the home had to be stopped, and all the money was used to hire lawyers.
"It was a difficult time. I don't want to remember that. His mother used to cry all day. Locals used to visit us and sympathise. Lawyers deceived us and took all the money. I am illiterate, but I wanted my son to study and become a doctor. He was always a bright student. But now, he doesn't feel like doing anything," said Gani.
"The major percentage of youth picking up arms have a story of humiliation, or they are moved by the circumstances they see around them. They get impacted psychologically by seeing the plight of people around them. In majority of the cases, there is a lot of harassment. Even in Doda, which shares cultural linkage with valley, such cases are recorded. In Kashmir also, FIRs are filed when the person is already in detention. So, the harrasment and the conflict is pushing the educated youth to pick up arms. This is not what they aspire to be, but when they are in such a vicious environment, it’s difficult for them to escape this kind of state," Bhasin told Newsclick.
"I can't forget these two years. I was treated like an animal. Even animals are not treated like…," the young boy trailed off, mid-sentence, into silence.