Recruitment announcements & Punishment videos: Hizb changes its public messaging in Kashmir

On July 8, a WhatsApp message went viral in Kashmir. It seemed to console the unsuccessful “applicants” in a recruitment drive. But this was no ordinary job.

“We have got thousands of applications and requests from Islam and Freedom loving youth of J&K, but we have chosen a selected group of brothers and have kept the rest of brothers in waiting,” the message read.

The message was believed to have been sent out by the Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir’s largest indigenous militant group. It spoke of “extensive recruitment of mujahideen all over Kashmir”. “We request all those brothers who have been kept in waiting to not lose hope and be steadfast, as very soon you will be called to join the ranks Insha Allah,” the message continued. “Hizbul Mujahideen JK will always uphold the principles of Justice and will continue to be on the forefront of Freedom struggle of Kashmir. We appeal our people to stay calm and steadfast on the mission of Mujahideen brothers.”

The message went out two years to the day Burhan Wani, the Hizb commander credited with helping revive the militancy in Kashmir, was killed by the security forces. His killing had sparked mass protests that went on for nearly four months, during which the security forces killed over a hundred civilians, and a surge in militancy.

Wani became a household name in Kashmir as he went about crafting a new public face for the militancy. Social media was flooded with pictures of militants and their video and audio messages for the public. The famous picture of Wani surrounded by 10 other armed men which went viral in 2015 came to represent the militancy’s new wave: militants had shed their masks and the fear of being tracked down and killed.

In the wake of the protests following Wani’s killing, another poster of militants went up across villages in South Kashmir, heralding the next batch of the armed rebels.

Through 2017, however, the videos kept dwindling and the Hizb’s public messaging saw a subtle change. The exuberance of the earlier videos was gone, though Wani’s name was still used in recruitment drives that seemed to mirror those conducted by the security forces. Police officials said the first such drive was held around Wani’s first death anniversary. It was termed as “Burhan Barti”, or Burhan’s recruitment.

Ahead of Wani’s second death anniversary, a series of WhatsApp messages from the militants went viral in the Valley. “Hizbul Mujahideen Tral is going to recruit Youths from various villages of Tral on account of 8th July that is Shaheed Commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani Rehemullah’s day,” one read. “So Hurry up and contact the Hizb commander Tral to get the opportunity to be a part of the Hizb caravan in the Freedom of Kashmir. So hurry up and dont miss the chance.”

The message came with a poster featuring the groups’s most recognisable face, Riyaz Naikoo, against a bright background. The Hizb’s logo was placed in the top left corner and a black flag with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock in the right corner. It was printed with the words: “We will not only establish Khilafat in Kashmir but the whole world.”

Another consolatory message circulated three days after Wani’s death anniversary stated that the Hizb was “very pleased and thankful to see the love of a large number of youth towards the way of jihad” and that the organisation “on behalf of this love and will power is requesting youths to please do not get [sic] disturbed, disappointed, discouraged or frustrated.” The group, it added, was “keenly working on this issue to active more and more youths with Hizb caravan”.

New faces
It is now established practice to announce every new entrant into the militancy with a picture and particulars: age, parents, residence, educational qualifications, “date of activation”, and the organisation joined. Pictures of over 30 militants were released during this month’s “Burhan Barti”, though not all of them were new recruits. “These were all militants who had already joined militancy,” claimed a senior police official. “They have just released it all together now. It is theatrics. There is nothing worrying about it.”

One young man from Tral was “activated” as a militant on July 6. One each from Kupwara and Sopore in North Kashmir joined on July 7 while another from Tral appeared as a rebel on July 8.

The recruits whose pictures were circulated included former security personnel such as Naseer Pandit, the policeman who ran away to join the Hizb and was shot dead by the security forces in April 2016.

Already, some of the new faces and names of the militancy have become familiar in the Valley. On July 16, the Hizb mailed a letter to Current News Service, a local news agency. It was written by Mannan Wani, who was studying for a PhD at the Aligarh Muslim University when he joined the militant group in January.

Wani’s long letter detailed his reasons for joining the militancy, took down the Indian state and its treatment of Kashmir and Kashmiri politicians, and addressed questions about the role of Islam in the militancy. It claimed to be an “insider’s view”, a rebuttal to “collaborators”, “human rights defenders” that have become “business monsters”, and the media.

Much was made of Wani’s educational qualifications when he joined the Hizb, bolstering the image of the new wave of militancy as driven by thinking, committed men. The new batch of recruits apparently featured at least one PhD student, Waseem Rather from South Kashmir’s Kulgam, who joined in May. Another picture confirmed the recruitment of Shams ul Haq, a doctor and the brother of an Indian Police Service officer. Rumours of Haq joining the militancy had been afloat since May.

Tariq Shameem, a cleric from Shopian who joined the Hizb in April, has become another recognisable face. A video of him reprimanding the youth for shouting slogans in favour of Zakir Musa had gone viral in the Valley in May. Musa was part of the Hiz until last May, when he left to start the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind.

According to state police officials, the Hizb has taken most of the new recruits since Wani’s killing, followed by the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed. During the Ramzan ceasefire, the old militant group Al Badr witnessed a revival, the police claimed.

‘Punishment videos’
While videos from Wani’s time usually showed militants training in the mountains or playing cricket, more grim material had gained currency of late. Militant groups call these “punishment videos”.

Every few weeks, a video emerges showing either a group of militants punishing a suspected police informer, a bootlegger, a pimp, or an individual who confesses to being all three. The videos have provided the militants “leverage” over the state in an environment charged with anti-India sentiment, said a resident of South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. “Earlier, the videos had a youth appeal, to connect with youth, but torture is new,” he said.

There is emphasis on adultery, bootlegging and alcohol consumption, he said. “People get nervous after these videos as they send out a message that we are watching you,” he said, referring to the militants.

While public punishment for “moral crimes” has been a feature of the militancy in Kashmir since the 1990s, the use of social media to broadcast it is new. “It is to entice people to the militancy and reinforce the narrative that the militants are on the correct path,” the Kulgam resident said. “That they are here to not only fight India but also to take care of the moral aspect of the society that is degraded by India’s cultural aggression, as they put it.”

Most messages circulated on social media have names such as Hamzah Hizbi, ReBel Ds, Kamu, Shopiyanuk Kot printed on top. Police officials suspect most of the names refer to overground workers, or non-combatant members of the militant groups, who have been tasked mainly with logistics and the handling of social media.

The Kulgam resident said a perception had taken root that “if there are no militants, our society would be more morally degraded”. “They are winning the narrative,” he said. “Operations don’t wipe out these sentiments.”

Police officials dismissed the hype around “Burhan Barti” as mere “theatrics”, but admitted the increasingly organised use of social media was cause for concern. “It is a direct attack on our strategy to connect with the masses,” a senior police official said. “It seems like old propaganda groups that we had but more secretive and organised. And dangerous.”

Though the Hizb has found new means of signalling its presence, Wani’s style of social media messaging may not have faded just yet. On July 13, another group photograph of militants appeared online. Reminiscent of the famous 2015 poster, this one featured 14 militants, most of them new recruits, in what seems to be an orchard. As per the new norm, they were armed and unmasked.