The Other Face Of The Evil That Is Lashkar
9 December 2005
New Delhi: Ejaz Butt's extraordinary story illuminates the lives of the foot soldiers of the organisation'sjihadin Jammu and Kashmir. 'N.Y.,' SCREAM the bright orange letters on Ejaz Ahmad Butt's blue winter cap, the iconic initials of a city he knows from Hindi pop films, along with Mumbai, Manali, and New Delhi. He claims to have watched the remake of Devdas over a dozen times, and can fluently mime the ultra-cool gangster character played by the action-film icon Ajay Devgan in Company. He is, in other words, just your average South Asian teenager. And then again, he isn't. On the afternoon of November 14, Butt threw a grenade at police personnel near the Palladium Cinema in Srinagar's Lal Chowk and then hid out in a hotel building hoping to ambush the senior officials he knew would arrive soon afterwards. Two Central Reserve Police Force personnel and two civilians were killed in the attack, and 17 persons, including a Japanese photo-journalist, Takeshi Sakuragi, were seriously injured in the Lashkar-e-Taiba fidayeen squad attack. By early the next morning, a crack Jammu and Kashmir Police commando unit had succeeded in eliminating Butt's comrade in arms, who he knew only by his Lashkar-assigned nom de guerre, Abu Furqan. Unable to execute his mission, the 19-year-old Butt attempted to escape through the back of the hotel and was arrested - which is why he is known today by his real name instead of lying in an unmarked grave, identified in records as Abu Sumama. The making of a foot soldier In recent months, Indian newspaper readers have become familiar with one face of the Lashkar: highly-educated, impeccably bourgeois terror cell organisers like Tariq Dar, the pharmaceutical firm executive who helped fund the Deepavali serial bombings in New Delhi, or Shabbir Ahmad Bukhari, the Kashmir University law student who transported terrorists from hideouts in northern Kashmir to their targets in Srinagar. Butt is the other face of the Lashkar: a desperately poor villager who joined the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir for no real reason other than the Pakistani Rs.35,000 the organisation paid to his family. The son of a poor peasant family from the village of Mansoorabad, near the south Punjab city of Faislabad, Butt's journey into the Lashkar's ranks illustrates that while an ideology of religious hatred drives the leadership of Islamist terror groups in Pakistan, poverty plays not a small role in helping them build their armies. Educated in a government-run school until grade VII, Butt had to abandon his studies after the death of his father, Riyaz Ahmad. A daily-wage agricultural labourer, Riyaz Ahmad left behind a wife and three children. Soon after Riyaz Ahmad's death, Butt's mother, Rashida Butt, also passed away. His brother Nazir, who is now 15 years old, was too young to work; his sister Nahila was only a child. As the oldest man in his family, Butt now had to take responsibility for not just the sustenance but the emotional needs of his siblings. With no real skills, Butt was fortunate to find work at the Gauhar Bakery, a small-time factory in Mansoorabad, which paid him Rs.2,000 a month. While the money met his siblings' needs, the work was hard and held out no real prospects. Butt understood that he needed savings to pay for Nahila's eventual marriage, which his bakery job simply would not provide. Nor could he pay for an education for Nazir, something that would have given Butt's brother at least some chance of building a better life for himself. Joining the Jihad Abu Khubair arrived in Mansoorabad in mid-2003, a young Faislabad resident who had joined the Lashkar some years earlier and returned to work as a recruiter for the organisation after a tour of duty in Jammu and Kashmir. Abu Khubair had everything Butt aspired for: a job that seemed suffused with purpose and adventure; respectability in the community; above all, cash in hand. For the first time in life, Butt thought he could see a way out of his problems. Soon after he volunteered to join the Lashkar, Butt was despatched for a three-month daura, or training course, at the Dar-ul-Andlus camp, a three-hour walk across the mountains from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. A former Pakistan Army soldier, Javed Iqbal, taught several dozen recruits basic combat skills, including the use of pistols, grenades, and assault rifles. Iqbal also focussed on improving the physical skills of his students through long-distance hikes and drills. Much of the training time, however, was devoted to imbuing the Lashkar's peasant recruits with a rudimentary ideological framework for their task. 'We were told that Muslims in India were being murdered on a large scale,' recalls Butt, 'and that they were even prohibited from performing namaaz prayers in Jammu and Kashmir.' 'I was not much interested in these lectures, though,' he says, 'the weapons training was much more fun than all the stuff about religious duties.' During the Ramzan of 2004, Butt was sent back to Mansoorabad, and given a small stipend while he waited for orders. In October this year, just after the great earthquake that devastated much of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Butt finally received instructions to report to a Lashkar launching camp near the Line of Control in the Dudhniyal sector. On October 25, after three failed infiltration attempts, Butt and a group of five other Lashkar cadre succeeded in cutting the fencing along the LoC, and making their way to a hideout in the Rajwar forests, in the mountains above the north Kashmir town of Kupwara. If Butt had succeeded in making good his escape from Lal Chowk, and made his way back to Rajwar and then across the LoC, it is possible he would serve, as Abu Khubair did, as a recruiter for the Lashkar. 'If you have fought in the jihad in Kashmir,' he says, 'you are a hero amongst young people in my village.' He does not say what is obvious: that in Mansoorabad, and hundreds of other villages like it, there are no other ways for a young person with no money and no education to find respect and self-worth. To sociologists who have studied recruitment into urban gangs, the phenomenon will be familiar - as will its outcome. More likely than not, Butt will spend at least two decades in Indian jails. His action at the Lal Chowk could lead to his conviction on murder charges, which carry a life term. Given the fact that he is a Pakistani national, and has no friends in India, he is unlikely to receive the quality of legal assistance that could lead to a mitigation of the sentence. Even after his release, past experience shows, Pakistan is unlikely to accept him back, unless his family in Pakistan is able to produce documentation that establishes his nationality. Asked if he would like to send a letter to his family in Mansoorabad, Butt pauses to think, before answering slowly: 'It's better that they think that I am dead.'