Job-starved Kashmiri Youth Turn A New Leaf, Dare To Don Olive Green

29 November 2015
The Hindustan Times
Toufiq Rashid

Srinagar: From a militant's son to a soldier in the Indian Army, 21-year-old Tahir Ahmad Mir has come a long way. Dressed in combat fatigues with close-cropped hair, rifleman Mir was a picture of pride as he took the oath with 145 recruits to join the latest batch of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI) last week. Mir, who hails from the frontier Vilgam area in North Kashmir's Kupwara district, trained hard since December 19, 2014, to break many a barrier in his journey to becoming a soldier. In 1991 when militancy was at its peak, Mir's father had crossed over to Pakistan to become a militant. Twenty-five years on, he was instrumental in inspiring his son to join the Indian Army. 'My father never wanted a life for me that he had chosen for himself. He said I should not repeat his mistakes,' said rifleman Mir, adding that his father had given up the gun to run a fruit business. Job security at early age big draw: Interestingly, 23 recruits in Mir's batch hail from Kupwara, once a hotbed of militancy in the Kashmir Valley. The overwhelming response to the recruitment rallies are an indicator of the growing number of Kashmiri youth opting for a career in the army. The aspirants aged between 18 and 23 years were bought up in the shadow of the gun but are now seeing a career in the army as a chance to a secure future, and a normal life. The dearth of jobs in the valley and the security of a government job at a young age are factors that are driving the Kashmiri youth to the army. Waseem Nabi, 20, who was a BSc first-year student before he got recruited, says: 'An army job means a respectable life at an early age. Besides, I don't want to fight to take away life. I want to fight for life.' Nabi had turned up for the recruitment rally last year with 30 other youth from Hajvera village in Baramulla. Though he was the only one selected from among them, he says the rest will try again. 'I have observed the army closely. Whether it was the 2005 earthquake or last year's floods, the army came to our rescue. Donning the uniform gives me a sense of pride and a purpose in life,' says Yasir Bhat, 18, who hails from Qazigund in Kashmir's volatile Anantnag district. Bhat is undergoing basic military training at the regiment's Dansal centre, 60 km from Jammu. 'The army offers a decent salary with pension. I feel secure that my family will be taken care of even if something unfortunate happens to me,' says Mubassir Rashid Wani, 19, another recruit from Anantnag. Overwhelming response to recruitment rallies: Trainers at the JAK LI training centre at Rangreth in Srinagar say that the response to the recruitment rallies held exclusively for relatives of soldiers from Kashmir generates an overwhelming response apart from the ones organised for general aspirants. 'The three-day rally in March 2015 saw 40,000 Kashmiri candidates turning up for 50-odd vacancies. On Day 1 itself, there were 20,000 aspirants,' says Lt Col YK Pathak, the centre's training in-charge. He clarifies that the number of recruitments depends on the vacancies created and retirements due so it's not proportional to the number of aspirants turning up. Young army recruit during training at an army base on the outskirts of Srinagar. (Waseem Andrabi) The centre is equipped to train 800 recruits at a given point. 'In the past five years, our intake has been 3,500 soldiers and they are all between 20 and 25 years (born during militancy). At present, we are a regiment of 16,000 plus soldiers in the age group of 18 to 40 years,' Lt Col Pathak says. Army recruits far outnumber those joining militant ranks. This year, for instance, only 30 youth joined militants. The army says 60 local Kashmiri militants are active at present. 'No trust issues, we follow army norms': The long queue for recruitment might generate interest among onlookers today but trainers say that JAK LI has always been in demand, even in the peak of militancy. 'We were never deficient even in the early '90s,' says regiment training centre commandant Brigadier Suresh Chavan. 'The 40,000 soldiers and veterans from this regiment bear witness to the fact that Kashmir has produced more soldiers than anti-nationals,' he said. 'There are no trust issues and no specific background checks required in Kashmir. We follow the qualification requirements and procedures that other regiments in the army follow. Besides, have you ever heard of a soldier from this regiment being involved in any anti-national activity?' Brig Chavan says. In fact, in February 2011, a few months after more than 100 youth were killed in street protests, 10,000 youth turned up for the recruitment rally. Havaldar Sajad Ahmad from Qazigund in South Kashmir, who joined the army in 1995, says: 'I felt it's better to be a soldier than a militant.' Ahmad says his village has produced many officers as well. Moving up the ranks: 'In this training centre, more than 10 recruits in the past few years have gone on to become officers after taking internal exams,' says Lt Col Pathak. Recruit Masood Ashraf Rather, 21, a graduate who left his post-graduation course in tourism to join the army, is being counselled to take the exams. 'My aim was to qualify for the National Defence Academy (NDA) but I was over 18, while the cut-off age is 17-and-a-half, so I chose to become a soldier. Now my officers are guiding me to take the qualifying exam to become a captain,' says Rather, who has seen his uncle fall prey to militant bullets. 'The army has been my dream career and the uniform always fascinated me,' he adds. Brig Chavan admits, 'Now there is acceptability. There was a time when our soldiers would call home before going on leave to check if it was safe. Many would cancel leaves during the peak of militancy.' Lack of options driving youth to army job ? Hardline Hurriyat spokesman Ayaz Akbar says, 'Youth are turning up for army recruitment rallies because of unemployment. There is a dearth of jobs in Kashmir. Long queues mean the youth have no option. It doesn't mean they are disregarding their sentiments.' Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra, the political adviser to J&K chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, says: 'The youth in Kashmir have been always fascinated by jobs in security forces. We have been seeing youth turning up in large numbers for even police and CRPF recruitment rallies. There are very few career opportunities in Kashmir. Besides, now people are not averse to joining forces. We have J&K police with a strength of 1.25 lakh and the Territorial Army personnel are locals. The same is the case with the JAK LI.' Altaf Hussain, a former chief of bureau of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Srinagar, says 'It (the surge in Kashmiris joining the army) is a paradoxical situation which shines light on the dilemma of an average Kashmiri who harbours anti-India sentiment but is also desperate for a job.' Urban Kashmiri youth yet to warm up: Recruitments are higher from the hinterland, smaller towns and the rural areas of Kashmir. Youngsters from urban Kashmir such as Srinagar and areas such as the separatist bastion of Sopore are still to opt for a career in the army. Even officers believe that the real barrier would be broken when the army becomes a career option for the youth in urban Kashmir as well. (With inputs from Tarun Upadhyay in Jammu)