Tempted that I was to write and analyse the effects of a potential Trump-Taliban agreement facilitating full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, I shelved that in favour of something a majority of Indians would have no idea about. It’s about the Ikhwans, the supposed renegades of Kashmir, who once fiercely fought the Indian Army but then agreed to surrender and joined hands with the Army and the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the J&K Police (JKP) to become what are often called in strategic language, ‘counter groups’. This is in context to the conferment of the posthumous Ashok Chakra on late Lance Naik Nazir Ahmad Wani of Kulgam, J&K on Republic Day 2019.
The media made it known that Wani was a former militant who was from the Ikhwan group and belonged to 162 Infantry Battalion Territorial Army JAK LI (Home and Hearth) or 162 Inf Bn TA JAK LI (H&H). None of this made any sense to most because the complex J&K proxy war has so many nuances that it is difficult for the public to be aware of such things. It has gone on for 30 years in which a generational change has taken place. Joining the dots of issues and events of these 30 years is a long exercise. Perhaps just an explanation is sufficient to familiarize the public with Ikhwans and TA (H&H).
The Ikhwans were simply those local Kashmiri militants, who after initial forays under Pakistan ISI sponsorship against the Indian Army in the early nineties, decided to switch sides and work for India instead.
The empathy that the ISI displayed for the Kashmiri separatists and especially the militant groups proved hollow when many of the smaller groups realised the derogatory manner in which the ISI treated the local Kashmiris. The option of being with India was much more appealing to these locals who operated under the group title Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen (Ikhwan meaning brotherhood).
Some prominent names were among the leaders, all well-known to those who have stayed in Kashmir. These were Yusuf Parray (famously known as Kuka Parray), Liaqat Khan, Usman Majeed and Javed Ahmad Shah, among others. Each of them put his life on the line to convert and become Indian patriots. The Ikhwan cadres ventured into supporting the Indian Army and the newly raised Rashtriya Rifles (RR)—also an Army organisation raised for anti-militancy operations. They were deployed in small numbers with RR units primarily to provide better eyes and ears due to their intense local knowledge which proved to have a force multiplication effect.
Two sub-groups of the Ikhwan existed, one each in North and South Kashmir. The Ikhwan presence with the Army and the SOG helped curb militancy to a large extent. In fact, the foreign mercenaries inducted from Afghanistan to Kashmir by the ISI were mostly neutralised in these intense operations thus drying up that pipeline and forcing the ISI to open a fresh pipeline of Pakistani terrorists belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and other groups after 1996. The status of domination achieved by 1996 helped the government to decide to conduct state elections in 1996, just seven years after the inception of the proxy war.
The only unfortunate aspect of this phase was the lack of effective social control exercised over the Ikhwan by the Indian Army. Enjoying the Army’s patronage and living under its shadow they fell afoul of the local population who saw in them betrayers of the cause. Their deeds were not in keeping with the strict moral code of the Army. Many were killed in operations but their families were not suitably compensated. To formalise and codify their employment it was decided to raise a specific TA unit for them, train them under the Army’s strict code and then employ them in uniform.
Thus 162 TA Bn JAK LI (H&H) was raised and the Ikhwan cadres enrolled with requisite ranks as per their then existing hierarchy. The H&H concept was a rare experiment with eight such units manned on the ‘son of the soil’ concept. It meant that troops recruited from the area would permanently be deployed in the same area to make use of their affinity with local conditions to fight against those involved with proxy war. The 162 Inf Bn (H&H) was, of course, special.
Wani was enrolled in this unit in 2004 and went on to be decorated twice with the Sena Medal (Gallantry). On November 25, 2018, while in an operation with 34 RR against six terrorists in South Kashmir’s Batagund village, he remained at the forefront while guiding the RR troops and using his extensive experience in flushing out terrorists. He personally killed two and injured a third, but died fighting.
While the rest of India was deeply anguished watching Wani’s wife and mother at the investiture ceremony prior to the Republic Day Parade, Kashmir did not shed a tear for its deceased and valorous son. This is the unfortunate paradox. Neither we as a nation have done enough to compensate the Ikhwans for their sacrifice for the nation, nor has Kashmir’s society forgiven them for their alleged excesses during the early years of the militancy. The remaining Ikhwans exist between these awkward statuses of their past and their present. The 162 Inf Bn TA (H&H) still has many of them on its rolls but India needs to hold their hand longer and stronger to display that those who sacrifice all for the nation are always to be respected.
An effort to get the Kashmiri people to also rejoice in their recognition needs to made but will prove a tough proposition considering that not one mainstream politician of Kashmir complimented and recognised the sacrifice of the family.
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps