Eleven-year-old Aamir Khan is homeless, doesn’t know who his parents are and doesn’t remember much of what happened to him when he was younger. But of one thing he is certain: the future. He is going to fight a war against India.
“We Muslims will set India on fire,” he said. “We will kill them and blow them up. I hope we will win this fight InshaAllah.”
Aamir is one of hundreds of men, women and children, young and old, who have signed up as volunteers to fight, at a registration camp set up by the Jamaat-e-Islami religio-political party in Karachi.
These volunteers are reacting to a series of events triggered on February 14 which nearly brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. Tensions were ratcheted up when a suicide bomber killed 40 Indian soldiers in Indian-Administered Kashmir’s Pulwama. This was deemed the deadliest attack since 2002.
In response, Indian planes violated Pakistani airspace. A day later, Pakistan shot down two Indian planes. One plane crashed in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir and its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan, was captured. However, in an attempt to de-escalate, Pakistan returned the pilot to the Indian authorities as a “gesture of peace” and Prime Minister Imran Khan urged for talks.
This fortnight’s riveting and nerve-wracking developments were significant for the Jamaat-e-Islami for whom Kashmir has long been a cause and a rally cry.
At the JI registration camp at Hasan Square, an office-bearer, Kabir Ahmed, took down the names and phone numbers of volunteers. “We need women and blood donors,” he explained. “Women have given their names as volunteers to protect buildings, bridges and defense installations.” They were preparing people with medical and rescue training in case war broke out with India. People who signed up were told that the party would contact them for training and they may be asked to work with rescue teams if the need arose. Of course, he added, it was fine if India “freed” Kashmir through dialogue but if the war were necessary, then they were ready to fight.
“Over 30,000 people have registered in Karachi alone,” said Hafiz Bilal, the president of the youth wing who happens to be a former student of the University of Karachi. The youth wing, with over 10,000 members, had organized the volunteer drive and set up camps in the city. “We take their names, cell numbers and they all are ready to protect the country with Jazba-e-Jihad (passion for jihad) and Jazba-e-Shahadat (passion for martyrdom).”
The Jamaat-e-Islami has backed a cause to “free” Kashmir for decades with its leaders attending rallies with Kashmiri leaders, including Hizbul Mujahideen head Syed Salahuddin and commander Mast Gul. An intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to comment on political parties, said that the JI had hosted Kashmir leaders at its offices in the past.
Syed Salahuddin interacted with Jamaat-e-Islami workers at its Karachi office a few years ago, the official said, adding that these visits give them a chance to interact with young people and make an impression.
The Indian government has banned the Jamaat-e-Islami in Kashmir for “unlawful association” and for activities “prejudicial to internal security and public order”. India did this, argued senior JI leader Naeem-ur-Rehman, because it knew “who provided the resistance” in the Kashmir jihad.
The JI has its own interpretation of the recent attack on Indian soldiers as well. “The Pulwama attack should not be declared a terrorist attack,” Naeem-ur-Rehman said while talking to SAMAA Digital at his office. “It should be said that the young man committed an act of jihad against state terrorism.” He said they considered jihad a religious duty. He added that no civilian was killed at Pulwama; soldiers were targeted.
This is not the first time the Jamaat-e-Islami has rallied behind a cause and perhaps been seen as influential enough to recruit people. Political analyst Tausif Ahmed Khan recalled how the party had put up banners and posters across the country in 1971 (before the creation of Bangladesh). “The Jamaat-e-Islami ran a similar campaign between September and October, 1971,” he said. “They developed a junoon in people and we all had seen the result.”
Tausif Ahmed Khan was in college in 1971 and remembered JI workers chanting “crush India” at the time. The problem is that Pakistan is isolated because of such groups, he argued. “When they talk about jihad, it is taken as proof that Pakistan interferes in Kashmir,” he added.
Indeed, the Jamaat-e-Islami has been quite public about its support for leaders of the “Kashmir Jihad”.
“Commander Mast Gul was close to the late Jamaat-e-Islami leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed,” said Brigadier (retired) Asad Munir, a former ISI official. “Qazi Hussain Ahmed used to take him to roadside rallies across the country.”
Asad Munir and Tausif Ahmed Khan argued that Pakistan needs to act against groups motivating people, especially young ones, towards violence. For his part, Munir said that the State should act against groups that motivate people towards jihad because, “the world does no longer tolerate jihad”.
“Whoever made this policy is responsible for all of this,” he said.
SAMAA Digital made repeated attempts to contact government officials for comment. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry was sent a message but he had not responded by the time this report was filed. This story will be updated accordingly if and when a response is given.
Meanwhile, 14-year-old Abu Hurairah was signing up at the Jamaat-e-Islami’s camp with his mother. She said she could sacrifice her child for Pakistan. “Our life is for Pakistan,” her son added. “We want Pakistan and India to repair their relationship because both countries will suffer a loss if they go to war.”