Every Friday, 21-year-old Irfan Ahmad (name changed) waves Pakistan and Islamic State (IS) flags outside Jamia Masjid, the main mosque of Srinagar, to protest atrocities carried by the State forces.
Like many other youth, Irfan believes Kashmir issue will remain unresolved till a plebiscite is conducted as promised by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.
After Friday congregational prayers, a few masked youth assemble outside the Jamia Masjid in downtown and unfurl Pakistan and IS flags amid anti-India slogans.
“Bookha Nanga Hindustan, Jeeve Jeeve Pakistan. Hum Kya Chahte Azadi,” Irfan and his friends raise slogans before they escape through the narrow congested downtown lanes to avoid arrest.
Hoisting Pakistan flags in Kashmir valley is not a new phenomenon. Every time Pakistan cricket team wins a match, Kashmiris come out on streets in jubilation, wave Pakistan flags and distribute sweets.
But lately, the hysteria created by some national news channels prompted youth to go an extra mile by waving IS flags in anti-India protests.
Sameer (name changed), 23, a salesman, who has been taking part in similar protests since the 2008 uprising, says he would continue to wave Pakistan and IS flags.
“It is our way of resistance. We can’t take up guns and fight but we can contribute in some way,” Sameer said.
On how much he knows about IS, Sameer says he and his friends watch videos of IS on YouTube and are impressed with them.
However, none of the boys seem keen to join IS.
“Let us wait and see what unfolds in future,” says Sameer.
An IS flag was first unfurled in Kashmir on July 11, 2015, during a pro-Palestine protest outside Jamia Masjid. Since then, the flag has been a consistent feature in the protest in addition to the Pakistan, Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) flags.
On July 21, Kashmir observed a complete shutdown when activists of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal in Rajouri torched an IS flag which bore sacred Islamic text.
The call was given by Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI).
Both the hardline and moderate factions of the Hurriyat Conference and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) extended their support to the call.
Pakistan flag and Hurriyat
Even though waving Pakistan flag was a common practice in Kashmir, during the past few years it had slightly died down till it made a return on April 25, 2015, when hardline Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Geelani returned from New Delhi after spending winters in the capital.
Waiting outside the Srinagar airport, Geelani’s supporters waved Pakistan flags on his arrival and raised pro-freedom slogans. However, the event snowballed into a major controversy after Muslim League Chairman Masarat Alam Bhat raised slogans in favour of chief of the Jamat-ud-Dawah, Hafiz Sayeed, an alleged prime accused in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
Alam was arrested while an FIR was registered against Geelani after the government succumbed to the national media's pressure.
However, Pakistan flag resurfaced on May 20, 2015, at a rally held by another Hurriyat leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
Supporters of Mirwaiz were seen waving Pakistan flags and raising pro-Pak slogans at a rally in Srinagar's old city area.
On August 14, Dukhtaran-e-Millat (DeM) chairperson Asiya Andrabi unfurled a Pakistani flag in Srinagar on the country’s Independence Day.
Even though the Army and Police have refuted any threat of IS presence in Kashmir, they have expressed concerns on surfacing of IS flags during street protests and clashes.
On August 26, former General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, Lt General Subrata Saha ruled out any IS threat in Kashmir. He said “there is no immediate threat but Army is watchful”.
Police officials say all those who had been arrested on charges of waving IS flags had done so only to provoke New Delhi, and these youth did not owe allegiance to any ideology.
“Most of the youth whom we interrogate don’t even know what ISIS is. They just do it only to draw the media attention, and be on news channels,” a senior police officer said. “It is just a gimmick to annoy Government of India,” he added.
Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani termed the waving of IS flags as an act “against discipline and wisdom.”
As per Geelani, unfurling of IS flags gives a reason to New Delhi to defame Kashmir struggle by linking it with global terrorism.
“Such acts provide New Delhi a reason to defame our just and genuine freedom struggle before the world community. They (New Delhi) correlate it with global terrorism to prepare an adverse environment for Kashmir movement in international forums,” Geelani said.
However, Kashmir is seen as a potential recruiting ground for IS, largely because of people’s preference for Pakistan and India’s alienation towards them.
On July 23, Indian National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval visited Kashmir and held deliberations with Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed and the security top brass. They discussed strategies to be adopted for restraining youth from joining militancy.
According the official data, around 60 young men have joined militants in the last five months in the militant stronghold of south Kashmir.
A new poster boy of militancy, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani of Tral carries a bounty of Rs 10 lakh.
He is fast emerging a favourite among youth and his photographs and videos are widely shared and praised on social networking sites across the Valley.
Recently, a group of young boys were seen holding posters of Burhan, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, during Friday protests at Jamia Masjid.
Professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches Law at the Central University of Kashmir said that sense of alienation and trust deficit with New Delhi has pushed youth to violence.
“It was due to this sense of alienation that youth are being pushed to wall and compelled to take extreme steps,” Hussain said.
In 2008 and 2010 uprising 191 people mostly teenagers were killed in the “peaceful” protests. No one has been booked till date.
Hussain opines that after 2008, there is a rage among youth and more they are being pushed the more violent means they are adopting.
“Waving Pak and ISIS flags are a part of that anger, and more the media will exploit it the frequent such incidents will occur,” Hussain said. “That’s why in every protest more flags like those of Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) are being unfurled,” he added.