In Burhan Wani’s Wake

  • Bilal Handoo
  • Publish Date: Jul 15 2017 9:09PM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 15 2017 9:09PM
In Burhan Wani’s Wake

                                                 File Photo: Mir Wasim/KI

How the celebrated militant’s life and death affected Kashmir’s resistance movement


Barely 15 days before government forces got their prized scalp in southern Kashmir’s Kokernag, the firebrand lawmaker Engineer Rashid suggested the Mehbooba Mufti regime to hold talks with Burhan Wani. If Pakistan and America could talk to militants, he argued, “Why can’t you talk to Burhan?”

But before the PDP-BJP government could even consider the suggestion, Kashmir’s “new icon” fell to the lethal intelligence-counterinsurgent network, only to emerge more dangerous in his grave. “Burhan tere khoon se, inquilab aayega,” went the slogan. “Burhan, from your blood, revolution will flow.”

And when the “Azadi” slogans resounded, former chief minister Omar Abdullah, during whose rule tenure Burhan had taken up arms, turned predictive: “Mark my words,” he tweeted, “Burhan’s ability to recruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media.” Omar was right.

Soon after the young gun’s death, masses turned up at Tral to get the last glimpse of their “beloved” guerrilla who had chosen jungles over a promising life. Never in Kashmir’s recent history had people reacted the way they reacted at Tral. Some 40 separate funeral prayers, attended by 2, 00, 000-odd mourners, made Burhan’s death a personal loss to everyone. 

The spot where his body was found was demarcated a “holy spot”. The mournful visitors showered flowers on and took home a handful of soil from his grave as a token of memory.

A day after his killing, around a dozen dissenters were shot dead in pro-Burhan protests across the valley. Burhan’s killing filled Kashmir with intense anti-India anger. The majority of the youth were ready to face bullets. In that “militant moment”, some pro-freedom leaders spoke about getting calls from the slain insurgent just days before his death. Those casting doubts on his integrity when he was alive came forward with condolences. All of a sudden, Burhan’s death forged perceptive unity among different shades of opinion in Kashmir.

On the streets, however, teenaged kids armed with sticks debarred public movement. Seen as the Hurriyat’s writ enforcers, these children had spun out of the joint resistance leadership’s control initially. Amid that street anarchy, even local unionist leaders were batting for the Hurriyat leadership, as they needed someone to talk to “restore some order”. The resistance leadership stuck to their old guard, calling for shutdown in Kashmir that lasted, intermittently, until February 2017.

For Delhi, Burhan’s killing became a diplomatic crisis after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, during his United Nations General Assembly speech on 21 September, 2016, described the “young leader” as a symbol of the “Kashmiri Intifada”. The killing became a turning point for Kashmir as it challenged Delhi’s long-held political posturing that “Kashmir is an integral part of India”. To thwart the crisis triggered by the tech-savvy insurgent’s death, the state responded with the 53 consecutive days of curfew and use of brutal force.

Ambulance drivers were roughed up, hospitals theatres were gassed and even the injured were put under custody. People were maimed and blinded as using pellet guns became the first response to protests.

By the end of the summer, Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP-BJP government had piled up over 90 dead bodies and left over 15,000 civilians injured. Some 4,000 government personnel also suffered injuries in the widespread clashes. Later, Mehbooba and her deputy Nirmal Singh claimed that the government forces would have given him a chance to surrender had they known about Burhan’s presence in Kokernag. But it hardly altered the ground mood.

Weeks later, as youngster after another disappeared from their homes only to surface on social media wearing fatigues and clutching AK-47s, Omar Abdullah’s prediction appeared to come true. Their online arrival into the militant fold was inspired by Burhan.

Despite the repression, the sense of fear in Kashmir’s youth fizzled out. “Suddenly after Burhan’s passage,” says Touseef Rizvi, a professor of psychology at Kashmir University, “it was as if the youth entered a cul-de-sac with no way out and, therefore, they exhibited a death wish.” Prof Rizvi blames frequent ordeal, uncertain atmosphere and traumatic experiences for the “death drive” in a person. “But it took a trigger in the form of Burhan’s killing to bring to surface this alarming wish in Kashmir.”

This “wish” dominated the scene, especially in South Kashmir, where burnt tyres, barricades and bricks became the defiant sign throughout the last summer and fall. Before dozens of school went up in flames during the uprising, their courtyards had hosted fiery speakers: “Our cause is just cause and for that we are ready to take pellet and bullet.” This campaign almost ran parallel to one Sufi cleric’s “Na Bhai Na” dissent chorus which forged unity among different shades of socio-religious organisations.

The “Burhan generation”, born and brought up amid militarisation and human rights abuses, challenged the traditional political posturing. “Unlike the 1990s generation,” says Azam Inqilabi, the militant commander turned separatist leader, “the present generation is countering Indian narratives of equating Kashmir’s indigenous freedom struggle with Pakistan and radicalisation. It’s no wonder that Mehbooba Mufti is hell bent on crushing this dissent. But such a policy is only bound to trigger more rage among the masses.”

Even as the militancy symbolised by Burhan increasingly becomes a popular mode of resistance, many insist that a peaceful political resolution is the only way out. Delhi, however, seems in no mood to bring all the stakeholders to the table. Instead, the Indian establishment is blaming “growing radicalisation and indoctrination” for Kashmir’s rage. Now, some police officers in Kashmir too are reading from the same page. “The young lot is being exploited by Pakistan and its sympathisers in Kashmir through radical thoughts,” says a top police officer posted in South Kashmir’s Shopian. “Otherwise, how is it possible that the traditional pacifist belts of South Kashmir that had exhibited restrain in 2008, 2010 became dissent pockets in 2016?”

Not many buy this argument. “Being a pacifist militant, Burhan Wani gave direction to Kashmir’s fourth generation,” says Javaid Mir, a militant commander in the 1990s. “He resorted to psychological warfare and made the Kashmir movement a youth-centric.” Burhan, Javaid says, “changed Kashmir’s ground reality”. Indeed: in the year since his killing, the ranks of local militants have grown to outnumber the “guest Mujahedeen” in Kashmir after many years. Of the 282 militants active in Valley now, 112 operate in South Kashmir, among them 99 are local.

“Bring them home,” Mehbooba had directed the police, referring to local militants. But the state’s police chief SP Vaid says they are working on multiple fronts to motivate the militants, who aren’t as battle-hardened, well-trained and well-equipped as their counterparts from the 90s.

Bringing them home is anything but easy, though. “Now the challenge for us is to combat Burhan Wani’s ideology as reflected in the outpouring of civilian sentiment over the killing of every militant,” says a DSP rank officer who asked not to be identified.

The Indian establishment concedes that the situation in Kashmir is dire. In fact, even Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has admitted that there is a “war-like” situation in Kashmir. But Delhi’s only response so far has been the use of ever more force. Last year, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had pledged to find a “permanent solution” to the situation in Kashmir within a year. In Srinagar, the statement was read as a threat to “eliminate” the resistance movement. 

“Growing alienation in Kashmir since last year is unfortunately being addressed militarily,” says Nasir Aslam Wani, provincial president of the National Conference. “For this, people can’t forgive the PDP, which earlier ushered in communal politics in the valley by entering into an alliance with the BJP. The political situation in Kashmir wasn’t as bad in Omar Abdullah’s time as it now.”

Retired Lt Gen DB Shekatkar, who has served in Kashmir and recently submitted a report to the Union government on wide ranging defence reforms, says Kashmir’s youth cannot be won over by force. “You can’t fire a nuclear bomb against a mindset,” he says. “The government will spend thousands of crores, send more troops, have conclaves in Delhi, but unless you speak to the people of Kashmir, stay with them, nothing will happen.”

MY Tarigami, the communist legislator whose home district of Kulgam witnessed massive protests last summer says when conflict becomes a way of life and a “cottage industry”, the government must cut down on use of force. “The military solution doesn’t make sense when people openly risk their lives to celebrate the passage of every militant,” he says.

Since last summer, Kashmiri youth have been increasingly drawn to “Burhan’s way” to challenge the status quo, says JKLF chief, Yasin Malik. “Even then, Delhi continues to handle Kashmir through its agencies like the NIA, the biased media, and through illegal acts such as the GST and getting a freedom fighter like Syed Salahuddin designated as a global terrorist.”

He adds, “The whole world acknowledges that ours is an indigenous youth-led movement. By pretending to be a victim of terrorism from Pakistan, India is desperately trying to divert attention of the global community from the situation in Kashmir.”

For the longest time, Kashmiris silently braved oppression and humiliation, Malik points out. “But young rebels like Burhan Wani have changed our response to occupation.”