The rebel we loved

  • Ajaz Ahmad
  • Publish Date: Jan 3 2017 8:01PM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 3 2017 8:23PM
The rebel we lovedIllustration by Suhail Naqshband

Hizb commander Burhan Wani’s death too is not an unprecedented event but the reaction it evoked from the masses is definitely beyond the routine


The last I met was a dying rebel,

Bending low I heard him say:

“God bless my home in dear Cork City,

God bless the cause for which I die.”

 -          The dying rebel (An Irish ballad)


Once again Death is on the prowl in Kashmir randomly claiming its prey regardless of age or gender. Nearly hundred lives have already been lost during protests following the killing of the Hizb Commander Burhan Wani by the security forces on 8th July. The number of the maimed and injured runs into thousands. Protesters are on a rampage; in pitched battles between the protesters and the security personnel stones and arson are met with a hail of bullets and pellets. The whole valley is shut down and even internet and mobile telephony have been suspended; life is paralyzed because of a civil shut down as well as a strict curfew. 


File Photo

Death and violence are no strangers to Kashmir. Nor are the protests and the cycle of violence that follow. The three decades of turmoil have consumed many lives, each death setting up a vicious circle of violence that leads to more deaths. The killing of a militant commander is not an unprecedented event in itself. Even as such the shelf life of militant commanders is pretty brief especially if they happen to be high profile ones. Protests too are usual after these deaths. People mourn and violently protest against the killings of even unknown and unidentified foreign militants so much so that the security forces have now stopped handing over the bodies of these militants to the locals for burial. If the militant is a local expectedly the protests are more intense and widespread. The funerals of these militants present an eloquent contrast to the funerals of local politicians including even those who might have claimed a large following in their life time and even been elected to public office by the people. This was pretty much evident at the recent funeral of the state’s CM and the funerals of militants who died around the same period. The contrast does not come as a surprise either because whereas the mainstream politicians are seen as collaborators of a hated ‘occupying power’ and consequently despised or at best tolerated, the militants are seen as heroes who lay down their lives in a supreme sacrifice for a ‘cause’ that most people in Kashmir seem to identify with.


Hizb commander Burhan Wani’s death too is not an unprecedented event but the reaction it evoked from the masses is definitely beyond the routine. Hours after the news of his death broke, hordes of people descended upon his native place and they kept coming right through the night so much so that his funeral prayers were said again and again. The authorities shut down mobile services and the mobile internet but that didn’t prevent swarms of people from reaching Burhan’s village. The next day a strict curfew was imposed along the length and breadth of the valley but people broke security cordons and attacked police stations and security personnel. The rage continues unabated and the authorities except for imposing severe restrictions on movement and using brute force on the protesters appear to be clueless about how to control the situation. The killing of Burhan Wani has released a long bottled up genie and try as they might the people at the helm of affairs are not able to coax it back in. Consequently they are behaving like headless chicken resorting at times to unimaginative and befuddled measures like for instance banning newspapers and then disowning the ban. But for most part the authorities are lying low waiting for the storm to blow over by itself. That does not seem to be happening though.


What is it about the killing of one more armed rebel that has affected the people so much that it seems to have rekindled the flames of a revolution from what definitely looked like its ashes? Three decades is a long time in the history of a nation. People and circumstances change and since these are integral to a revolution or a movement that too undergoes transformations over time. The struggle against Indian ‘occupation’ in Kashmir started in the 1990s and it has passed through many phases. What started as a low-key armed rebellion soon turned into a mass movement and the year of 1990 saw almost the whole native population on the roads demonstrating against Indian ‘occupation’. Huge rallies and processions were the order of the day and for some time it appeared that ‘independence’ was just around the corner. The whole political edifice, that had originally grown out of people’s aspirations and then turned back to encroach upon the same, crumbled to dust. The masses ruled the roads and for once it was the writ of the common man that prevailed over everything. Of course there was chaos but it was accepted as a transitional state before a new order got established. All authority appeared to have collapsed and all the appendages of the state including the security paraphernalia were paralyzed. This did not last long though as the state finally mobilized its resources and clamped down with brute force, precipitously aborting the people’s mass movement. In the meantime droves of young men had chosen the path of armed resistance and a full-fledged guerilla war started which lasted nearly a decade. Ultimately however the might of the state prevailed. Militants were ‘neutralized’ or at times subverted and ultimately the armed rebellion was crushed and relegated to remote fringes. The penetration of the intelligence agencies increased and this together with the evolution of a potent counter-insurgency sponsored by the Indian forces sounded the death knell of the militant movement. The authorities managed to ‘sanitize’ the valley and militancy was very nearly wiped off. All that remained of it was the presence of a few foreign militants with whom people felt only a remote connection if any.


Photo: Mir Wasim/ Kashmir Ink 

After ‘sanitizing’ the valley the authorities started to consolidate their gains. There were attempts to mould the popular opinion. The mainstream was revived and alternative parties were created to contain dissent. The separatists barely managed their presence and those of them who couldn’t be subverted or converted were discredited through subtle propaganda gradually reducing them to a state of redundancy. For all appearances peace had returned to the valley. Only it wasn’t peace but a systematic and unrelenting suppression that sought to give an impression of peace. While the manifest symptoms of peoples’ unrest were dealt with, the basic issues continued to be disregarded. Instead the state tried to further consolidate its control by attempting to change the whole discourse. One of the gambits employed was channelizing the anger of the people towards the local political establishment and propping up alternatives. These alternatives were at times deliberately projected as ‘soft separatists’ aimed at poaching upon the constituencies of both the mainstream as well as the separatist camp. This propping up of alternatives ensured another advantage for India; the regional mainstream was rendered even more helpless and dependent on New Delhi making them more amenable to its dictates. However, this also meant further erosion of whatever remnants of credibility the mainstream had among people. This process of disempowering its ‘collaborators’ by successive regimes at New Delhi was in fact nothing new. It started soon after the ‘accession’, in 1953 to be precise, when Kashmir’s tallest leader Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah who had played an important role in acceding to India was unceremoniously dethroned and incarcerated. The ‘hero’ that the Kashmiri population had really looked up to went through stages of progressive humiliation and the tamed version that he finally turned into remains an object of derision for the common Kashmiri. The ‘hero’ got converted into a ‘traitor’ and it is this image that remains etched in the collective memory of the people who blame him for all the miseries they are facing. The process was repeated again and again adding to the list of traitors and turncoats who were locally seen as tyrants and lackeys of New Delhi.  A similar strategy was employed with the separatists as well. Some of them were lured to switch sides. Those that remained steadfast – at least apparently –were subjected to attrition by the authorities by giving an appearance of engaging with them and then dumping them besides discrediting them through subtle propaganda as well.


This process was continued outside the political arena as well. Any Kashmiri who made a mark in sports or academics or cracked a prestigious national level exam was readily appropriated by India and made part of its alternative discourse. These otherwise commendable achievers were sought to be showcased like tame inhabitants of a zoo presenting them as a counter-argument to the ‘wild and misguided delinquents’ meaning those who were not willing to accept an ‘occupying power’. Meanwhile the basic issues remained unaddressed and unchanged. The aspirations of the people were thwarted and human rights violations continued to be violated with impunity. Instead of fostering sustainable development the local population was progressively degraded and made helplessly dependent on sops and doles which barely sustain it and that too at an immense cost in terms of identity and at times even dignity. To add to this desolate scenario the very party that projected itself as ‘soft separatists’ merged with a party whose very manifesto is radically opposite to that of Kashmiri aspirations. This merger and the gradual unveiling of the agenda of the saffron party further alienated the common man.  


Because of continued repression and increasingly disillusioned by the betrayals of their own, the Kashmiri people have nowhere to turn to. At a time when the restive population desperately needs a leader to channelize its anger and aspirations there is a vacuum of leadership in Kashmir. The mainstream, mainly represented by two parties forever bickering between themselves as they desperately seek a foothold in coalitions with the Indian parties, is seen as an opportunistic helpless bunch that cannot even fulfill the mundane promises they make. The separatist camp is a divided house with most of its jaded and unimaginative leaders having failed to come up with an enduring vision or strategy. Their role is atavistic at best. In such a scenario it is natural for apathy to creep in but this apathy is ultimately just a façade that conceals the seething anger within. Years of repression make people docile as individuals but generate a collective anger which keeps building up and then bursts out as mob fury. This desperation and rage has lately been making an appearance every now and then like whenever militants are trapped in an encounter people come out violently in their support and try to divert the security forces. This is a new phenomenon the spontaneity of which gives a lie to the claims of the rebellion being a sponsored one.


It is usual for nations and communities to fall upon the memory of heroes to sustain hope and pride when under duress. Heroes in the ultimate analysis are a representation of collective imagination, an imagination that seeks relief from desolation and despair. A beleaguered and emasculated population desperately needs a hero to regain a modicum of hope and self respect. The Kashmiri nation draws a blank here also for all its heroes are either long dead and forgotten or have been systematically discredited. There is a yawning vacuum. That’s where Burhan Wani comes in.


Burhan Muzzafar Wani came from an affluent and educated background. His father is Principal of a higher secondary school and his mother a science post-graduate. Burhan is said to have joined militancy days before he was to appear for his 10th class examination and the incident that converted a young teenager into a militant commander is already part of the legend that he has become. It is said that when he was 15 years old he was enjoying a bike ride with his brother and a friend when they were intercepted by the Indian security personnel who asked them to buy cigarettes for them and then also beat them up and damaged his brother’s new bike. Burhan swore revenge and six months later joined the ranks of the Hizbul Mujahideen. His elder brother Khalid, a post-graduate student, was later killed by the security forces in 2015 when he had gone to meet Burhan in the forests of Tral. Police claimed that he was a militant sympathizer and was taking new recruits to his brother but his family has consistently refuted this version.



Photo: Mir Wasim/ Kashmir Ink 

The humiliating episode that Burhan faced is a routine that most Kashmiris have learnt to live with but in his case the incident appears to have acted like a spark and exploded the powder keg of rebellion within him. The extended Wani family has a rather long list of young men who are or were part of the militant movement and even Burhan’s father admits that he would have joined the movement sooner or later, the incident only precipitated it. Yet Burhan might have been one of the hundreds of young man who chose to pick up the gun but that is not how the story goes. Burhan did not end up as just another armed rebel; he broke taboos and set new trends. He dispensed with the face-mask, the identification tag of guerilla fighters, and not only did he not keep his identity a secret but he actually went forth to announce it boldly. Being tech savvy he posted regular messages and his own pictures and videos on the internet which invariably went viral. This defiance gave an altogether new dimension to the decades old struggle in Kashmir against what is perceived as ‘occupation’ by India. It is this statement of defiance that also made him a high profile target. Indeed though Burhan Wani might have masterminded some attacks on the security forces it was not that but his brazen presence on the social media that made him a big threat.


Youthful and contemporary, Burhan Wani breathed new life into a movement that had been gasping since long. Projecting his rebel persona with panache he was an ideal counterfoil to the youth icons projected by the ‘occupying power’. All those bold pictures and videos which may have at times given an appearance of bravado bordering on foolhardiness, turned out to be a potent strategy. The youth found it easy to identify with the boy-next-door looks of this academically bright, cricket playing youngster from an affluent and educated background. Burhan brought back a youthful spirit and romantic idealism to the armed rebellion effectively divesting it of the ‘terrorist’ label. At last here was someone who could perhaps have earned laurels in sports or academics but preferred to choose the rigors of a rebel’s life. His background, the reason behind his joining the militancy combined with his ingenuous appearance in videos that showcased days in the life of an armed rebel gradually built him up into a folk hero. The fact that Burhan never crossed the LOC and was a wholly ‘indigenous’ product not only made it more easy to identify with him but also made him the brand ambassador of a rejuvenated local armed struggle. It didn’t take him long to become an icon for today’s youth who may be far removed from the struggle of 90s but have been baptized into the conflict by the bloodbath of 2008 and 2010. No wonder then that he attracted a fan following with some of the fans actually taking the step of joining him.


Burhan’s life and his death, complete with a hint of betrayal by his own people, reads like a typical rebel ballad. His killing has only served to complete the legend that he had become in his lifetime. In fact death has catapulted Burhan onto an even bigger role. For if in life he seemed to represent people’s aspirations and inspired the youth to take to the armed struggle, his death seems to have uncorked the repressed rage of the masses and inspired them to re-launch a revolution. In his death Burhan has actually lived up to his name – Burhan means ‘testimony’ in the Arabic language and the testimony is there for everyone to see. It is there in the rage of the masses out there on the roads and it is there in the sullen silence of the civil shutdown. But then it does not necessarily take a pellet gun to render people blind. Prejudice and vested interests masquerading as patriotism sometimes does that far more effectively.