• Publish Date: Jul 8 2018 10:30PM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 8 2018 10:32PM




The songs of valour ran on loudspeaker all through the night. By the time sun shined on Sapot village, the playground was packed to its capacity. Young men jostled to have last glimpse of slain Lashkar-e-Toiba militant Shakoor Ahmad Dar who was killed in a fierce gun battle with government forces in Qaimoh on June 25. Among them was Suhaib who had come all the way from Pampore, along with his friends, to attend the funeral.

“They can’t defeat our will,” Suhaib turned to his friends as pro-freedom slogans reverberated in the air. “Look at this gathering. This is the proof of our determination.”

As emotions ran high, Suhaib, in his mid 20s, climbed one of many poplar trees circling the ground and raised slogan: “hum kya chahtay (we want?)”

“Azadi (freedom),” people responded. The sloganeering intensified. Then, the young man climbed down the tree and disappeared among mourners.

Like thousands of men, Suhaib had braved odds and evaded force’s vigil to reach Sapot and pay respect to “our hero”. In today’s Kashmir in fact young men seem to have lost fear of death. They swarm militant’s funerals and rush to encounter site to help militants escape.

This loss of fear has its birth in chain of events which took place in 2010 that would ultimately set the stage for arrival of Burhan Wani, the rebel who architected revival of Kashmir’s indigenous militancy before becoming a legend in his death.

Month before the Valley was swept by an uprising in 2010 in which 120 civilians were killed, two major anti-insurgency operations in Tral dealt a bodily blow to militancy.

In one such operation four top Hizb militants including Zubair Ahmad Bhat were killed after 32-hour long gun battle with forces who would eventually blow the house in which the militants were trapped. In a similar encounter months later four top Hizb rebels including Nayeem Mir were shot dead.

The outfit was now left with only two rebels in its ranks, Shabir Bhat and Sajad Ahmad. A month later, Adil Mir, brother of slain militant Nayeem joined them. This small group of militants carried out some audacious attacks on forces to try and revive militancy.

By this time around security grid had intensified its counter insurgency operation in north Kashmir, which had emerged as hotbed of militancy. In next 15 months the forces almost wiped out militancy from the region, gunning down some wanted and top commanders like Abdullah Uni, credited for reviving militancy in north, and his deputy Abu Akash Badar.

The forces had wrested control of north, forcing the rebels to shift base to south. “The sustained operation had already broken back of militancy in south…we were literally having an upper hand. Anantnag had already been declared militancy free with killing of Hizb divisional commander and one of the longest surviving militants Shabir Ahmad Budroo,” said a senior police official.

The militancy had got confined to a few pockets in the south. Then came 2013: Burhan’s first photograph appeared on social media. But it was not until the Guardian newspaper ran a story on him that people began to talk about this slim young man who had left home in 2010 to fight.

He worked under his cousin, Adil Mir (brother of slain militant Nayeem) who had been handed over the command after killing of Shabir Bhat.

But Mir’s stint didn’t last long. He was killed during a gunfight in month’s time. The Hizb was now on “last leg”, according to another police official. The stage was set for Burhan - who had by now already lost three cousins, Adil, Nayeem and Zubair - to arrive on the scene. While on one hand he took the mask off his face, on the other hand his outreach in Tral-Kokernag-Pulwama-Shopian belt made him household name. But it was his use of technology and social media that changed the landscape of militancy in the Valley.

The famous group photograph in which Burhan, circled by 10 rebels, all donning military fatigue, pictured somewhere in an orchard in Shopian, took internet by storm and marked beginning of new age militancy in Kashmir. Deep in south Kashmir, village after village, young and educated boys left homes to join Burhan. The militancy in Kashmir became synonymous with this young man who had left home as a teenager following a scuffle with forces over harassment of his brother Khalid Wani who would be later killed by army.

For the first time after 90s, under his command, the number of local militants surpassed those of foreigners as the militancy in Kashmir was once again growing as an indigenous phenomenon. For security establishment the message on the wall was clear: Burhan had emerged as reviver.

On the other side, explained political analyst Prof Noor Baba, the rise of Burhan coincided with outreach of Peoples Democratic Party, particularly in south, following the 2010 summer of discontent. The people responded in 2014 assembly elections, handing over highest number of seats, 28, to the PDP which had fought the polls on promise of keeping BJP out from J&K. “But the party committed the biggest betrayal when it aligned with the party (BJP) against which it has sought the votes in the election,” he said.

The result was the anger and disillusion among its voter base in south Kashmir which had grown as party’s stronghold. The first year of the party in the office proved people’s disenchantment right. From BJP’s challenge to state’s special status, separate flag and demand for imposition of beef ban, people of Kashmir felt their identity was under attack and in the people’s eye PDP was to be blamed for it. The party’s credibility took a nose dive. 

Burhan, having popularized militancy in south, was now expanded his influence to north. The rise in the local recruitment and public support for them had taken the security grid by alarm. That is when the forces started gunning for the rebel commander. The search finally ended in a remote village of Kokernag when the young rebel commander who had infused new life to Kashmir militancy was killed with his two associates on July 8, 2016.

Burhan’s death led to massive uprising in the valley that was meted with brute force. At least 100 civilians were killed in the forces’ action during 5-month uprising, 62 of them in south Kashmir alone. Local newspaper reports say more than 15000 civilians were injured, most of them having fire-arm injuries. Over 1200 persons including young boys and girls became victims of pellet shot guns, losing their eyesight partially or completely to the deadly weapon.

Though the uprising faded away in January next year there has been no thaw to people’s protests since July 2016 and civilian killing during clashes between protestors and forces at the gunfight sites. “This cycle of protests, killing, young men leaving their homes to join militancy has kept south Kashmir on boil even after passing of two years,” said Prof Baba. 

“It all happened because of Burhan. For the first time after 90s we are seeing people openly owning the militants and ready to die for them,” said a senior police official who has served in south during Burhan’s era.

For Prof Baba there are two factors which have kept south Kashmir on boil. “Firstly, this Burhan phenomenon and suppression of a population through use of all sorts of force, including pellets guns. Secondly the cycle of civilian killings and blinding has not stopped and it has now made people resilient. There is no fear of death,” he said.

The statistics about the killings since 2016 uprising corroborate Prof Baba’s statement. While the J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a human rights group, in its annual report has put the total number of killings in 2016 at 383 including 145 civilians, 138 militants and 100 security forces, the next year witnessed around 387 causalities. These included 207 militants, 93 forces personnel and 87 civilians. In the first five months of this year, more than 138 persons, including 67 militants, 41 civilians and 31 security personnel, have lost their lives in militancy-related incidents.

Though Kashmir had seen two uprisings in last one decade – 2008 and 2010 – they were “contrasting” compared to 2016, said Prof Baba. In 2008 when Kashmir erupted against transfer of forest land to Amarnath Shrine Board the reversal of the deal was seen as a victory by people. In 2010 the appointment of team of interlocutors, the high profile visits from New Delhi including those of groups of parliamentarians gave people a belief that things had started to move finally, he said.

But this time around New Delhi continued with its iron-fist policy. On the other hand appointment of Dineshwar Sharma as Kashmir interlocutor and talks offer to separatists has been seen as initiatives lacking intent.

“Today, people of south Kashmir see themselves in war against the State and in this war nobody wants to lose,” said Sameer Ahmad, a political science student from Pulwama district.

According to him rise of local militancy has involved entire population of the region, spread over four districts, in this “ongoing battle”. And that, said Ahmad, explains people swarming to encounter sites and funerals, not fearing for their lives.

“They see these young men dying as their own…and each of these deaths now inspires young boys in neighbourhood to pick up gun,” he explained, a fact that even security establishment has acknowledged.

Back in Sapot as Shakoor Dar was lowered in the grave the locals talked about how killing of Burhan and the uprising changed the village boy. He was studying to become an Islamic preacher but left his home one September morning, in the midst of 2016 uprising, to become a militant, a neighbour said.

“For us, 2016 has not ended,” interrupted a man in his 30s with a flowing beard, who had travelled all the way from Shopian, the Valley’s new militancy hotbed.

A senior PDP leader from south Kashmir agreed. “The 2016 (uprising) was contrasting from 2010 and 2008. It (2016 uprising) was a rural phenomenon centred in south Kashmir unlike the other two which were urban centric. South Kashmir had always presence of militancy but there was some kind of acceptance to the system and that explains our rise and outreach. Today, people have risen against this very system and are rallying behind the militants whom they see as their heroes,” said the PDP leader, who didn’t wish to be named.

That the government couldn’t hold by-polls to Anantnag Lok Sabah seat, fearing protests and civilian killings, proves how deep this anger is and why the region may not calm down anytime soon.