On 8 July 2016, at around 6 PM, I received my first call within minutes, indicating to me that this was no ordinary encounter. The caller told me that it was ninety percent certain that Burhan Wani was inside the small cordon.
Wani was the most-wanted terrorist in Kashmir Valley, credited with having created a wave of what is called New Militancy in South Kashmir.
Kokarnag in the southernmost part of South Kashmir is a sleepy little township. It once was the bastion of militancy due to the presence of the lofty Pir Panjal range, in whose shadow it lies, and the forested tracts of the lower hills; the terrain was tailor-made for militancy.
Through the first ten years of this millennium, one of Indian Army’s famous units, 36 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) (Garhwal Rifles), cleaned the area out, leaving few signs of militancy behind. It earned as many as four Chief of Army Staff Unit Citations and many other awards for this feat.
On 8 July 2016, at around 6 PM, gunfire reverberated in Kokarnag again. I received my first call within minutes, which indicated to me that this was not an ordinary encounter. The caller told me that it was ninety percent certain that Burhan Wani was inside the small cordon.
For those who may not know, Wani is the most-wanted terrorist in Kashmir Valley, credited with having created a wave of what is called New Militancy in South Kashmir. It would not be long before, with his inspiration, that militancy travels to the badlands of North Kashmir. His Robin Hood image inspired a new phenomenon: the attempted protection of terrorists by local mobs at encounter sites and large-scale eulogising of even neutralised Pakistani terrorists at their funerals.
Burhan Wani managed in just five years to create a band of 60-70 young locally recruited terrorists. Many were well-educated and technically proficient in exploiting social media for their cause. Their photographs in combat fatigues with weapons went viral on Facebook and Whatsapp. Many of the flash mobs they instigated to keep an eye on encounter sites were mobilised using social media.
Burhan’s entry into terrorism was triggered by his ill-treatment at the hands of a couple of errant policemen in Tral, a small township in a broad sub-valley on the east of the National Highway, near Avantipura. Tral is notorious for its alienation and use of violence for the last 26 years. The Wagad ridge to its West and the Dachigam Forest to the North afford excellent hideouts for militants. Despite the presence of a full RR unit along with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the area has only been passingly under control.
Burhan belonged to Tral. Last year, in April, his brother was killed in an encounter when he was mistakenly taken to be Burhan, even as he had gone to the forest to meet his renegade brother.
At 7.30 PM on 8 July 2016, a caller rang again to confirm that it was indeed Burhan Wani. He had been killed at the hands of one of Army’s extremely quiet but efficient units, 19 RR (Sikh LI). It is learnt that Burhan, once cornered, came out in an attempt to break the cordon and was gunned down. This prevented the ignominy of being burnt to death once the house he was holed up in caught fire due to the effect of rockets and other munitions.
As I tweeted this information out, I had a deluge of calls coming in from different corners. Burhan’s neutralisation was making big news. My initial assessment, which I shared immediately, was that the authorities had to be careful in handling the post-encounter situation. This is in light of the fact that the Hurriyat would attempt to make much of this event and use it to motivate the youth; passionate crowds should be expected at the funeral. We had occasion to witness 30,000 people at a funeral of a Pakistani terrorist late last year. It will need to be a fine decision for the political and security authorities to allow a public funeral or provide a quiet burial done by the Police with the family attending.
In the past, authorities have mostly given the freedom to conduct public funerals and faced the consequences for it. Only in the case of Afzal Guru was the body not handed over to the family, and a quiet burial was conducted at Delhi. However, that had different connotations, and comparisons need not be drawn. It is not as if bigger names than Burhan Wani have not been neutralised in counter-terror operations in the past. In the same area, Shabir Baduri, who operated for almost nine years, led the Hizbul Mujahideen’s activities in Anantnag. Abdullah Uni (LeT) was killed at Sopore in 2011. I do not recall how the mortal remains were handled in these cases but the major difference today, even in comparison to the situation five years ago, is the widespread use of social media to iconise neutralised terrorist leaders and collect flash mobs. The authorities know best how to handle the situation and, politically, this is a challenge for the coalition government.
The Amarnath Yatra is now entering its second week. The vulnerability of the Yatra is always a problem for the authorities, especially after the recent spate of ambushes on the National Highway, which is causing more concern. A reprisal strike against the Yatris will be perilous but, although I do feel that this is unlikely, the security forces securing the Yatra and its various facilities will remain the targets. Kokernag, incidentally, is very close to the National Highway near Qazigund. The Lidder Valley from Anantnag to Pahalgam has been quiet for some years despite the presence of New Militancy, signs of a revival of turbulence have sprung up lately. My earlier article in Swarajya on the revival of terror around Anantnag brings out the challenges clearly.
My second thought immediately after the information came in was regarding the need to undertake such a campaign as to deny the creation of another iconic youth leader. No doubt, the replacement can never be as charismatic as the original. It is not as if the Army and the Police did not make attempts to appeal to Burhan Wani to surrender honourably. It is the ‘honourably’ part which needs to be projected adequately. Militants cannot easily be convinced about this. A campaign on social media and also through outreach contact can help in engaging the youth. What has to be guarded against is the buildup of a fervour which will pitch more youth into militancy on the power of the image created in the eyes of the population. It is the imagination and the might of the power of information of the State against that of a few locals and the Separatists. It hasn’t exactly been a strong point with the State and needs to be thought through quickly and efficiently.
The Centre must extend every bit of assistance on this as a test case. Unfortunately, no institution or body exists to undertake this responsibility. The media must be guarded in its reportage because over-projection of the events and the situation will surely play to the advantage of the anti-India elements. An announcement about the leadership of the New Militancy should be expected at any time, and many of the splinter groups not in sync with each other may use the moment to forge unity. This is why the information part has to be handled carefully and pro-actively.
The internet has been switched off in the Valley since last night as has much of the mobile connectivity. This is fine for a short period to prevent things from going into the hands of the terrorists, who will readily make use of the trigger available. Thereafter, connectivity will resume, and it is then that the information battle will commence.
For the moment, the challenge is to withstand the emotions of the moment and ensure no ‘martyr effect’ takes place. The Separatists have no qualms about a few young men dying, and a repeat of 2010 is possible. The agencies dealing with security need to be on the same page and leave aside the unnecessary rancour of the immediate past. I would consider this an opportunity to achieve something positive, but equally, the wily Separatists will wish to keep the initiative. The maturity of the leadership (both political and security-related) will decide which way the cookie crumbles.