The news of the killing of Burhan Wani, commander of militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, had an electrifying effect on the entire Kashmir. Within no time, streets were transformed into battle fields between angry protestors and state forces. Mosque loudspeakers were blaring out Pro-Burhan slogans and songs. Social Media users made his images as their profile and display pictures. In his early twenties, with six years into the life of gun, Burhan was already a household name in Kashmir. A sea of people converged outside his residence in Tral to have a last glimpse of “their beloved commander.” Fifty back to back funeral prayers were held for him, attended by around four lakh people, including armed militants. This was despite curfew across Kashmir Valley and the restrictions being in place to stop people from marching towards Tral. In his death, Burhan Wani had metamorphosed into tens of thousands of masked youth, carrying Pakistani flags, and ready to respond to his call, forcing, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, to send out a tweet that “dead Burhan Wani will recruit more militants.” People who couldn’t make it to the Tral organized funeral prayers for him in absentia at hundreds of places across the State. To protest his killing, youths clashed with forces and at some places, attacked and torched Police Stations and Army establishments.
That it was a demonstration of solidarity with a militant commander, who glamorized militancy for Kashmiri youth, sent shivers down the spine of the people in security establishment. It was demonstration of popular indignation, of popular support for armed resistance. But why Burhan was so much venerated and what did Burhan-Era of Kashmir resistance mean?
Burhan was not only a militant. He actually personified the idea the Kashmir has started to embrace again. He not only represented an open revolt against New Delhi’s military control of Kashmir but also identified with the expectations of the disgruntled youth who were fed up by the pacifist politics of Hurriyat Leadership, whose politics is bound within the redline drawn by the New Delhi. This fact had alienated youth from the political leadership of pro-freedom camp as they failed to deliver during three successive summer agitations from 2008 to 2010 when Kashmiris in lakhs took to streets to seek freedom from India and when dozens of people were killed in state action.
As the peaceful protests and street agitations of three consecutive summers were put down ruthlessly by New Delhi, there was a deceptive calm in Kashmir. But experts had warned of this as a dangerous lull before storm. New Delhi’s failure to respond to non-violent transition in Kashmir and an apparent lack of resolve exhibited by the political leadership of the resistance camp alienated youth from political process. In that lull, boys like Burhan Wani quietly vanished into woods to join up with militants who, though handful, were undeterred or unmindful of geopolitical discourses going on around the use of violence in freedom struggle and debates on terrorism post 9/11. Unlike their predecessors, they didn’t cross over to Azad Kashmir for arms training with the result they could not be discarded as the ones being instigated by or being controlled from across the LOC. They were homegrown, unmindful of consequences or, well prepared for them. What distinguished Burhan from the rest of his colleagues, however, was his audacity in lifting the mask from the face of a local militant, first time in the history of armed resistance in Kashmir. He almost romanticized gun with a local face providing a rallying point to the disgruntled youth who were seething in anger. Unlike in nineties when militants would make every effort to conceal their identity, Burhan’s style was the opposite. And this style worked. People in security establishment say that Burhan managed to recruit dozens of educated youth from south Kashmir into militant folds in just few years. Furthermore, Burhan’s rise on militant landscape of Kashmir changed its complexion from being predominantly foreign and faceless to local and identical. And with this change, the militancy in Kashmir was again mass-supported, first time after late nineties when the popular support to gun had started to dwindle. Soon Burhan was the most sought after figure not only for the local or Indian media, but for the International press too.
In August 2013, Jason Bruke, a British journalist, travelled to the forests of volatile Tral in South Kashmir to report for the Guardian. He catched-up with then 17-year-old Burhan Muzaffar Wani and managed to photograph him. As the Guardian produced gun-brandishing picture of Burhan somewhere in Tral forests with his colleagues standing alert in action, soon there was a rush for “The Robin hood of Kashmir.” I remember my editor at a daily rebuking our south Kashmir correspondent for failing to catch on such a “hot stuff.” The reporter cited security reasons for being a local journalist.
Burhan represented a desperate Kashmiri response against New Delhi’s arrogant policies towards Jammu and Kashmir. This won him the mass support, besides his personal charisma and ability to utilize the social media.
The crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, widespread arrest spree including that of minors, notorious rape and killing of Asiya and Neelofar in Shopian in 2009 and the hanging of Parliament attack accused, Mohammad Afzal Guru in 2013 became earth-shattering events which shaped the collective psyche of Kashmiri youth and convinced them against any political concessions from New Delhi amicably. This was exacerbated by the widespread paranoia in Kashmir that the State was run by RSS from Nagpur as a local pro-India political party PDP formed government with India’s BJP post 2014 state assembly elections. That any Kashmiri political party will join hands with India’s BJP to form government in the State was unimaginable as in the run upto polls, all political parties had sought votes against “anti-Muslim” BJP to keep it out of Kashmir.
In Kashmiri imagination, BJP led by Narendra Modi has certain connotations and not unfounded. Modi’s BJP means setting up of Amarnath Nagar, a separate homeland for local Hindu population, in the midst of Muslim majority Kashmir Valley, abrogation of Article 370 which grants special status to the State, setting up of separate Pandit Townships and fortified Sainik Colonies in Kashmir. It means ban on beef, any violation of which means death by a lynch mob of the Hindutva brigade. It also means New Industrial Policy which grants permission, in contravention to Article 370, to non-State business houses to set up industrial units anywhere in the State. It further means massacre of Muslims in Gujarat and in Muzzafarnagar. BJP means religious intolerance. In one sentence, BJP means erosion of Kashmiri Muslim identity and its assimilation into Indian mainstream, which is what Kashmiris fear the most.
So when the PDP joined hands and formed government with the very Hindutva party, it was a profound blow to Kashmiri imagination. Outburst was only a matter of time.
Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir in a primetime interview with India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai on July 11 said that the crowd at Burhan’s funeral was a wakeup call for New Delhi to understand the situation in Kashmir. He was not incorrect. The latent alienation of years in Kashmir sought to be subdued by aggressive political posturing has snowballed into a manifest revolt against New Delhi’s rule. Gone are the days when forces personnel were feared by the masses. Today, people, including women and children, confront bullets and batons fearlessly. Gone are also the days when armed militants would hide their identities for fear of getting eliminated. It is Burhan’s Kashmir where militant life is thought to be joyous and enviable as they post gun-toting selfies and cricket playing videos on social media. In fact, and unfortunately so, whole of the population has become militant today. The worst nightmare for policy makers of India: Fear psychosis no longer works in Kashmir.
It was perhaps in this context that a top general of Indian Army recently expressed helplessness in militarily containing the simmering discontent.
General H S Hooda, General Officer Commanding of Srinagar based 16 Corps, said “we are losing narrative in Kashmir and militarily, there is little left that we can do now.” More than one million Indian forces personnel, including army, border security force and paramilitary besides local police, are struggling to eliminate a handful of armed militants in small Kashmir valley and parts of Jammu division. This is because the general masses not only support and shelter militants, but also defend them, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Whenever forces personnel zero in on any location to eliminate the militants present there, civilian population engages the forces in pitched stone pelting battles and helps the trapped militants to escape. This is new normal in Kashmir villages. Kashmir is slipping back to the situation of nineties, or, perhaps worse. Militancy has again found a popular support in Burhan’s Kashmir. Attempts made over the years aimed at conflict management like the so-called Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) have proven futile or not worked. And the situation is back to the square one. In his death, the tech-savvy face of new age youth militancy in Kashmir has indeed rejuvenated the narrative that supports armed resistance to seek political objectives. The ball is in New Delhi’s court now.
Unfortunately, the Modi-led Government of India has again sought to hide behind the smokescreen of denial and tread the traditional beaten path of blaming Pakistan for unrest in Kashmir. This may help deceive the gullible populace back home but the world no longer accepts such stuff. The latest flare up in Kashmir has found support from the USA as well as the UN besides the OIC. The world refused to toe the Indian line and, the USA instead asked all parties, which include India, Pakistan and the People of Jammu and Kashmir, “to find a peaceful solution to the issue.”
Addressing a rally in fortified Srinagar stadium earlier this year, where troops outnumbered the civilians including those ferried from outside the state, the Indian premier, had said that he doesn’t need anybody’s advice in the world on Kashmir. Soon after landing in New Delhi from many days of Africa tour on July 12, Modi chaired a high-level meeting of his cabinet and security establishment to seek advice on Kashmir. Besides this, the UN, the USA and the OIC are advising New Delhi on Kashmir. Burhan not only rejuvenated militant movement back home but also brought Kashmir to international limelight, again. However, his biggest achievement: Burhan’s Kashmir has already achieved Azadi from fear.
By Umar Sultan
(Umar Sultan is freelance journalist based in Srinagar. He has reported for Press Bureau of India, Conveyor Magazine and Kashmir Reader earlier. He Tweets @omarsultan616)