Kashmir is in the news again, and the reason is a fresh cycle of violence that has claimed at least 30 lives so far. Twenty-seven of them were killed in firing by police and paramilitary forces, who have been making desolate attempts to break the ring of demonstrations that have rocked most of Kashmir since July 9. One policeman died when an angry mob pushed his vehicle into river Jhelum at Sangam in South Kashmir, and a youth drowned when he was being chased away by the police.
Kashmir’s capital Srinagar and most other parts of the state have been under curfew for the last three days, though people have made successful attempts to defy the restrictions. The reason behind this fresh spate of violence is the killing of Burhan Wani, a 21-year-old boy from Tral area of South Kashmir, along with his two associates, in an encounter with the police on Friday. Burhan was 15 when he joined the militant ranks to challenge India’s rule in Kashmir. His story of turning from a meritorious student into a militant has become a legend in Tral. He and his elder brother Khalid were on a motorcycle ride when the Special Operations Group (SOG) personnel of Jammu and Kashmir Police beat them up ruthlessly without reason. This infuriated the Class-X boy pushing him to become a militant. Khalid was killed by the Indian Army last year when he was returning after meeting Burhan in a nearby jungle.
The good student became a militant after police beat him up for no reason
Burhan’s story unfolded as a movie script. He changed the diction of militancy in Kashmir and gave it a new colour, which is seen as more “legitimate” in the sense that it is indigenous. He shunned aliases and came out openly with his own name and face. That was not the case in early 1990’s when an armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir and thousands of Kashmiri youth picked up guns and hid behind masks. Burhan used social media to propagate his message. The video messages went viral, and he soon became an icon of the new age of militancy in Kashmir. Police officers admit that Burhan infused a new life in Kashmir-centric militancy by attracting young local boys. In his last video, he warned the local police of consequences in case they did not desist from working against the “movement”. He also made it clear that Kashmiri Pandits were welcome, but not in separate colonies. Burhan also “promised” not to attack Amarnath Yatris.
The large crowds of people at his funeral defied the anticipations of the officials. Despite restrictions, Tral Eidgah fell short of space when his funeral prayer was taking place. For the Indian government, he was a “terrorist” who believed in violence, but for more than 200,000 people, he represented the spirit of the new generation and their political aspirations.
Burhan redefined militancy in the restive Kashmir and helped it change its complexion from a foreign dominated activity to a local movement. Officials admit that that ratio of foreigners and locals used to be 80-20 a few years ago, but has now reversed. According to official figures, the number of locals in the militant ranks has surged. While 34 locals had joined by the end of June last year, this year the number was 40. As of now, the number of local militants is nearly 100, which is four times higher than it was a few years ago.
Burhan could be seen as a phenomenon leading to that change. It was in fact the uprising in 2008 and 2010 that saw over 200 killings at the hands of forces that is considered to have fueled the new militancy with the educated youth joining the ranks of militants. The hanging of Afzal Guru, the alleged conspirator in India’s parliament attack in 2001, is also seen as a factor in pushing more locals towards the path of violence. And finally, the People’s Democratic Party and Bhartiya Janata Party joining hands to form a coalition had its own impact. South Kashmir has been a bastion of PDP, which talked about self rule, and its alliance with the right-wing BJP, is seen by many PDP loyalists as “betrayal”. Police records confirm that some of the boys who became militants had actively canvassed for PDP in the 2014 elections.
Burhan was from a highly educated family. His father is a mathematician and heads a secondary school. His mother Maimoona is a post-graduate. His grandfather retired from a senior position in the government.
“The absence of political engagement to resolve the Kashmir dispute is setting a new political discourse, and militancy is gaining legitimacy among the populace to counter New Delhi’s denial of the political reality,” an analyst told me. In the recent months, gunfights between militants and security forces have seen a strong reaction from the masses, who join in in thousands to bid farewell to slain militants. Faces like Burhan are not seen as a source of irritation by the local populace the way his counterparts were in the early 1990’s. The new-age militancy in Kashmir is keeping itself away from local disputes and extortion, thus carving a space for itself in the society.
The question that is being asked now is whether a dead Burhan is more dangerous than a living Burhan. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah fears his killing might inspire more youth to follow in his footsteps. The challenge now is not to fight out the militants in numbers, but the ideology whose popularity is being reflected in the outpouring of sentiments over Burhan’s killing.
The author is a veteran journalist from Srinagar, and the editor-in-chief of
The Rising Kashmir