In the new age Kashmir, even rebellion needs icons. But the rise of Tral’s sober son in the virtual world was meteoric, surprising and game-changing. As angry Kashmir is seething, Bilal Handoo explains the phenomenon that made death fascinating than life for many
Before he would give that scoop to media, the question was: when did Indian Home Minister last break the news of militant killing in Kashmir? But when Rajnath Singh did it toward the dusk of July 8, Kashmir spontaneously erupted in mourning the death of the ‘boy, next door’, who preferred the jungle life over an American scholarship.
It was the passage of the 21-year-old rebel who shunned masks and made technology his warhead. By the time the joint team of soldiers and SOG men announced their “kill” in the dusky Kokernag hamlet, it was already a shot in their arm. Closer to Burhan’s Tral home, a garrison burst crackers in celebration. By then, mourners from across Kashmir had started swelling in Tral for the “new age icon’s” final send off.
Burhan’s rise was meteoric.
Before cops shot dead schoolboy Tufail Mattoo and trigger 2010 unrest, four top HM militants and an army officer, Captain Deepak Sharma, were killed during a 30-hour long encounter in Dadsara. One of the slain militants who fought from the house that was later bombed was Burhan’s cousin. That fall, his second cousin, Nayeem Mir was killed in a gunfight.
A month later, Burhan’s another cousin and buddy Adil Mir joined militancy. He had applied for a soldier’s post before regular threats forced him to take a different path. A sober 15-year-old cricket buff, Burhan wasn’t unaware of the family’s ‘rebel roots’. Then it happened.
His ride was cut short in 2010 fall when cops sent him to fetch cigarettes and snacks. An ensued assault on him and his elder brother, Khalid, left him seething. He ran away in a vengeful huff: a soft-spoken Burhan was soon a squealing son. Sensing his rising ferment, his school principal father offered him scholarship to America. But everything proved futile when he left home 10 days before his Class 10 examinations.
“Burhan’s joining vindicated people who were saying that oppressive handling of 2008-10 summer protests will force youth to settle scores with guns,” said Azam Inqilabi, an erstwhile militant. At the core of ‘Southern shift’ was Burhan.
By the end of 2010, one obituary writer began frequenting south. He returned surprised. “I was taken aback,” said Ess Ahmad Pirzada, Waadye Khoonaab author, “when the family and relatives of the slain talked about the imminent revolt.” Hounded lots of the triple summer assault were to start this revolt and Burhan emerged their brand ambassador.
Burhan emergence was obscure yet silent process. After three “mishandled” successive summers, police boasted of militancy falling to its lowest ebb. They were correct.
But Burhan’s new age rebels dwelling in jungles were to change it shortly. Then, he was just a chocolate-faced junior rank militant whose social media blitzkrieg was yet to take internet by storm. He was first noticed when his photo got leaked into public domain in May 2013. Then his profile carried by The Guardian made this handsome boy a new face of militancy in Kashmir.
His story came when youth were decrying persistent police pestering. “And Burhan being the product of this process had set the path for harassed youth,” said Pirzada, the penman who authored 120 obituaries. “His case not only inspired the hounded youth, but also made them believe that they have an alternative to take state head on.” The spunky boy daring Delhi with his AK-47 was now a “raging romantic”.
Silently, the old guerrilla outfit Hizb was getting revitalized, with south Kashmir becoming new ‘militant capital’. The entire focus had shifted there after police claimed its prized catch—Azhar Malik alias Abdullah Uni on September 13, 2011. The triumphant cops claimed north Kashmir militancy would only last for next three months after killing the “state’s most wanted militant” who had revived militancy in “Sopore-Kupwara-Bandipore belt since 2002”.
Shortly Uni’s deputy, abu Akash Badar, was killed in a Sopore gun-battle forcing many militants to migrate to south. This made the security grid believe that north Kashmir—then hotbed of militancy—was wrested from militants. The transition clubbed with the emergence of Burhan set the mood in south where Hizb remnants were willing to play the game.
But the state crackdown on militancy never stopped with Uni’s killing alone. Hizb was losing its commanders fast, thus unwittingly setting the bigger stage for Burhan’s arrival. While rebels like Shabir Bhat, Qari Assadullah, Adil Mir and Mohammad Shafi Sheikh were killed, the other outfits were also losing their chiefs. Lashkar lost abu Ukasha, Bilal Bhat, Irshad Ganai and Abdu Qasim, while Jaish lost Qari Yasir, Altaf Baba and Adeel Pathan.
“Amid killings of these militant chiefs,” says a police officer, “Burhan resorted to survival tactics, which worked for his outfit.” While the ‘action’ was mainly done by Lashkar, Burhan and his outfit Hizb focussed on rebuilding the cadre—that too, without sending them across for training. It worked.
Burhan had become commander after his cousin Adil Mir was killed along with his two associates in a 2014 summer encounter at Tral. That day, I met Burhan’s brother Khalid and his father Muzaffar Wani at Adil’s residence. Despite intense mourning, the two detailed how Burhan had changed forever.
An ebullient youth, Khalid—who became the first “fake encounter” case in Mufti Sayeed’s second stint as chief minister—told me: “Burhan was a brilliant student, a class topper whom Dad wanted to see as a doctor. But he was pushed to extremes.” He next mentioned the much-talked about ride that saw his brother jumping into militancy in Oct 2010. “I was once told by a senior army officer to convince Burhan to drop his weapon and surrender,” Muzaffar Wani told me. “But I know my son. He won’t surrender.”
They talked about the making of militants in their clan—especially Burhan’s six cousins who they said were pushed into militancy. “We all have conviction,” Khalid told me, “but not all of us end up becoming militants. The case of Shabir, Nayeem, Adil and Burhan was no different. They all had the conviction, but they took arms only when they were hounded by police.”
Years later when likes of Naseer Pandith joined Burhan, a torrent of reports detailed his bitter experience with state police he was serving as constable. Akin to Pandith, the 21-year-old Zakir Rashid Bhat of Noorpura Tral had his history of harassment, too. His father has repeatedly said how his son singlehandedly faced police action after 2010 unrest.
One summer day in 2013, this 22-year-old Chandigarh-based civil engineering student returned home on vacations and joined Burhan. “Don’t try to look for me,” he left a note to his family, “Jehad is the only way forward. It is the only way to deal with the atrocities faced by Kashmiris.”
“I knew most of those boys including Burhan,” said Burhan’s former classmate. “They were no non-sense guys. They knew they were living in a vicious trap. So yes, for them, Jehad was the only way to take the bull by its horns.” Burhan as Hizb commander was making militancy appealing to such youth and proving to be a great manager.
His image as “youth icon” was helping him to swell Hizb cadre. Even toppers like Ishaq Newton couldn’t stop himself joining Burhan for Jehad. The fresh recruitment was helping him to make Facebook as his virtual warhead. Unlike his predecessors, Burhan followed Chechens and shunned masks. Intelligence guys call it Burhan’s adventure to draw parallels between Kashmir movement and the “global Jehad”. For that, his group uploaded images in fatigues and released them on social media along with videos. Kashmir new-age rebel was openly inviting youth to join militancy and it was working.
From 31 in 2013 to 66 in 2015, militancy finally had local faces, courtesy Burhan, the main motivator. In 2016, of 220 odd Kashmir’s active militants, 175 (66 in north and 109 in south Kashmir) are recorded as locals while 51 (44 in north and 7 in south) foreigners. “Burhan was the phenomenon for outnumbering foreigners,” said a cop. But Burhan lived by his rules. Street-side bravado, the act that alarmed the security apparatus, was prelude to any joining.
In recent past when Lashkar offered an unconditional support to Burhan, he rejected it on grounds of self-sustaining his outfit, said a sleuth in knowhow of the development. “With no backing from Pak, Burhan tasked Hizb aspirants to snatch rifles from cops before joining him. It was an audacious move on part of the young rebel but a ticket to join him.”
As weapon snatching became a norm, cops were directed to cross-sling their rifles to avoid the desperate bid. Suddenly, Burhan seemed having an upper hand in the “psychological war” where the military mindset was apparently getting disturbed. “It goes on to the show how fearless these boys have become despite knowing the outcome of their actions,” said activist-advocate G N Shaheen. “But Delhi branded this audacity as radicalisation.”
To counter it, Delhi recalled former sleuths. They focussed on two axes for the immediate surgical operation: South Kashmir’s Tral-Yaripora belt and North Kashmir’s Palhalan-Sopore zone. Since Burhan had influence over both these axes, sleuths started gunning for him.
Finally the tracking ended in Kokernag when Burhan was killed along with his associates. The killing triggered a wave of mourning and unrest across Kashmir. By dusk, his hometown was getting flooded by people who spent night in open yards, mosques, homes for the loss of their “icon”. Garrison celebrations added to anger and the loss.
A day after, Burhan got a historic send-off, as a sea of people offered more than 50 funeral prayers – a record quite tedious to be broken in near future. Even his comrades were part of the mourning.
Soon Hizb appointed Mehmood Ghaznavi in his place. “We won’t allow the sacrifice of Burhan Wani to waste, and his mission will be taken to its logical conclusion,” said Hizb supremo Syed Salahuddin from Muzaffarabad. But amid emergence of Burhan’s portraits and graffiti across valley, the new announcement confused many—“who is this Ghaznavi, Sabzar or Zakir?” Both were in Burhan’s core group, who were seen shedding tears for him at his massive funeral amid 21-bullet volley salute.
By the time Burhan was given emotional burial, south Kashmir was boiling. The rage led angry mourners attack every symbol of security set up – garrisons and police stations. Many think, protesters were behaving like street fidayeens.
The fearlessness with which youth are braving bullets and pellets suggests as if death-wish is dominating the scene.
“One should credit Burhan Wani,” said Shakeel Bakshi, chairman Islamic Students League, “for ending dependency and making new-age militancy self-sufficient unlike earlier.” If nineties was emotional phase, he said, “then present ideological phase is making it tough for state to tackle the rebellion.” For this, Bakshi credits Arif Khan, a Burhan alias.
Being the “symbol of heroism”, Burhan was an A-plus militant, carrying a bounty of Rs 12.5 lakh. His massive funeral attendance not only took Delhi aback, but also made premier Narendra Modi to express his displeasure over media coverage glorifying him as hero.
But on ground, even seasoned state managers were seen expressing concern over Burhan backlash. Rage in valley’s traditional calm pockets was enough to unnerve the state. “The security challenge has come from fringe areas like DH Pora and peripheries this time,” said SM Sahai, Additional Director General of Police, CID and a state police chief in waiting. With police still busy locking down valley, the torching of police stations was apparently based on Burhan’s last video-script, warning attacks on police.
“The government of India may celebrate the death of Burhan,” said Langate lawmaker Er Rasheed, “but forgets that it has lost a bigger battle in Kashmir. Why lakhs of people attended his funeral? It has proven Burhan ruled the hearts and the government ruled the heads.”
Burhan’s was a widely mourned killing. Even Pakistan premier Nawaz Sharief and Pak army chief expressed their “deep shock”, thus drawing a quick snub from Delhi. Apparently the political reaction triggered by his death made him the “larger than life” militant. It has already triggered diplomatic tensions.
In the face of these developments, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had to cut short his Kenya visit to assert: “If there are problems, there are solutions. We are quite confident and competent of finding solutions.”
Even the former army chief was assertive enough to admit impact of Burhan’s killing. “On an average,” said ex-Srinagar-based GOC 15 Corps, Lt Gen Syed Hasnain Ata, “the new recruits last 6 months. Burhan survived as a militant for 5 years, primarily because he was a local leader and he had a huge support. Having eliminated is a major achievement, as creation of another personality of his stature again takes time.”
The general who used “heart as weapon” doctrine believes that departed Burhan is going to attract lot of youth attention. “He was already a hero and now in his death, he will be a bigger hero.”
In Burhan, Mirwaiz sees Kashmir’s Baghat Singh. But his significance lies somewhere else. “Mark my words – Burhan’s ability to recruit in to militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media,” Omar Abdullah, in whose government Burhan became a dissenter, described him on twitter. Six years later, Omar heard pro-freedom slogans blaring from his local mosques when “the Olympus” fell.
Omar’s fears seem to have some substance. With people drawing comparisons between ninety’s popular commander Ashfaq Majeed Wani and Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the duo have many similarities but differs more and on many counts. Both might have been induced into militancy by a hard state and the politics of Kashmir but they represent two completely different generations of rebellion. One was an initiator and another was a hardcore reviver. One sought support around, another discovered it within. One belonged to the typical type-writer generation and another to the IT. One used history to mobilize people and another used person to mobilize people for history.
Though both had huge following, but Burhan continues to be the sole instance in which Kashmir was plunged in such a grave crisis in which more than 40 were killed.
While expressing the same rage, a DU student from Bijbehara took on the Facebook, that Burhan had converted into a weapon, to write this: “May I sacrifice my life for you!”
Barely two days later, the poor boy was part of the long list of people who were killed.