Burhan Wani’s killing in 2016 summer was the key factor in converting a scholar into a militant. Tral teenager used technology to revive a near-dead militancy and Manan Wani used his pen to draft militancy’s new gospel, reports Shams Irfan
On the chilly morning of October 11, 2018, Kashmir woke up to the news of an encounter in Shatgund Bala, 100 kms north of Srinagar, in Handwara belt, not so far away from the Line of Control. Within no time, social media was abuzz with rumours that scholar turned Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant Manan Wani, a resident of small Tekipora village in picturesque Lolab valley, was among the slain.
Wani, who left his PhD mid-way in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), joined Hizb in January 2018. The ten months of his militant life in the south Kashmir woods, during which he wrote two open letters addressed to Kashmiris, helped him become a rebel ideologue. His letters, excerpts of which were shared online, helped Manan connect with young and educated in Kashmir. Perhaps that is why authorities ordered a shutdown of schools and universities across Kashmir, even before Manan’s killing in the encounter was formally announced. This “preventive measure” was to avoid any post-Burhan Wani killing like spontaneous reaction.
But between the killing of (Burhan) Wani from the South and ( Manan) Wani from the North, the militancy in Kashmir has seen major shifts, both in style and execution.
While Burhan, who joined Hizb in 2010, helped in resurrecting and reshaping militancy after a long lull, Manan’s letters helped Hizb explain its ideology and purpose.
Though his first letter We love peace but not at the cost of our freedom which was released on July 17, 2018, was immediately taken down by police and an FIR was registered against the media outlet which published it, but the message Manan and Hizb wanted to give was out already.
This letter helped Manan retain his scholar status even after picking up a gun. The days following the release of his first letter Cardon and Search Operations (CASOs) intensified, especially in the south Kashmir.
On August 29, 2018, militants attacked an escort party of DySp headquarters near Arhama area in Shopian, killing four policemen inside an automobile workshop. Almost 36 hours later, the army barged into the house of Lashkar-e-Toiba militant Shahjahan Mir in Amshipora, Shopian and set it on fire. The same night, in nearby Nazneenpora village, unidentified gunmen tried to set afire the house of Hizb commander Syed Naveed. These two incidents, which militants blamed on police and army, put Kashmir on the brink of a “civil war” like situation. The situation flared when next day the police detained fourteen relatives of militants including Hizb operational commander Riyaz Naikoo’s father. In response, on August 31, militants abducted eleven people including policemen and their relatives from different locations in south Kashmir. This was one of the massive exercises undertaken by militants in recent years. A day later, as militants released all abducted policemen and their kin, police set free Naikoo’s father the same evening. Though the stand-off between militants and local policemen ended for the time being, counter-insurgent grid intensified their search for top Hizb men including Naikoo and Manan.
Interestingly, a few days before this stand-off between militants and police, Manan in his first letter had addressed cops, not part of counter-insurgency but maintain law and order as “soldiers of resistance”.
On September 3, 2018, after a massive day-long CASO was launched in ten villages of Pulwama, which left one civilian Fayaz Ahmad Wani, 26, a resident of Chewa-Kalan dead in army’s firing, there were rumours that Manan was in the area. But there was no official confirmation as the CASO was later termed as “routine exercise” by the army and killing of (Fayaz) Wani “unfortunate”.
Apart from his letters, Manan, who was vocal during his AMU days and an active participant in student politics, surprisingly kept low-profile after joining Hizb. Unlike other top Hizb militants, who made regular appearances at the funerals of fellow militants, Manan kept quite. A video shot on August 29, during top Hizb commander Altaf Kachru’s funeral in Kulgam, showed a number of militants offering gun-salute. A voice in the video is seen pointing towards a militant and saying, “Manan Wani”. But the authenticity of the claim was never verified.
On September 14, Manan’s second letter titled Voice from hills was circulated online through whatapp and facebook. Unlike his first letter, this one Manan pushed through social media sites skipping the formal Kashmir media, as he knew they cannot publish it given the fate of Current News Service, a local news gathering agency that published the first one. In this letter, Manan wrote about his journey from the hills of Lolab to Srinagar, AMU, and then back to the hills of south Kashmir as a militant. “I am reasonably satisfied with the redressal mechanism I chose,” he wrote.
His letter only took forward the social media campaign that Burhan started in mid-2013, and gave Hizb an edge over other militant outfits operating in Kashmir.
The fact that Manan’s transformation took final shape the day Burhan was killed vindicates former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s assertion, “Mark my words – Burhan’s ability to recruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media.”
But little did Abdullah know that Manan will end up using the same social media platform to shape a narrative through his open letters.
Already considered as the “gospel” of new age militancy, Manan’s letters not only details his personal struggle till he picked up a gun but also questions the iron-hand policy of the government that made a PhD scholar, with promising future, to join militancy.
“Today a PhD scholar chose death over life and was killed in an encounter,” Kashmir’s ousted Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti wrote in a tweet. “His death is entirely our loss as we are losing young educated boys every day”.
But the massive presence at his funeral despite the only road to Lolab valley being sealed by SOG personnel, Manan has managed to create a storm in the otherwise calm north. Perhaps, it was the same storm that disturbed him in AMU after the death of Burhan in July 2016.
As the news of his death reached Tekipora, a small village lapped in mountains, young boys from the area quickly pasted print-outs with quotes from his two letters on a tin wall near his house. More than his “heroics” in the maiden gun-battle he was part of, it was his words that were talked about both on and offline.
Unlike Burhan, who helped Hizb survive and reconnect with people at the ground level, Manan successfully cut through the rhetoric to present Hizb as an ideology based militant outfit.
In his second letter Manan writes: “Remember, I was born in the hills and I am back to them again.”
Indeed, he was back to the hills, but this time followed by over fifty thousand mourners, who carried his lifeless body home. Will Manan’s death proves another key movement in Kashmir’s new age militancy, especially for the north Kashmir, only time will tell?
But just like Burhan, who most likely didn’t fire even a single bullet in his entire militant life, Manan too ends up appealing young and inquisitive minds.
“With the talent he had, I was sure Manan will become famous in entire Kupwara,” said his father Bashir Ahmad in January, a few days after Manan had disappeared from AMU, Aligarh, to join militancy. On Thursday, he saw his words vindicating when thousands of people surrounding his home were seeking the last glimpse of his slain son’s face.