Scholar with a gun

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When Lolab’s Mannan Wani drove from AMU to join rebels, everybody within and outside the security grid started asking: “Why did an AMU scholar leave his PhD for a gun?” Shams Irfan took the same question to his home for his professor father

Mannan Bashir Wani

The excitement to visit home would often fade once Mannan Bashir Wani, 27, a PhD scholar at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) would reach Kupwara town – still 23 kilometres short of his Tekipora home in Lolab valley.

From here, Mannan knew he has to pass five iron gates, erected in the middle of Kupwara-Lolab road.

The first four gates guard entry and exit points of Zangli garrison, one of the biggest in north Kashmir, which till mid-2016, was the only way through which one could access Lolab valley. The fifth gate is erected in the middle of the road in Krusun, one of Lolab’s small nondescript hamlets.

Manned by army men round the clock, the Krusun gate would close after sunset. If left out, Mannan knew he has to take a detour near Wavoora, and then cross four more garrisons to reach home.

Since September 2011, the year Mannan got admission in a Post Graduation programme at AMU, he used to cross nine garrisons between Kupwara and Tekipora – as a routine, often without a hint of unease.

But in the summer of 2017, when Mannan came home for holidays – though there was a new road outside Zangila gates now – his father Bashir Ahmad Wani, a Professor at Sogam Higher Secondary, saw a changed person in his son.

“He was talking less now,” recalls Wani. “There was a visible change in his behaviour as well.”

But Mannan’s silence was not sudden as Wani would believe earlier. It started taking shape after Burhan Wani was killed in Kokernag on July 8, 2016. “I came home and saw Mannan and his friends crying,” recalls Wani. “I asked him what happened. But he continued crying like a child.”

Then, amid sobs, Mannan told his father: Burhan is killed. “I tried to console him but he was visibly in pain.”

For next two days, Mannan confined himself to his room. Wani took it as a natural outburst of emotions by a youngster, and let him to mourn. “Everyone in Kashmir was pained by his (Burhan’s) death,” said Wani. “So, I didn’t get alarmed by his behaviour then.”

However, as Kashmir hospitals started getting overwhelmed with youngsters bearing pellets and bullets, Mannan’s father urged him to pack his bags and go back to AMU. “I could see, he was reluctant to go back this time,” recalls Wani. “He wanted to stay for a few more days, but I didn’t allow him.”

Finally, ten days after Burhan’s killing, at around 5 am, Mannan boarded a taxi and left towards Srinagar airport in the darkness. As the taxi raced through empty roads, Mannan could see almost entire 125 kilometre stretch – from Lolab to Srinagar – painted with pro-Burhan graffiti’s.

Once in AMU, Mannan called his father and told him that he is missing Kashmir. “It was strange. He wanted to come back,” recalls Wani. “I told him, you just went back! Stay there for some time as the situation is tense here.”

But when he insisted, Wani told him to talk to his elder brother Mubashir Bashir, a junior engineer posted in Kupwara town. “He told him to wait for another ten days till situation improve a bit,” recalls Wani.

Ten days later Mannan called his brother and asked him the same question. Sensing homesickness in his voice Mannan was finally allowed to come home.

During his stay at home, Mannan would often sit with his father until late hours and talk about politics, religion, and social issues but this time Wani noticed a change in his son.

“I brushed it off as part of his new life in AMU where one comes across people of different ideologies,” said Wani.

Then one night, during a casual conversation centered around Kashmir’s troubled history, religion and politics,  Wani was shocked to notice his son endorsing Wahabism – a puritanical form of Sunni Islam, a stream Wani himself gave up in 1997 for Sufism.

“I have raised my kids teaching them Sufi Islam,” said Wani, who draws his influence from the works of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the AMU founder.

“I was shocked. I had the impression that he follows Sufism.

A few days later, when village elders came with a complaint that Mannan was talking Wahabism inside the mosque, it alarmed Wani.

“No doubt I was concerned. But I thought this would pass with time,” recalls Wani. “But I was wrong.”

Within a few days of his arrival, when Mannan saw police hunting youngsters for taking part in post-Burhan protests, he instantly decided to go back to AMU.

“He was unnerved by the pakad dakad (hunt-down) in the area,” recalls Wani.

Later that year, as Student Union elections were announced in AMU, Mannan told his father that he wants to contest for president’s post. “I talked him out of it and told him to focus on his studies instead,” said Wani.

During election days, student politics and elections would dominate Mannan’s phone calls home. He ended up as a spokesperson for a contestant.

In Tekipora, sitting in his modest two-storey house, Wani would dream of a bright future for Mannan. “His mission was different. I wanted him to follow Sir Syed’s footsteps,” said Wani, sadly.

When Mannan first landed in AMU, everyone in the Tekipora village started pinning their hopes on him.

“He could have helped the society in a better way. But since childhood he took his own decisions,” said Wani.

Journey to Aligarh

A painting of AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan shared by Mannan Wani on his twitter account.

The first independent decision Mannan took was in Class 6, when he insisted to get admission in Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV) – a chain of the government of India run schools.

The nearest one was located near a garrison in Podshahi village, some 17 kilometres from Mannan’s home. It was there Mannan picked up leadership qualities and started participating in debates as an orator. On January 26, and August 15, Mannan would often play lead roles in managing school functions.  Within a year, Mannan was the most talked about students in his area.

As an all-rounder, Mannan represented his school in Kabaddi at the national level. He was equally good at volleyball and football. One day Mannan’s principal told Wani: Mannan bahut chota hai, par batien bahut badi karta hai (He is quite young, but talks like a grown up).

After schooling, Mannan went to Srinagar for his bachelors’ in Science from Amar Singh College. In 2011, he took admission for a master’s programme in Geology at Kashmir University (KU). But within three months, he was fed up and withdrew his admission.

Son’s words still ring in father’s mind: “You don’t recognize my genius. Please let me decide for myself, I won’t let you down.”

In September 2011, he enrolled in AMU for his post-graduation degree in Geology. “He then did his MPhil from there as well,” said Wani.

In 2015, when Mannan finally got admission in PhD, Wani couldn’t help but admit his son’s capability and decision making powers. “He has proved that his decision to quit KU was right,” said Wani.

The other reason Wani was happy with Mannan’s decision was his choice of topics for MPhil and PhD. In MPhil, Mannan studied the watershed characterization of Lolab valley and in PhD, he was studying structural geology, both relevant to the place where he lived. “He wanted to help his area in whatever way possible,” said Wani.

It was Mannan who made Wani change his decision to shift their base to Srinagar. “I had purchased a piece of land in Soura, which I sold after Mannan refused to move out of Lolab. He wanted me to stay in the village and help people.”

Apart from changing the fate of his area, little did Wani know that Mannan was about to change his life too.

In September 2017, when Mannan came home briefly for his brother’s engagement, Wani noticed a “strange” change in him. “He was completely silent this time,” recalls Wani. “Something was bothering him but nobody knew what?”

Then one day, after breaking a week-long silence, Mannan asked his father, “Do you think I have changed?”

This simply but frank question from Mannan took Wani by surprise. “Yes, you have changed but only three percent,” Wani replied jokingly. “You don’t ask for money anymore, or fight for more.”

During his brief stay at home, Mannan mostly kept to himself, without letting anybody know what was going on in his mind. “This time too he was reluctant to go back. I could sense he wanted to stay for a few more days,” said Wani.

Before he left, he told his father to finalize dates of his brother’s marriage, and convey him accordingly, so that he can plan his next visit accordingly.

Musa is Right

Bashir Ahmad Wani, father of Mannan Bashir.

On October 28, 2017, after spending just over a month in Aligarh, Mannan came back for his brother’s marriage. This time too Wani noticed a change in his behaviour, but when Mannan started taking part in family functions enthusiastically, his worries vanished. “I thought it’s because his elder brother is getting married, and as a youngster, he has someone in mind too,” said Wani.

Then, in order to be sure, Wani asked his daughter to probe Mannan and see if he has someone in mind. When Mannan learned about it, he told his father, “You should not worry about my marriage. It won’t take you much time.”

In order to cheer him up, Wani asked Mannan about his life in AMU, especially about recently held student union elections. But to Wani’s surprise, he was disinterested in student’s politics, now. Also, Wani noticed how Mannan was more responsive towards relatives and friends this time.

One night, during a routine discussion about Islam, Kashmir and politics, Wani asked Mannan, “What do you think about Zakir (Musa)?” After a brief pause, Mannan looked at his father’s face and then said confidently, “He (Zakir) is telling the truth. Undoubtedly, he is on the right path. There is no other way to judge him.”

Wani still remembers his son’s expressions when he was talking about Zakir (Musa). “When I looked at him, I could see an entirely different person. So I didn’t probe further,” said Wani. Neither did Mannan talk anything else about Zakir Musa that day onwards. “I didn’t read much into his silence even then,” said Wani.

During his stay at home, Mannan went to Srinagar to meet his friends at the KU.  After staying with them for two day when he came back, he had trimmed his long hair and beard. When his father asked him the reason, he simply said: they (government forces) ask questions. “He didn’t say anything else,” said Wani.

On December 4, 2017, after spending over a month at home, Mannan packed his bags one last time and left for Aligarh. Wani now recalls that day vividly, trying to figure out any oddity in his behaviour apart from the usual silence. “Before he left I gave him some money as usual,” recalls Wani.

To Wani’s surprise, Mannan pocketed the money without saying anything, which was unusual, as Mannan always used to bargain with his father playfully. “He used to ask for more always. It was our way of showing love to each other,” said Wani.

After meeting his brother in Kupwara, who was staying at his bride’s home for a few days, Mannan left for Aligarh.

“I didn’t know it was our last meeting. He said goodbye to everyone in the family, but that was normal,” recalls Wani.

Last Call

A file pic of Mannan Bashir Wani delivering a speech at an International Conference .

On January 3, 2018, as a routine when Bashir called Mannan on his phone at 8:30 pm, he picked up quickly and said, “I was about to call you.”

In the five minutes call, Mannan asked about everyone in the family, including his distant relatives, which was strange.

Before Wani disconnected that call he asked Mannan where he is right now. “I am in my room,” he replied.

The next day, Mannan talked to his brother and little sister over WhatsApp and sent them pictures of the recently held convocation. “I didn’t call him that day. I used to call him on alternate days,” recalls Wani.

On January 5, when Wani called his son to know about his health and studies, his phone was switched off. “I thought he must be busy somewhere,” recalls Wani.

But when Mannan’s phone remained switched off continuously, it alarmed everyone in the family. Later Wani was told that Mannan has left for Delhi. He had told his friends that one of his relatives is admitted to a Delhi hospital, and he is going to see him. At Delhi, he had told his friends that one of his relatives is admitted to a Jammu hospital, and he is going to see him there.

Then on January 7, when Wani and his family were sure about his mysterious disappearance from AMU, they went to the police station Sogam and filed a missing report.

The same day, at around 4:30 pm, a distant relative called Wani and told him that Mannan’s picture with a gun is doing rounds on the facebook. “He couldn’t fulfil Sir Syed’s mission of spreading the knowledge. He chose a different path,” said Wani.

It pains Wani to see his genius son take such an extreme step that too while living in Sir Syed’s land.

Wani is confused, as he recalls Mannan telling him often that as a Kashmiri they are always cautious not to act stupid in AMU, as it will shut doors of knowledge for coming generations forever. “It broke my heart. I was not able to react. How can he do such a thing,” feels Wani.

Before taking his first journey to Aligarh, Wani told Mannan to visit Sir Syed’s grave and offer prayers on his behalf.

“For me, the most difficult and painful news was that his registration of PHD has been cancelled. It will haunt me forever,” said Wani.

Now with Mannan’s exit from AMU, and his entry into the maze of militancy still shrouded in mystery, Wani tries to recall every small event connected to his son’s life which could have triggered a storm in his mind.

“Harassment cannot be a trigger as it’s a routine for all of us,” feels Wani. “He was not the kind of person who would pick up a gun just because he was harassed by a cop or a soldier. He needed much more than that to take such an extreme step.”

As the news of Mannan’s joining of militancy reached Lolab, everyone has just one question to ask: what made him leave a promising career and take a gun?

“Only Mannan can answer that question,” said Wani.

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