Burhan changed Kashmir militancy like never before

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IN July last year a picture of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, 23, flanked by ten fresh recruits, appeared on Facebook and went viral. Face uncovered, they sat on the slope of a thick orchard somewhere in South Kashmir with Kalashankovs hung loosely off their shoulders. Striking a deliberate pose, all faced camera with calmness, some also with a hint of a smile.

The image held an overpowering appeal for Kashmir’s new generation already showing signs of deep estrangement from New Delhi. The image was widely shared on Facebook and Whatsapp, building along the way a pro-militancy conversation.

The picture heralded the arrival of the new age militancy in Kashmir and captured what is called “Burhan effect” on the ongoing jihad: For the first time in a decade, the ratio between indigenous and the foreign militants had changed in favour of the former. Out of 142 active militants in Valley, 88 were locals and the rest from Pakistan. The equation still holds. By the latest count, around 145 militants are active in Valley out of which 91 are locals and 54 foreigners.  

And this has been a single-handed achievement of Burhan. Ever since he took up gun in 2010 at the age of 17, Burhan had captured the imagination of the new angry Kashmir generation. This generation has been completely bred in the political conflict in the state but it had held off its allegiance to any political ideology before being swept away by the upsurge over the 2008 Amarnath land row. A predominant majority of the youth was suddenly drawn to the separatist ideology.

Burhan became the pin-up boy of Kashmir jihad for this generation, someone they could relate to as against the obscure, faceless foreign jihadis. He was seen as someone who had graduated from stone-throwing to gun for a more matching fight with the government forces. Burhan played to this sentiment. By taking to social media and posting his pictures and videos and that of his colleagues, he imparted a renewed romance to the militancy and invested it with a moral glamour as a fight against an oppressive system.

However, the role of his persona in effecting this change may have only been incidental. He just happened to take up arms at a strategic time: By 2010, militancy had been in decline for almost a decade which had by and large faded the memory of the darkest early nineties. More so, for the 20 year olds who had little conscious memory of the period. Under the circumstances, 17 year old handsome boy with a gun came as a nostalgic throwback to the once failed youthful challenge to New Delhi. 

According to the sources in police, Burhan effect brought hundred more local militants to the otherwise depleted Hizbul Mujahideen ranks which put the outfit back in the vanguard of Kashmir jihad. None of these recruits, however, went to Pakistan but were trained locally, even in some cases forced to snatch weapons for themselves from the police men standing guard in public places. So unlike battle-hardened and well-trained foreign jihadis, they could inflict little real damage and when tracked down by security agencies, most of them are killed without much fight.

But as was inevitable, after initial social media high, the new recruits have found it hard to evade the security net. Since 2015, around 180 militants have lost their lives, 80 of them in the past six months. This inexorable counter-insurgency onslaught has now culminated into the killing of Burhan himself,  the architect of this new mobilization.

Will Burhan’s death act as a damper to the Valley’s new Jihad rush and expose once again the futility of this dangerous option? 

“This could act in both ways.  A rational takeaway certainly should be the futility of the violence and the impossibility of evading death when you take up arms,” said a police officer. “But it could give fillip to the fresh recruitment with Burhan becoming a stronger symbol of jihad than he was in death. We are keeping our fingers crossed”.

Former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, however, sees the later possibility likelier than the former.

“Mark my words – Burhan’s ability to recruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media,” Omar wrote on microblogging site Twitter. 

“After many years, I hear slogans for ‘Azadi’ resonate from the mosque in my uptown Srinagar locality. Kashmir’s disaffected got a new icon yesterday,” the National Conference leader said.

Omar has a point. Literally a sea of people participated in Burhan’s funeral in South Kashmir. First time after nineties, Srinagar woke up to a series of nocturnal revolts, with loudspeakers booming with Azadi slogans. Several urban parts of the Valley witnessed a raucous rumble of the seething masses moving through the streets. The echoes were not limited to the Valley’s major towns alone, the protest also spread to the larger countryside and swept into the hitherto insulated border areas. These are the kind of places which might be frequent sites of militant violence but have been always cut off from the heady Azadi groundswell in the plains.

In police action so far, two youth have been killed. Protesters have reportedly torched three police stations and attacked an army camp following which police opened fire to break up the crowd.  

“But this could peter out in a day or two. And situation could be normal again,” says the police officer adding there have been instances in the past when neutralizing of a high profile militant has put an extended damper on the militancy. “We could hope for a similar outcome here. “

The successive killings of the scores of militants, most of them local, over the past six months has also caused a section of people to speak disapprovingly of the recourse to gun – albeit in hush-hush tones. So have some separatist leaders. But they don’t feel situation can be helped.

“No democratic space is allowed for Azadi groups to carry out their activities. Geelani Sahib has been under house arrest for the past six years,” says Hurriyat G spokesman Ayaz Akber. “There is even no space for peaceful protests. So, the only option for youth to resist India is to go underground and pick up the gun”. 

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