Burhan, the legend

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As death toll goes up to 30 in just three days, Kashmir seems set for another extended summer of discontent. Nobody could have imagined that a militant commander’s death will spawn anger and grief at such a large scale and drive almost entire Valley out on to the streets.  This is the first time since the early nineties when a militant’s death has tipped Kashmir into turmoil, something that speaks to cult-like status that Burhan enjoyed in Valley.

 He was among the first batch of Kashmiri boys who took up arms following extended 2010 separatist unrest. He was allegedly forced to join militancy after his brother was beaten by the security personnel at an Army camp while the two were running an errand for the family. This is a story that has since become a legend in Kashmir. It falls into a familiar victim-versus-oppressor trope, lending rationale not only to Burhan’s embrace of jihad but also vicariously expressing an entrenched  collective grievance  against the security agencies in the state. He had acquired an outsize symbolic role, seeming to represent a commanding presence of the militancy by just being alive.

 Burhan, however, had a huge role in inspiring a fresh local recruitment to the militant ranks which by 2010 had almost declined to a trickle. And because of this by 2015 the number of the local militants outnumbered the foreigners for the first time in a decade. Out of 142 active militants in Valley, 88 were locals and the rest from Pakistan. And this is a ratio that by and large still holds. Burhan did it by taking militancy to the social media. He put his videos and pictures and that of his colleagues on Facebook and Whatsapp. They went viral, glamourizing militancy in the process. A group of handsome young men with Kalashnikovs bonding against a hilly backdrop conveyed an image of romance than an invitation to death.

 This also set off his cult. Yarns were built around him. What is more, he survived more than five years to allow the myth to take hold. While his colleagues kept dying, some of them part of his online pictures, Burhan seemed to escape the inevitable. Popular imagination thus invested him with some spiritual powers which further enhanced his image.

For a while Burhan disappeared from the Facebook. Fewer new pictures of his and his colleagues were posted on Facebook which only lend his tale some more mystery. But in a recent video which soon went viral, Burhan staged a triumphant comeback on the social media scene. This time the video was directly addressed to people. It showed him in command and in the thick of the ongoing militant campaign in the state.

What made Burhan so important and dear to the people in Valley? People usually cite his social media profile through which he brought militancy into our living rooms. His videos and pictures were watched by every Kashmiri apart from the people outside the state. But Burhan’s real significance lay in giving people in Valley an elusive sense of political empowerment denied to them by their politicians – more acutely so by the leaders they elect to power but are found to be representing New Delhi in Kashmir. He also represented yet another shot at Azadi. And in his death, people seem to have lost this sense of power yet again.  

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