Burhan’s ‘Successor’s’ Killing Threatens to Again Push Valley Off the Cliff

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SRINAGAR: It is de javu in Kashmir. Almost a year after the killing of the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani tipped Valley into an extended unrest leading to a close to 100 killings and several hundred blindings, the  killing  of his successor Sabzar Bhat threatens to take the Valley down same violent path again.

Sabzar was killed along with two of  his colleagues at Saimoh village of Tral township of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The encounter,  the police said, followed an alleged ambush on an Army patrol outside the village. However, the villagers don’t buy into the ambush theory, insisting that the security forces had a specific input about Sabzar’s hideout.

But the news that Sabzar had been trapped was enough to get the Valley hold its breath. People grew anxious about the fallout. And by the time the commander was killed around mid-day, the violent protests  had broken out across South Kashmir and across numerous other places in central and North Kashmir, just like the way it had last year. One new dimension is the participation in a big way of the college students. Students staged protests in North Kashmir towns of Sopore and Handwara and across all towns of South Kashmir.

One civilian Molvi Aqib Ahmad of Khanqah Tral was killed and several others injured after they were hit by bullets during protests near the site of gunbattle. Dozens others were injured in the nearby Anantnag district. Reports said sixteen injured persons were brought to Anantnag district hospital from various parts of the district.

The state government moved fast to suspend the mobile internet to prevent the circulation of the pictures and videos of the protests. Ironically, it was only yesterday that the government had lifted the ban on social media in view of the ensuing fasting month of Ramazan.

In Srinagar, the district administration imposed strict restrictions in areas falling under the jurisdiction of eight police stations “until further orders.”

There is some confusion about Sabzar being Burhan’s successor. However, he was a very influential militant commander and widely believed to be Hizb’s Valley operational chief – albeit his erstwhile colleague Zakir Musa’s intermittent statements on social media outlining Hizb’s policies challenged this notion.

Last year, following Burhan’s killing, Hizb had anointed a militant with an alias Mehmood Gaznavi as its Valley chief. Since Sabzar was a close associate of Burhan and as such had gained some clout in the Hizb ranks, people perceived he was the successor. But unlike Burhan, he rarely appeared in the videos on the internet. In fact, after the  immediate aftermath of Burhan’s killing, when some of the social media videos showed him roaming the forests along with his colleagues, Sabzar all but disappeared. It was Zakir who regularly spoke for the Hizb until his recent bitter fallout with the outfit over ideological issues.

Zakir publicly took on the separatist amalgam Hurriyat Conference over the latter’s branding of Kashmir movement as political in nature. Zakir asserted that the struggle was for “the glory of Islam” and not for nation and nationalism. After his position was rejected by the Hizb’s Muzaffarabad based leadership, Zakir quit the outfit and hinted at floating one of his own.

Little is, however, known about Zakir’s equation with Sabzar and whether Sabzar supported him or not. And whether the duo had parted ways and were heading the two separate outfits.

What is not in dispute is the popularity of Sabzar. His death has spawned a deep outpouring of grief and a massive public groundswell. As this report is being filed, people from the surrounding villages are flocking to Tral, Sabzar’s town, to participate in his funeral prayers. Around five lakh believed are believed to have participated in Burhan’s funeral last year. And if the authorities hand over the body and ease the movement in Tral, lakhs are expected to attend Sabzar’s funeral.

So where are things headed? In the gathering groundswell, the only thing that can pre-empt a repeat of the last year’s turmoil is for the government to act with a great deal of restraint and ensure no further civilian killings take place.

“The coming few days are thus crucial. If no more killings take place, the government could be hoped to overcome the first major challenge to peace this summer,” says Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. “One more thing going in favour of the government is that the last year’s extended unrest has set in a protest fatigue in Valley. Economy too has been hammered, leaving businesses hardly in a position to go for more hartals. So, people would hardly support a drawn protest if government doesn’t provoke with more killings and blindings”  

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