Crackers were exploding loudly on the afternoon of July 8, 2016, the third of Shawaal. People were planning the weekend out. But then the sun began to slump and the crackling began to be punctuated with the stacatto of gunshots in Kokarnaag, some 60km from Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian side of Kashmir....
Crackers were exploding loudly on the afternoon of July 8, 2016, the third of Shawaal. People were planning the weekend out. But then the sun began to slump and the crackling began to be punctuated with the stacatto of gunshots in Kokarnaag, some 60km from Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian side of Kashmir.
Around 8pm, television channels in New Delhi broke the news. “Top Hizbul Commander Burhan killed in Jammu and Kashmir: police.” In a few seconds the news went viral on social media. People gathered around TV sets.
The photograph of a body lying on a stretcher spread like wildfire on the internet. The person in the picture didn’t properly resemble the clean, hopeful faced young man of the Facebook pictures that he and his supporters had always posted. His prominent black beard was trimmed to stubble against the contrast of his face that had turned sallow. His mouth was agape and the front teeth seemed broken.
[caption id="attachment_1473097" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Kashmiri protestors throw stones towards Indian government forces in clashes during a protest against death of civilians in Kashmir's ongoing unrest in Srinagar on October 7, 2016. Photo: AFP[/caption]
After each fraction of a second Facebook was flooded with a thousand simultaneous updates on Burhan. Bhat Nazima, then a university student, paid a virtual tribute, by posting a Kashmiri dirge. Soon everyone was expressing his or her pride by wishing to have been a mother or a brother or a sister or even a wife of Burhan. Hundreds and thousands of people had already replaced their profile pictures on Facebook with that of his. They condemned the killing and paid “glorious tributes” to him. Some called him a “brave leader”. Others compared him to legendary Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front commander Ishfaq Majeed Wani and Libya’s Omar Mukhtyar.
The boy who avenged a beating
Twenty-one-year old Burhan Muzaffar Wani had joined the indigenous militant outfit Hizbul Mujahedeen at the age of 15. It all started when he was in class 9. One day, Burhan, his brother and a friend were travelling on a red-and-white Yamaha FZ motorcycle. A posse from the Special Operations Group (SOG) stationed on a road in Tral stopped them and asked Burhan and company to buy cigarettes for them.
Burhan’s elder brother Khalid obeyed their order. But when Khalid returned with the cigarettes, the SOG began to beat him ruthlessly and damaged his bike. Burhan and his friend somehow escaped but Khalid fainted. From a distance, Burhan shouted at the SOG men: “I will avenge this beating.”
According to several reports Burhan waited for the right time to join the rebel ranks in Kashmir. Six months after this beating, he left home. In the years to come, people started to see him as the poster boy of the Hizbul. He used social media to address Kashmiris. His videos and pictures went viral and people, mostly young ones, spoke on the streets about his bravery.
In a second last video, Burhan had urged young people to join his outfit. He also asked the Kashmir police to shun their fight against rebels. Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, his father, prior to his son’s death, in a conversation with a Delhi-based newspaper had claimed that people supported Burhan by providing him food and shelter for over 2,190 days.
On the evening of the day Burhan was killed, outside my home, huddled in several groups, hundreds of people, including women and children, stood on a footpath, abusing the SOG, the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the Central Reserved Police Force, the Border Security Force, the Rastriya Rifles and the Army for their, “atrocities and war crimes in Kashmir”. Then a caravan of motorcyclists, waving black flags, passed by. Every time a motorcyclist chanted pro-Burhan, pro-Azadi, pro-Pakistan and anti-India slogans, the people passionately responded with raised hands.
A large group of young men riding motorcycles and scooties joined the caravan and began marching towards Tral, Burhan’s hometown. A man, in his mid-forties, rolled an old disused truck tire with his hands onto the road and set it ablaze. Soon after, people began heading to Tral, news about shutdowns and restrictions broke. A moment later the Internet was cut.
[caption id="attachment_1473102" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Pakistani activists from the Jamaat-e-Islami political party take part in a rally to mark the first anniversary of the death of rebel leader Burhan Wani in Islamabad on July 9, 2017. Photo: AFP[/caption]
The next day a lively sun shone onto the valley but the streets were drenched with a brief midnight rainfall. People had assembled on the deserted streets of Parimpora and Srinagar. They installed big boulders and poles across roads to hamper the vehicular movement of the forces. A group of small children—all aged between 10 and 13—made space for passing ambulances by occasionally pushing aside the stones. Many others, idling with stones in their hands, sat cross-legged on the middle of the road eagerly lying in wait for the police and paramilitary forces.
“Didn’t you see how the sky turned red yesterday and how sharply it rained? Some people’s blood has more sanctity than that of others,’ an elderly woman said while watching the group of protesters preparing for a stone pelting.
At Qamarari Chowk, a group of protesters threw stones at a police post, forcing the policemen to flee. They aimed their AK-47s to the sky and fired a few shots to disperse the crowd. Inch by progressive inch, from one place to another, it was becoming more and more difficult to travel or even walk on the roads.
A Kashmiri funeral like no other
In 2008 and 2010 the mass uprisings had none of this time’s vehemence. In Hyderpora, protestors would allow anyone to leave if one only spoke of going to Tral. At Chattargam, a protestor, sitting on a cart, pointed directions with a steel rod. At some places the army shielded its bunkers with civilians to protect themselves against public rage and stones.
In a single-story mosque at Nehama a handful of people, all in their 60s and 70s, sitting on their knees, were carefully listening to their imam. In a soiled off-white Khandress, the imam seemed to be teaching them how to offer funeral prayers. A few hundred meters away from them was a mammoth group of women, led by a teenaged boy, shouting anti-India, pro-Azadi and pro-Pakistan slogans.
A large group of men of different ages emerged from a three-story mosque at Marval. All of them had put on skullcaps. They began marching towards Burhan’s village or towards an open field to offer Burhan’s funeral prayers in absentia. The Army stationed on the main roads towards Pulwama stopped everyone who passed by. It was a gamble to get through.
As Tral loomed into view, the atmosphere changed. Men, women, boys, girls, children stood out on the streets. Songs of Azadi and jihad were playing loudly from every mosque right from Samboora to Tral. Traffic volunteers stood at every turn of the lanes. They guided vehicles towards Tral. Supported by a stick, held upright by small boulders, was a brown cardboard sign that read, “Tral” to direct visitors. Communities of every mosque had installed langar to provide food such as Taheri (an instantly cooked rice, sautéed in turmeric, shallots and salt) for visitors. A small fair girl stopped every visitor and handed them two polythene bags full of the rice. Another volunteer, a small boy, fished out a Pepsi bottle full of water from the stock of hundreds of used soft drink bottles. It seemed as if the entire village had donated used bottles to the volunteers. The boy urged several reporters to take more Taheri packets.
On the link road of Noorapora, small load-carriers, scooters, motorcycles and cycles coming from both ends jammed traffic. People nudged their way through the massive crowds and vehicles. The last time there was such a crowd it was in 2008 when the Hurriyat Conference had called for an Eidgah Challo. No one was smoking. A passerby informed everyone that Burhan’s “Funeral prayers are going on one after another. The last one will be held at 5pm.”
[caption id="attachment_1473107" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Kashmiri protestors throw rocks as they clash with Indian security forces in Batmaloo area of Srinagar on July 28, 2016. Photo: AFP[/caption]
People at Daadsar jumped into trucks, tippers, cars, sumos, bikes and cycles to get a last glimpse of him. The number plates of the vehicles suggested that people had come to Tral from districts across the Valley. They came from Srinagar, Budgam, Baramulla, Bandipora, Gandarbal.
People gathered at Shareefabaad by the second. Burhan was laid to rest at 2:30pm. The ground closer to the Martyr’s Graveyard was filled with women. They were trying their best to catch a glimpse of Burhan’s grave, which was located on a plateau and covered with branches. Burhan was buried next to his brother Khalid who was killed by the forces a year ago to provoke Burhan into retaliating.
The section for “martyrs” was enclosed by a yellow nylon rope. A man in a light brown Khandress crossed the nylon border and started reciting Surah-e-Fateha. After finishing, he spread his hands out and wept. “Oh Allah set free us from India.”
Mourners surrounding him responded “Aameen,” with wet eyes. Some of them cried loudly and even slapped their faces. They could not believe Burhan was dead. Before leaving the graveyard, people deposited handfuls of soil on his grave as a mark of respect. The volunteers near the grave asked mourners to clear space for others.
Three boys sat on a plinth of the grave. One of them identified himself as Tauseef Ahmad. “No one was in their house when we heard the news. The atmosphere in Tral was completely different. People waited for him like anything.”
When Burhan was brought home at around 2am that day, people thronged his house in a stampede. They climbed its walls. “You won’t find walls around his house. All the walls of his house have collapsed,” Ahmad said. “Twenty funeral prayers were held one after another in the Eidgah, that stretched across 150 kanals, in just one day. The rope had to be tied around the graves as they were actually protected by an iron fence earlier, but it is gone.”
Another resident who did not provide her name said, “Seeing the rush, I’m sure, people would still have been offering Burhan’s funeral prayers had his father Muzaffar Sahib not intervened. He requested people to bury him as soon as possible. He was perhaps right, something would have definitely happened here because people were getting angry when they saw his body.”
A well-built, bearded tall man rebuked some men who were requesting an ambulance driver to drop women where they had come from. “More than fifty people have been injured so far [at around 3:30 pm] while fighting Indian […]. Who will take them to hospital if he goes and drops them?” he asked them. “Keep the ambulances free and ready we may need them anytime,” he shouted.
Sikhs helped Muslims distribute water and Taheri to the mourners. An elderly Sikh man tore open packs of biscuits and threw some packets to people sitting on top a tractor’s trolley.
[caption id="attachment_1473117" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Members of Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) offer absentia funeral prayer for Burhan Wani during a rally against the killings in Indian-administered Kashmir, in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir on July 13, 2016. Photo: AFP[/caption]
The Tral-Srinagar highway was taken over by thousands of protesters. An Army convoy that passed below was showered by stones as protesters took an advantage of the height. They continuously shouted at civilians to hurry up and leave so that would be able to better pelt the army vehicles.
Saturday July 9, the day after Burhan was killed become bloodier with the killing of 12 unarmed protesters and injuries to 200 across the Valley.
The protestors praised Burhan for reviving militancy. An engineering student and a stone thrower had come from Nowhatta, Srinagar to participate in the protest in the district of Pulwama. “Atrocities by Indian forces created Burhan. They forced him to take the gun and then labeled him a terrorist. He was not a terrorist. India is the terrorist but the international community is not able to see it,” he said.
Two years after his death, Burhan continues to be a role model for millions of Kashmiris. People across the disputed territory continue to praise him for his kindheartedness, as he opposed the killing of local policemen and informers.
Since then, scores of educated young people have taken up arms. The rebel ranks have swelled with scholars, professors and young men from well-off families. The families support them.
Recently a video went viral on Facebook in which a girl clad in a black veil refused the Indian army’s request to ask her militant brother Adil Ahmad Wani to surrender. “If he returns home, I will martyr him with my own hands,” she is heard saying to an army man sitting near her father on a veranda of their house in the 1:42 minute clip.
A new phase has emerged as well. Hundreds of young people throng encounter sites with the aim of helping militants flee gun battles. Several young boys have been killed while trying to successfully help militants. “We Kashmiris have now understood the importance of the gun so we have been left with no choice than to help militants despite knowing that we might be killed.”
This young man said that had Burhan’s encounter gone on for a few more hours he and dozens of his friends would have gone right up to Kokarnaag to shield him. “Only an army of boys could have fought an army of killers,” he said. “Two years ago they killed Burhan and today each house has one.”