Only three months after having earned the distinction of being the first woman to become Chief Minister of the border State of Jammu and Kashmir, People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti is facing the toughest challenge in her two-decade long career in tumultuous politics of the State.
Clouds of death and devastation once again hang low over Kashmir. In just three days no less than 30 people have fallen to the bullets fired by embattled troops and local police, facing hostile crowds in the wake of death of a top notch Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander in an encounter.
On July 8, people in Kashmir were still in festive mood brought by Eid-ul-Fitr after month long fasting when the news of death of the militants’ mascot – Burhan Muzaffar Wani sent sparks all over turning the atmosphere dangerously surcharged. Wani and his two associates were killed in a three-hour long gun battle in south Kashmir’s Kokernag area in Anantnag district. As per the reports, Wani was there to fetch weapons when police got a tip off and lunched a joint operation with Army's 19 Rashtriya Rifles to terminate one of the most wanted militants in the State.
Burhan had become an inspiration for disaffected youth in Kashmir and was carrying a bounty of Rs 10 lakh on his head. The Government forces termed the operation as one of their biggest successes and a big blow to militancy that has been dogging the Valley for long.
Courtesy the entwined charge of Home Ministry that the Chief Minister has, Mehbooba Mufti had the knowledge of the operation. Reports also suggest that on the instructions of Government, intelligence agencies were just waiting for the end of the by-poll in Anantnag where Mehbooba was also contesting before carrying out the operation to eliminate the dreaded militant.
As soon as the news of Burhan’s death spread the air became thick with anguish. People in large numbers came out onto streets to mark their protest over the killing. Announcements were made on public address system with youth trooping out to raise slogans to laud Burhan. The loudspeakers started blurting out anti-India and pro-freedom slogans -- “Tum Kitney Burhann Maroge Har Ghar Se Burhan Niklega” (How many Burhans will be killed, every house will give birth to one) were resonating through the air.
Despite State administration’s decision to impose curfew across the Valley, scores of people thronged Burhan’s hometown Tral to attend the last rites. Eye witnesses said that as many as 40 funeral processions wound their way to join the mourners before the 21-year-old rebel was buried next to his brother (Khalid Wani) who too was killed by the troops in April last year -- when he went to meet Burhan in the forests near their village.
Soon after the rites what followed was nothing but one of the worst mayhems. The intense protests started in south Kashmir and in some parts of Srinagar. Defying the curfew orders, angry youth engaged the forces in pitched battles that resulted in the death of 30 people while over 300 others got injured -- some of them critically.
One policeman was killed in south Kashmir when a mob attacked him and shoved his vehicle in the river Jhelum. Government claims that 96 police personnel got injured in the stone pelting incidents across the Valley, while many police posts were set ablaze by angry mobs.
The turn of events was reminiscent of daily stone pelting in 2010 when as many as 120 people were shot dead by paramilitary forces and local police. It was one of the main reasons for the then ruling party or the National Conference to be humbled in 2014 Assembly elections. Mehbooba at that time in the Opposition held the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah responsible for the killings and sought his resignation. She, strangely, finds herself in a similar spot today. The Opposition is already gearing up to corner the newly elected Chief Minister.
Why sympathy for militants
So why are people coming onto streets and protest in support of a militant whom establishment terms a “dreaded terrorist, and a threat to the society”?
It is for about 69 years since the Kashmir problem has been festering. And New Delhi has not been able to earn Kashmiris trust. With little or no space for dissent a violent turn cannot be hard to be imagined for events to take. Whenever youth come out on the streets for even peaceful protest they are fired upon. Even teenagers are being booked and jailed for years without trial. Laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) amount to impunity for security forces even in the wake of killings of innocent people. This has given way to not only anger among Kashmiris but also their support for militants.
Burhan was only 15 when he joined the militants’ ranks. Like many other youth, Burhan too was a victim of State’s high handedness. In the agitation of 2010, he along with his brother Khalid was badly beaten up by the security forces in his hometown for no apparent reason.
The scene went like this: In the summer of 2010, Burhan along with his brother and a friend were on a bike when a group of cops from Special Operations Group (SOG) of J&K Police stopped them and asked to buy cigarettes for them. After following the cops orders as the trio hastened to leave, the policemen and the paramilitary personnel pounced on them. Khalid fell unconscious while Burhan and his friend made away. At a distance from the policemen, Burhan stopped and shouted back, “I will avenge this.”
Six months later, Burhan joined the militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
In his six years of active militancy, Burhan had reportedly recruited at least100 boys to fill the militants’ ranks. Changing the trend by not hiding his identity, Burhan made full use of the social media to reach out to the masses. He released myriad videos to appeal youth to join him for what he called to get “Kashmir free from the clutches of tyrannical Indian occupation”. Within no time, Burhan became a favourite among youth and his photographs and videos were widely shared and hailed on social networking sites across Kashmir.
His influence can be gauged from the fact that in 2015, for the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered foreigners. As per the figures of Jammu and Kashmir Police, out of 142 active militants in Kashmir 88 are locals and only 54 are foreign militants.
In south Kashmir which is home of Burhan around 60 young men have joined militants in the past six months.
What is in store
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah warning of a serious consequences said, “Mark my words - Burhan's ability to recruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media.”
Experts too believe that his death is bound to inspire many local youth to join the ranks of militants.
“Thirty people have already laid their life after his death. Imagine how many will be motivated to follow his footsteps. I am afraid that his death has infused a new life into the militancy,” said senior journalist, Sajad Kralyari.
Kralyari believes that after the separatist leaders failed to yield any results in 2010 agitation, Burhan gave the estranged youth in Kashmir a new hope to believe in.
“If you analyse the situation after 2010, majority of people especially the youth were very disappointed. After losing 120 people in the protests nothing was achieved. But then rose Burhan who by his videos become a new idol for Kashmiri people,” he said.
Burhan may be dead but its fallout is huge. It became evident when hundreds and thousands of people joined his funeral procession. Despite ban on internet, his photos were posted on the social media. Some wrote verses in his memory, while many others changed their profile pictures on Facebook to either a black square or with Burhan’s own photo to mourn his death.
Many are already comparing Burhan’s death with that of Ashfaq Majeed Wani, another militant commander, whose death in 1990 became the source of inspiration for many who took to guns and led to a full blown and widespread insurgency in Kashmir.
In this sense, Burhan’s death may not be the end but may well be the beginning of a spurt in militancy that has been on downslide until the incidents of past few days. Before that transpires State and Centre need to revisit the policy towards the conflict-torn State and find some amicable solution to the problem.
Or else, it may be too late.