In what is billed as the biggest jolt to militancy in J&K in recent years, security forces killed top Hizbul Mujahideen commander and the new poster boy of Kashmir jihad Burhan Muzaffar Wani. Two of his associates were also killed in the operation and one of them Sartaj Ahmad Sheikh was a recycled militant and had returned to Kashmir six months ago after spending 17 years in Pakistan.
The trio were staying at the house of Sartaj’s kin, when on a tip-off, the special operations group of Kashmir police and the Army raided the house and killed them following a brief gunfight.
Unconfirmed reports say one youth has so far been killed in the protests that swept through Valley soon after the news of Burhan’s death was announced.
In South Kashmir, people hit the roads to protest Burhan’s killing, burning tyres and shouting anti-India slogans.
In a throwback to the nineties, the mosque loud-speakers reverberated with pro-Azadi slogans.
At Kaimoh, the crowd attacked a police station. In Anantnag’s main square, the people gathered at midnight, many of them inconsolable.
The scenes were replicated throughout the night in central and North Kashmir too, forcing the state government to temporarily shut down internet and impose curfew in sensitive areas including the downtown Srinagar.
Separatist leaders competed to issue the hartal call for Saturday. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik issued statements calling on people to protest the killing.
This is the first time ever after the early nineties when a militant’s death has tipped Kashmir into turmoil, something that indicates the 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 allegedly joined militancy after his brother was beaten by the security personnel at an Army camp while the duo were running an errand for the family.
This is a story that has since become a legend in Kashmir. It fits into a familiar Bollywood style 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.
Burhan, as top police officers said, never participated in a direct attack on security forces, “not even firing a shot”.
Hizbul militants, however, did recently kill several police men, something he sanctioned in his last video where he also threatened of more such attacks in future.
But 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 or Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. And this is a ration 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 jihad 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 this process of mythification 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.
Along the way, however, some scepticism also crept in. Few people started questioning as to why only his colleagues got killed. For a while Burhan disappeared from the social media. 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 violence in the state.
“Indian Army is our enemy. But not the Kashmir Police. They are our own people. But then why do they attack us,” Burhan asked in the six minute video. “This has forced us to attack and kill some of their personnel. And we will continue to do so, if they don’t turn their gun against India rather than towards us”.
Ironically, exactly a month after the video was released, the Special Operation Group of Kashmir Police tracked him and killed him with Army assisting in the operation.