When obituaries of Kashmir militancy had been written long back, ‘everything,’ in the words of Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat, ‘turned upside down in a few days’ time after the killing of Burhan Wani on 8 July 2016. Since then, more and more young boys are disappearing into the woods to follow Burhan’s path. Why is Burhan proving more dangerous in his grave than in his living room? Kashmir Narrator revisits the young rebel’s life to know the answers.

In 2013, a militant trapped in a cordon along with his two associates in south Kashmir’s Tral makes his last wish in the signature last phone call minutes before dying in a gun battle with government forces: ‘Tell Aarif Khan to pray for my forgiveness.’

The unknown speaker on the other side did not hear clearly due to deafening gunfire sound. Aarif Khan was the nom de guerre of a local militant who, in next few years, would singlehandedly revive militancy in the Valley after it was decimated many years ago.

 To ensure that his last wish was realised, the dying militant, who was hit twice during the gunfight, shouted: ‘Tell Burhan to pray for my forgiveness.’

Once the trapped militant, Aijaz Ahmad Bhat of Lurgam, Tral, received the answer in affirmative, he gave the phone to his other associate and continued the fight. By the end of the firefight, Aijaz and his two associates, Shabir Ahmad Bhat of Hayina and Shahnawaz Ahmad Mir of Dadsara, were dead.

This was the first mention of militant commander Burhan Wani on social media whose charismatic figure and novel techniques drew a new fault line in the three-decade-long insurgency in Kashmir. As the Kashmiri youth began to share the audio message on their Whatsapps and Facebook profiles, the legend of Burhan Muzaffar Wani was born that would, ultimately, reach to the World Parliament – the UN – at his death to be projected “as a symbol of [Kashmir’s] intifada”.

 “A dying militant’s last wish is very significant. People ask him to pray for them during the last moments, while as here he is asking a living man to pray for him,” says Muhammad, a close companion of Burhan who later served him as one of his dozens of Over Ground Workers (OGWs). This explains, Burhan’s trusted OGW tells me, the reverence of rebel commanders and veterans towards teenager Burhan even when he was just a foot soldier. The little-known teenager Burhan overnight became the talk of the Tral town, as people wished to know more about the young boy whom a dying rebel wished to pray for his forgiveness.

In August 2013, a profile in the Guardian on Burhan and his new technique of using social media to galvanise militant recruitments propelled his rebel image. The newspaper inferred that with active use of cyberspace, the young kid shall be instrumental in drawing fresh recruits to swell the militant ranks in Kashmir.

In 2013 itself, Hizbul Mujahideen’s Divisional Commander for south Kashmir and Burhan’s mentor and cousin, Adil Mir, was alive. Burhan took the reins of Hizb following the killing of Mir along with his two associates in the 2014 summer.

 Before taking the social media by a storm, Burhan would easily slink off the battlefield and melt into local population. No one would have mistaken him for a rebel as his teenage looks made it hard for one and all to believe that.

 Up to mid-2013, there were passing references in media reports about the teenage-son-of-a-school-principal joining militancy. Except for a news report that erroneously claimed Burhan was killed in an encounter in Buchoo, Tral on 24 May 2013, nothing was known about him. Interestingly, Kashmir Uzma, a sister publication of Greater Kashmir, published Burhan’s picture on its front page in 25 May 2013 edition, inferring that he was the rebel killed in Buchoo encounter, though the text stated that Saifullah Ahangar was killed.

In August 2013, a profile in the Guardian on Burhan and his new technique of using social media to galvanise militant recruitments propelled his rebel image. The newspaper inferred that with active use of cyberspace, the young kid shall be instrumental in drawing fresh recruits to swell the militant ranks in Kashmir.

The Guardian was the first newspaper that profiled Burhan. Jason Burke, a war reporter for the newspaper who covered Afghanistan and Iraq war, shot Burhan to fame with a story on his techniques to glamorise militancy, says Abdullah, another OGW of Burhan, who now lives a ‘normal life’ after cutting all ties with militants after Burhan’s death.

 No one knows when was Burhan’s first picture leaked on the internet. Though there was an exchange of pictures locally through messaging apps even in 2010 itself, what triggered the move to publish them on Facebook and make them viral remains a mystery.

The first picture that was uploaded on the web showed a young smiling Burhan of 17 years of age with two AK-47 rifles in two hands and the third one slung across.

“That picture was not noticed too much, but a year later, his another picture used by the Guardian went viral,” says Abdullah. The picture showed Burhan leaning nonchalantly against a tree while a bag lay at his feet.

Burhan had a battery of OGWs who were always at his beck and call. No one but him knew how many he had. All were assigned different works: recharging mobile phones, arranging funds, buying weapons, acting as couriers, etc. But social media was not his only strength. Those who knew him since his childhood tire not while narrating the tales of “his good character and lovable nature.”

“His strength was his character and his utmost cautiousness to not kill an innocent person. His friends and foes loved him equally. Even the police appreciated him, for he would tell his cadre to fight the Indians, not your own people,” says Muhammad.

In March 2016, when one of Burhan’s men killed a woman in Noorpora village of Tral, it’s said he took a strong exception to the killing. Burhan with this cousin and mentor Adil Mir “There was a heated argument between Burhan and his associate who killed her. Though the latter tried to convince him that the woman was ‘fit to be killed’, Burhan clearly distanced himself from the act. He categorically told him that he has not joined jihad to kill locals, even if they want to harm him,” says Abdullah.

 This he had imbibed from his mentor and cousin, Mir. He would tell his flock to not kill civilians even if they spy on them. He had two things always close to him: his rifle and the Qur’an, says Abdullah.

After Burhan left to woods in October 2010, Dadsara and Shariafabad villages of Tral were in a flutter as the word had gone around that a 16-year-old son of a high school principal had joined militants. But Burhan’s parents waited patiently and thought maybe their son may return to home, says Abdullah.

 “I remember when Burhan called his father for the first time after joining the militant ranks,” Abdullah says. “His father asked him whether he satiated his heart by roaming with militants for quite some days and is he planning to return?”

 Was Zakir then a mere extension of Mir and Burhan’s ideology? “Yeah, but Adil Mir and Burhan were unlike Zakir. They had strong differences with leadership but they did not want to throw it open. But then Zakir did what he did and there was no one to guide him,” says Abdullah.

 But the word surrender was not in Burhan’s dictionary, says Abdullah, as his only wish was to play a long innings and recruit as many youth as possible for militancy.

Nevertheless, Burhan had his times of hardship during his militant life. He had to face a lot of trouble soon after he assumed the Hizb’s mantle in 2014 after Mir was killed in the Buchoo encounter.

Local reports pointed the needle of suspicion towards two women from the vicinity for tipping off the Special Operations Group of police about the presence of Mir and his associates in the area. Also, Burhan and his associates could not believe the fact that Mir, who a year earlier in 2013, killed four soldiers in the same area, could have fallen “so cheaply”. But there was no strong evidence to support the claim.

 “Burhan made it amply clear that he will not kill the two women on mere suspicion. He even said that even if he had proof that the duo were informers, he shall not kill them and quoted Mir, whom he used to refer as Bhaigash, that the fate of informers should be left to Allah for He shall give them their recompense,” says Abdullah, who himself conversed with Burhan about the matter. But Burhan had to face a lot of problems after it was rumoured that Burhan was a mole in the militant ranks, says Abdullah, adding that the police was quite successful in “tarnishing his image for quite some time.”

“Those were the most disturbing moments for Burhan. When Bhaigash (Adil Mir) was killed, something was eating Burhan up inside. And one day in 2014, he exclaimed, ‘Waen wuch soorie, waen gasoo shaheed gasin! (Let me become a martyr now, as I saw everything),” says Abdullah. Abdullah believes that coincidence coupled with vicious police propaganda propelled the idea of labelling “Burhan as a traitor.” “Police milked some coincidences in which Pakistani militants were killed in shootouts and Burhan would come alive miraculously. They planted the idea that it is impossible to come out alive from such tight cordons except you work hand in glove with the agencies,” says Abdullah. Recalling one such incident, Abdullah says that Burhan along with Zakir Musa, who had joined Hizb in 2013, and a Pakistani militant were ambushed by the CRPF troopers at Tral bus stand. In the brief shootout, says Abdullah, the Pakistani militant of Jaish outfit, who was called Arshid bhai, died instantaneously while Burhan and Musa fled from the spot.

“Not only that, Musa took the dead Pakistani militant’s rifle before leaving the place, as he had only an Insas rifle then and not an AK-47. And when police saw only the dead body and not the weapon, they started the propaganda that Burhan killed him during a group clash,” says Abdullah. However, when Burhan’s brother Khalid Muzaffar Wani was “tortured to death” by the army in April 2015, all allegations and speculations were put to rest. Earlier, even Adil Mir was in a fix in similar situations. In one incident, when a Pakistani militant was killed in a shootout while he and another local militant escaped unhurt, Mir asked the Pakistani militant to speak about their innocence before dying so that he may record his statement. “But unfortunately the foreign militant died before he could record his statement,” says Abdullah.

The propaganda was so vicious that the Pakistani cadres of Jaish-eMuhammad outfit parted their ways with Mir and his cadre and shifted their base at a distant place in south Kashmir. Mir, who took the reins of Hizb from commander Shabir Ahmad Bhat in 2013, had a tough time with Pakistan-based militant leadership. “Even though Shabir was the commander, the brainchild behind the movement in Tral was Mir. Trouble started for Mir even before he joined the militant ranks. When his brother Naeem Mir, a B.Tech student from Awantipora’s Islamic University of Science and Technology, was killed by forces in a gunfight, he did an independent ‘survey’ and found a local man involved in tipping off the police,” says Danish, a childhood friend of Mir, who remained aloof from all militant activities. All efforts to convince PaK-based militant leadership that the local had a hand in Naeem Mir’s killing could not fructify, says Danish. “When people sitting across the border did not buy Mir’s argument, he decided to take the matter into his own hand and shot at the informer.” Though the man survived, Mir had to face the music from across. All supply to the group he was a part was immediately snapped, says Danish.

Burhan Wani with Zakir Musa

 But Mir did not budge. He changed his military tactics and resorted to gun snatching from government forces. In a gunfight in Buchoo, Tral, Mir killed four soldiers and fled with two rifles, which has now become a regular practice with militants. “Trouble intensified in 2013 when Mir headed the Hizb’s south Kashmir unit. He was demonised and made to suffer for want of money and ammunition,” says Danish. While all this was happening, Burhan and Zakir were all eyes and ears to the events. What transpired in May 2017 when Zakir finally parted ways with Hizb and floated Al-Qaeda’s branch in Kashmir had roots in Mir’s friction with PaK-based leadership. Zakir was himself recruited by Mir in 2013 when he showed an inclination towards militancy.

Though almost all the new recruits had either a family history or were OGWs of some local rebel, Zakir had neither of them. Since his village, Noorpora, had no active militant for a long time, Mir chose him. Mir’s methodology was, says Abdullah, to activate different pockets where no trace of militancy was left. Though many youth from Dadsara were ready to join him, he chose Zakir for a purpose. But not before passing a test. “Zakir was made to stay all day in a field while his handler told him to wait there till he returns. When in the evening the handler came, he found Zakir waiting patiently for him. He was instantly taken in,” says Abdullah. Zakir, however, at one point “decided to quit” and return to his home. But, says Abdullah, Mir was a sheet anchor and knew how to convince the youth. “When he arrived, he told others to leave him and Zakir alone. The duo conversed behind closed doors for some time. And when the door opened, what people saw amazed them: Zakir was sobbing with streams of tears flowing from his eyes,” says Muhammad, adding that Zakir never had any thought of quitting after that.

 This connection surfaced in September 2017 when Zakir issued an audio statement on the occasion of Eid and enumerated legendary rebel commanders like Abdullah Bangroo, Ashfaq Majeed, Yaseen Yatoo but started the list with the name of Adil Mir. After breaking one cordon after another, the legend of Burhan grew in entire Kashmir. While many would question his cordon-breaking techniques, his close circle had full faith in him. “He was blessed with intuition. The moment he would get a whiff of being cordoned off, he would jump out and flee with a lightning speed,” says Muhammad. His recruitment was spot on. When one of his OGWs requested him to take a local as a fresh recruit, Burhan did not, citing weapon shortage as a reason. “And ultimately, that would-be recruit joined police after the death of Burhan,” says Muhammad. Burhan had a battery of OGWs who were always at his beck and call. No one but him knew how many he had. All were assigned different works: recharging mobile phones, arranging funds, buying weapons, acting as couriers, etc. These OGWs used to upload his pictures and videos on Facebook through fake accounts and make them viral. Burhan had not uploaded a single picture of himself on social networks, claims Muhammad. “He had his fake accounts, but he would only further his message and not his image.” Though many accounts used by Burhan are defunct now, many are still working. It was through these accounts Burhan used to communicate with his OGWs and well-wishers.

Why the Valley lit up at his death, Vinay Kaura, an insurgency expert who has studied the use of social media in Kashmir, says that the suppression of their rights to freedom of expression in the physical space has pushed the Kashmiri youth towards the ‘virtual’ space to vent their resentment and feeling of alienation. The battlefield is now a multidimensional one, encompassing both physical territory and cyberspace. This explains the best why Burhan shifted to cyberspace to further his goals. “Though he had no military strategy, he found the mass participation of Kashmiris as the viable option to destabilise security apparatus of the State. And he found Facebook the best platform to do mass mobilisation. Amazingly, he had grand success in doing so,” a south Kashmir-based police official tells Kashmir Narrator. Those who were close to him say that Burhan did not kill a single policeman or soldier in his militant tenure. “He always fired in self-defence during cordons. There is not a single offensive attack done by him,” says Gulzar, another OGW of Burhan, who too avoided rebel circles after his death. “Only once he decided to plant an IED at a place in Tral. But it failed to explode and they never tried it again,” says Gulzar. “Burhan had, probably, this proverb in his mind: ‘what the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over’,” says Gulzar. As soon as Burhan’s pictures started to flood the cyberspace in Kashmir, youngsters began to link themselves with him. Dr Kaura explains this: “Social media has shifted the paradigm in terms of the tools available to protesters in Kashmir. They no longer need to resort to illegal measures to protest and, instead, social media has given them the space to raise awareness, spread information and plan protest rallies through completely legitimate means.” The number of people in Kashmir with access to social media has increased significantly from 25 percent in 2010 to about 70 percent by the end of 2015, says Dr Kaura, an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies at the Sardar Patel University of Police, Security, and Criminal Justice in Rajasthan. This may also give us an inkling of where from the rage came that took the entire Valley by a storm.

 Indian Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, may also take a clue from here to understand “where from the rage came” after Burhan was killed. General Rawat says he’s baffled why the killing of a local rebel put the Valley on fire. In an interview recently to Indian Express’s Muzamil Jaleel, General Rawat said: “Until June 2016, everything was fine. What is that incited people so much because of that one encounter? Everything was turned upside down in a few days time. The entire south Kashmir was out in the streets, throwing stones at us, attacking our posts. By October-November, I was getting messages that people say ‘azadi dur nahi hai’ (azadi is not far away). Somebody was feeding this to people, telling them azadi was around the corner. Our posts were being regularly attacked. Stones were being pelted at our men. We had to bring the situation under control. We could not afford all that. We needed to tell people azadi is not happening. We had to establish the writ (of the State)”. It seems the new-age tech-savvy militants achieved with selfies what the militants of the 1990s failed to achieve with their guns: perplex the General of world’s fourth largest army.

There are many explanations propounded as to why Kashmir erupted after Burhan’s killing. But none offers a convincing answer. Some say the government was caught on the wrong foot and mismanaged the initial protests badly at Verninag, Kokernag, Acchabal, Vailoo, Arwani, Nilow and Nehama where most of the killings took place on 9 July. Others say the opposition National Conference’s cadre was instrumental in instigating violence at many places, a tit-for-tat for 2010 uprising when PDP was in the opposition. Jama’at-i-Islami, say others, organised protests and was the force behind sustaining the protests in south Kashmir in particular and other places in general. However, there is more to this than what meets the eye. Soon after the death of Burhan along with his two associates – Sartaj Sheikh and Parvaiz Ahmad – Al-Qaeda released a message to the “Mujahid nation of Kashmir” asking the youth to follow the footsteps of Burhan Wani. “If you truly believe in the message and life of Mujahid Burhan, let you follow his footsteps,” the message said. This was for the first time in Kashmir’s long insurgent history that Al-Qaeda praised a local rebel. It seems that Al-Qaeda had been closely monitoring the Kashmir situation after Burhan put it on cyberspace through his video messages. In his penultimate video message, Burhan stated that the rebels of Kashmir are fighting for the “establishment of Caliphate not only in Kashmir but in the entire world.” Also, it’s noteworthy that in 2014 Al-Qaeda released a video, calling on Muslims in Kashmir “to follow the example of brothers in Syria and Iraq and wage a jihad against Indian rule.” Interestingly, an audio released on Zakir Musa-led Ansar Gazwat-ul-Hind Telegram channel this year purportedly of PaK-based militant Abu Hamas claimed that Burhan was always talking that “we had to implement the Shariah, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda way.”

Was Zakir then a mere extension of Mir and Burhan’s ideology? “Yeah, but Adil Mir and Burhan were unlike Zakir. They had strong differences with leadership but they did not want to throw it open. But then Zakir did what he did and there was no one to guide him,” says Abdullah. Speaking of his patience and forbearance, Abdullah says that when police started harassing the families of militants in Tral, Burhan called a police officer and told him to not harm their families. “The police officer instead abused him profusely. But a calm Burhan kept listening and told him patiently that he has a tongue too to reply but he would not ‘because you are my elder and we respect our elders’,” says Abdullah.

What Burhan gave to the Kashmiri youth who are attached to the rebel cause is something his predecessors failed: a mandate to be a militant without a weapon. In his last video, Burhan asks youth to disrupt cordons and help militants escape by throwing stones at forces. In 2017, it became a common trend to storm gunfight scenes and help militants escape from the spot. Many videos emerged wherein youth were giving a live commentary of ground zero happenings while putting their lives in the harm’s way. At least 30 civilians have died so far in recent past while saving militants.

General Rawat realised it only a year later when he asked Kashmiri youth not to disrupt forces’ operations by throwing stones. The youth considered it their moral victory which boosted their morale when the Army Chief said that those trying to disrupt anti-militancy operations in Kashmir would be treated as “overground workers of terrorists.” On the first death anniversary of Burhan in 2017, a Pakistan-based newspaper published a report wherein it was alleged that Burhan had conversed with a local mainstream politician in 2016 and sought his help to convey an urgent message to Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. However, people close to him and who have worked with him rubbish this allegation. “Social media has shifted the paradigm in terms of the tools available to protesters in Kashmir. They no longer need to resort to illegal measures to protest and, instead, social media has given them the space to raise awareness, spread information and plan protest rallies through completely legitimate means.”

“Burhan would have never sought help from any pro-India politician. He had a firm belief that no good could be expected from them. It was only after seeing entire Kashmir turning upside down overnight after his killing, the said legislator, out of fear, praised Burhan so as to carve a soft corner in local populace,” says Muhammad. The death of Burhan and its aftermath was a watershed moment in Kashmir’s long insurgent history. With Zakir Musa thriving on anti-Pakistan sentiments, it shall be interesting to see whether Mir’s pupil and Burhan’s aide succeeds in fighting India without Pakistan’s help.

 —Some names have been changed to protect the identities.

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