The Curious Afterlife of Burhan Wani


The Curious Afterlife of Burhan Wani

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Ayear after the killing of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizbul commander, an uneasy quiet has descended upon Kashmir. The internet has been shuttered again and curfew declared in three towns including Wani’s hometown Tral, about 40 kilometres south of Srinagar, to prevent the holding of a rally marking his first death anniversary.

Yet, these measures will probably do little to dent the feeling among a large section of the Kashmiri population, especially the youth that considers Wani a hero. At the martyrs’ graveyard in Tral, Wani is buried in a spacious corner, demarcated from about 40-odd older graves of local and foreign militants. A knot of green grass grows around its mould, and a big memorial plaque announces his name and date of death in golden letters. A few youngsters surround it, their eyes closed, their hands raised in a silent prayer.

Over the last year, Wani’s grave has drawn visitors from all across Kashmir. Some even take away a handful of soil, believing it has the power to heal ailments and diseases that doctors can’t. A teenager from the local school tells me his mother recovered from her illness after applying the dust on her face. Another youngster, a load-carrier driver has turned up to pray at the grave ahead of July 8, fearing the lockdown and personal safety.

How did Burhan Wani come to be this larger-than-life figure even in his death? When did he morph into, in the words of Nawaz Sharif, a “young leader” and a symbol of the “Kashmiri Intifada”?

Maybe because Wani was the first to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the new-age militancy in Kashmir. He did not hide his face. Wani was probably the first to step out into the open, willing to be photographed, and using social media to his advantage. In some of his videos – many of which have been erased from the Internet – Wani made appeals asking Kashmiri Pandits to return home, and assuring Amarnath yatris that they’d be safe. It also helped that he possessed the deadly combination of youth, daredevilry, and good looks. His funeral attracted a lot of young people who saw a role model in him who refused to surrender in the face of a huge military apparatus.

Once news of the death had broken on the internet, loudspeakers in mosques came alive with elegies praising Wani’s valour and mourning his death.

Adjacent to the graveyard, is a football-sized ground called Eidgah, where large congressional prayers are held on Eid. Last year, the ground’s walls had to be brought down to accommodate the crush of mourners who had come to bid Wani his final farewell. The protective wires surrounding the walls had broken off first, as hundreds tried to catch a last glimpse of the slain commander, struggling to reach out and touch his body.

A local photojournalist recalled queues of mourners that snaked around for about two kilometers, a scene he’d never witnessed before while covering the funerals of other militants over the years. Once news of the death had broken on the internet, loudspeakers in mosques came alive with elegies praising Wani’s valour and mourning his death. In no time, Tral’s people and those from surrounding areas began rushing toward Wani’s house in Shareefabad.

At the main chowk of Tral, I was told, men, women, and children, were assembled, several of them in tears. Elegies were being sung in chorus, hailing Wani as the groom on his final homecoming. The crowd continued to swell – coming in from places as far as Kupwara, Banihal, Kishtiwar, and Poonch – and locals made quick arrangements for dinner for the people. That was the last thing on the mind of the mourners. “How can we eat when our brother is martyred?” seemed to be the sentiment. Inside the Eidgah, thousands mourned, raising pro-freedom slogans that reverberated in the air. Close to 40 back-to-back funerals were held for the slain commander so that more people could participate in the last rites.

Long after he was lowered into his grave, the fable of Burhan Wani lives on in the valley. After the “poster boy” of new-age militancy was killed, former chief minister Omar Abdullah had some serious words for the ruling government. “Mark my words,” he had tweeted, “Burhan’s ability to recruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media.”

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These fresh recruits, however, aren’t merely a bunch of misled youngsters, following Pied Piper to their deaths.

Courtesy: Yawar Nazir/ Getty Images

Abdullah’s words turned out to be prescient. In the aftermath of Wani’s death, unrest broke out across the valley, shutdowns were called by the Hurriyat, and the state responded with harsh measures to contain protests such as the use of pellet guns on civilians. By the end of the summer, the civilian death toll had reached over 90; over 15,000 people and 4,000 security forces were injured through the summer.

In the meantime, the number of militants swelled, their numbers now outstripping those of foreign militants operating in Kashmir for the first time in many years. About 88 Kashmiri civilians have joined the militancy in 2016, the maximum number in six years.

These fresh recruits, however, aren’t merely a bunch of misled youngsters, following Pied Piper to their deaths. The PDP-BJP government’s failure to implement the Agenda of Alliance, even after two years in power, is a major contributor to the valley’s disillusionment. There’s been no effort to engage in meaningful dialogue with the Hurriyat leadership despite some pronouncements in the past; no semblance of a probe into the civilian killings over the last year. For those, especially the youth who refuse to live with the status quo and who see no hope of a resolution in sight, joining militant ranks seems to hold an allure – just the way it probably did for Wani.

Back at the graveyard, a steady stream of visitors has been trickling in since June. People pass Wani’s home in Shareefabad and stop by to offer prayers at his grave. In the year since his death, “Burhan Bhai” has become what most valley-watchers had warned against: An icon during his life, a legend in his death.