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Burhan Wani and Beyond: India’s Denial, Kashmir’s Defiance



The anger of people in Kashmir and their political aspirations are legitimate rights. Since 2008, attempts by civilians to organise themselves peacefully against their oppression or even for their day-to-day needs including water, electricity and jobs have been met with brute force, even murders. Post 2010, Kashmir has moved in circles from periods of unrest – to calm – and then back to unrest. Burhan Wani’s death was just a small spark that was needed to break the pretence of normalcy thrust on its people. The government should realise that the stone pelters on the streets are neither Pakistani nor paid agents. Kashmir, today, needs a political intervention that is unconditional.

Kashmir Valley is under siege, turned into a prison inside out since July 8 when unrest erupted after the death of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen Commander Burhan Wani. A local from Tral, Wani was laid to rest amidst a huge gathering of anywhere between an estimated one to 3 lakh people attending his funeral and giving him a hero’s farewell. While Burhan Wani was being buried amidst the eerie calm and conspicuous absence of security men and police on the streets of this obscure town of Tral, the rest of the valley was tearing into chaos—protestors pouring out in the streets, some marching peacefully, while others went on a rampage, attacking police stations and security camps with stones or whatever they could lay their hands on. The security personnel and police were quick in jumping to the occasion with lethal weapons and vengeance as if a war had been waged—no distinction made between peaceful protestors and the ones with stones in hand. The tone of this war was set in the first three days with 30 civilians shot dead during street protests. The number ever since has risen to 46 (as on July 21) and over 2200 have been injured with severe bullet or pellet injuries—a vast chunk of them physically impaired, and more than 130 blinded partially or fully.

How does this vicious cycle of violence and death, triggered by the death of Burhan Wani, (all of 22, who joined the ranks of militants six years ago) make its trajectory in Kashmir? What is it that made him so significant and powerful for the masses? Was he such a threat to security that it had become so crucial to kill him? Were the government and its security apparatus aware of the repercussions his death would evoke? There are media reports to suggest that the pros and cons were being weighed by security agencies and the opinion remained divided. PDP parliamentarian Muzaffar Beig has also thrown his weight behind the argument, maintaining that chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had not endorsed the killing. Such reports, if true, are a shocking indictment of the security grid and of the patronising political and official hierarchy, showing that the possibility of militants being killed or arrested depends on the whims of some, not on the need of the situation. This reveals the ugly nature of militarisation with the impunity to kill people, militants or civilians in custody. Burhan Wani may have similarly been shot dead in, what is proudly being claimed by some army officers, a 3 to 4 minute encounter? The details may have made no difference to the present situation.

The outrage this time has resurrected from Burhan Wani’s grave, his death, not why he was killed or how he was killed. The allegations and theories of a staged encounter remain inconsequential for people who poured out on streets. His death alone gave a boost to the uprising. It is not just driven by anger and alienation, and not by the usual demands for justice—it is also driven by passion and the slogan of azadi. It is not easy to decode Burhan Wani, called the poster boy and an icon for Kashmiri youth. On the surface he symbolised the gun and was commander of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which has a particular ideology. His appeal, however, transcends that ideology. Reports point out that Burhan was not involved in any killings and there were no major cases against him but he was a raging success on social media with his videos and messages to motivate the youth to pick up arms. His messages did not use religion or jehad as a metaphor but “occupation” and “oppression”. But what made him unique within the Hizb-ul Mujahideen was his recent call to not attack Amarnath yatris or civilian areas and to welcome Kashmiri Pandits, whom he described as part of Kashmiri society, back to their homes.

His appeal is best personified by his own story. It is now well documented that Burhan picked up the gun after he and his brother were humiliated, harassed and beaten up by security forces in 2010. His brother’s death by security forces over a year ago strengthened his resolve. He operated without fear, moving freely in South Kashmir, mingling with people and recently circulated videos of him showed him playing cricket. His own personal narrative makes him a metaphor of both the oppression that Kashmiris have suffered at the hands of security forces and the defiance against it. When he is held in reverence by the masses, he becomes a personification of their collective oppression, of collective anger, of a collective memory and a history of repression and also their collective dream of defiance against that oppression. It is for the same reason that security forces felt he needed to be annihilated; their psychological war against the oppressed was under threat with such walking symbols of defiance. His killing instead of becoming a prized catch for security men has inspired a rebellion.

The Burhan Wani phenomenon cannot be decoded without a re-reading of the entire history of Kashmir, of which this man—at the centre of focus now—has become just another chapter. One way of recalling history is to go backwards. In the post militancy period of Kashmir, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013 are important markers, preceding which there was a relative period of calm between 2002 and 2007. During this period of calm, one prime minister promised to resolve the Kashmir dispute within the paradigm of humanity and democracy, and another held a series of round table conferences that culminated in reports, recommending confidence-building measures pertaining to human rights and governance, which continue to gather dust on the shelves of government offices. Both, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, during their respective tenures met and held consultations with select leaders of the Hurriyat who represented the separatist ideology. But there was no follow up during these years that also coincided with the peace process between India and Pakistan, and that would inspire hopes in Kashmir, by then disenchanted by guns and militancy, of getting a space on the dialogue table. The political lethargy and hesitation to do so was making the masses impatient and restless. Between 2002 and 2007, fed up with the guns of both militants and security forces, Kashmiris reposed faith in a peace process. But patience soon ran out when confidence building measures did not translate beyond the symbolic opening of the Line of Control, and dialogue remained confined to a few photo opportunities between select separatists and two successive prime ministers. Instead of initiating a meaningful peace process for which conditions were quite conducive then, the ruling class went on the binge of celebrating the increased participation of people in elections and misconstrued it as victory of Indian democracy. For Kashmiris, caught in the most militarised area in the world with a miserable track record of human rights, this democracy does not extend beyond the right to vote.

In 2008, when people poured out on the streets in peaceful assemblies over the Amarnath land row, the residue of that growing impatience was there. The Indian government chose to use jackboots and bullets to fuel that impatience and pushed the youth to find in stone pelting, their new metaphor of resistance. In 2009, the campaign for justice in Shopian rapes and murders, by and large peaceful, disciplined and methodical, unnerved the government. The latter responded not with compassion but by using its legal justice system to subvert the truth through botched up investigations and lies, revealing to the masses the ugly arrogance of brute power emanating from the corridors of power in New Delhi and their loyal powers in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2010, when cries for justice again erupted over the Machchil fake encounter killings, the street unrest was met with brute force resulting in 120 deaths within a span of 5 months. The impatience had fully transformed into anger.

Since 2008, attempts by civilians to organise themselves peacefully against their oppression or even for their day-to-day needs including water, electricity and jobs have been met with brute force, even murders. Afzal Guru’s secretive hanging was the last nail in the coffin, convincing Kashmiris that peaceful means of resistance and dialogue were not going to happen; the incident metamorphosed even the status quo-ists into skeptics, if not pro-azadi seekers. Playing in the backdrop as a force multiplier was a history of denials, unfulfilled promises, betrayals, dilution of autonomy and rigged elections right since 1947. Post Afzal Guru, the rise of the pro-Hindutva forces, their ideology of communalism and politics of beef and “love jehad”, and the historic formation of the PDP-BJP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir were only add-ons.

Kashmir was already a catastrophe in the making, ready to explode anytime. Post 2010, Kashmir has moved in circles from period of unrest to calm and then back again—every time, the venom of the unrest is far more bitter and lethal; the manner in which jackboots and bullets are employed even more brutal. Kashmir moves in vicious circles. Crackdowns, raids and whimsical arrests have become the norm and crimes like “facebook terror” have been invented to legitimise such arrests. Separatist leaders continue to be arrested or are placed under house arrest almost on a weekly basis, with hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani having spent the last six years virtually under house arrest. Any call for protest, political or otherwise, is sure to be responded with heavy restrictions, unannounced curfew imposition and brutal police action. Locals continue to brave unpredictable curfews, crackdowns, arrests, torture, fake encounters and other kinds of influences of heavy militarismThese are indicators of a serious abnormality. The periods of calm at best reflect fatigue, which is arrogantly mistaken for normalcy, and ultimately such misinterpretations only add to the humiliation of an already battered population. A simmering volcano has been breathing in recent years beneath the calm surface of tulip gardens, robust tourism and better business prospects, punctuated by the few odd militancy related incidents on the rise nonetheless.

All that was needed to enflame Kashmir was just a small spark, breaking that false narrative and pretended picture of normalcy thrust on its people. Burhan Wani’s death provided that. It could have been anything else. The security forces fueled this fire with brutal methods of crowd control that finds no parallels anywhere else in the country. The civil administration went into deep slumber, occasionally waking up with rhetoric of appealing people to maintain calm but gave a free hand to the security men to kill and maim people, attack ambulances, raid people’s homes and drag random men out to be arrested or shot at.  In a land ruled by brute power and perpetuation of lies, lethal weapons are deemed “non-lethal” and “stones” treated as weapons of mass destruction in official circles. Such a mindset allows for liberal doses of brutality and use of disproportionate force against civilians. Everything follows a familiar pattern. Yet, this summer, Kashmir has made a new statement.

This time, the fight is not for justice against human rights violations. It is fighting the mighty Indian state, and a history of repression which has turned a 22 year old boy into a metaphor of rebellion and defiance. Burhan Wani’s videos inspired Kashmiri youth because they showed that he had freed himself of fear, and the present uprising has incorporated the resonance of that act of breaking away from fear. This uprising is driven not just by the usual anger and alienation, it is driven also by passion to free themselves from constant oppression, a passion for freeing themselves from Indian control. The Kashmiri youth of today are politically awakened and are trying desperately to fill in the gap left by the disunited and weakened leadership of separatists, owing both to India’s systemic process of discrediting them and keeping them out of circulation, as well as the separatists’ own inability of reaching out to the youth.  The Kashmiri youth are driven by ideas of revolution and liberty that the educated young among this generation have fed themselves with, through readings of conflicts around the world over—revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Bhagat Singh and thinkers like Foucault, Voltaire, Sartre, Marx, Kant and Rousseau; ideas that have been craving for space to be articulated and expressed; ideas that are waiting to be translated into action.

As of today, many young Kashmiris prefer to romanticise this moment and choose to call it a revolution, though the only connector is the slogan of azadi which remains ambiguous and unspelt with revolutionary ideas, passion, anger and religious symbols providing a medley of images that project many shades and dichotomies, if not confusion. Revolution, if in the making, may still be too premature. However, there are many Kashmiris who foolishly believe that the time of reckoning has come and that azadi may be just a year away, if not days and months. Which country has ceded even half an inch of land only because its people are out on roads in open rebellion?

Amidst this ongoing storm and vicious cycle of violence and bloodbath, it is difficult to bring sanity to any discourse. But then, it is important for everyone to learn larger lessons, to find a way ahead. The Kashmiri youth are among the world’s most politically educated ones and are struggling to reclaim their space. The Indian government is either blind to that or is extremely wary of the power of a politically conscious generation and thus it constantly pushes them into an alley where gun and stones become the idioms of a movement. The more they are crushed, the greater is their resonance; every death provides a new stimulus but it pours out directionless and without a strategy. Given the rigidity of the government, the space for peaceful resistance does not visibly exist. But the situation calls for imagination and foresight of the brainier and the talented ones among the youth for use of creative means of expressing their revolutionary ideas, for a direction, and for the birth of a new leadership that Kashmir is in need for—not only to pursue their political dreams and aspirations but also for saving the Kashmiri society from this brutalisation and dehumanisation by constant exposure to violence. The chances of this are bleak as long as the government continues to use its massive apparatus of security forces to push them to the wall.

The larger onus, therefore, is on the shoulders of the government. Its constant denial and its unspeakable acts in Kashmir completely shrink the possibilities of that much-needed space. It needs to realise and grapple with the fact that anger of people and their political aspirations are legitimate rights. Their methods of resistance, barring the gun, are not criminal acts. Pakistan and its agencies may have their own axe to grind in Kashmir but the stone pelters on the streets are not Pakistani agents and they are not paid agents of anybody else. Kashmir, today, needs a political intervention that is unconditional, not an offer of dialogue made under pressure, like the one Home Minister Rajnath Singh made on the floor of the Parliament in a patronising manner, and which was appended with adjectives like “misguided youth”. Any intervention has to be made with an open mind and not by criminalising the youth. But first of all, the government should ensure an end to this ongoing violence by reining in their forces, stopping the use of so-called non-lethal weapons which kill and maim, not just due to poor training but because they are used with an intention to inflict fatal wounds. Whether it is pellet guns or tear gas shells, they have taken a heavy toll on civilians because security men and police fired them, at crowds and even inside homes, above the waist. On the day Rajnath Singh assured that security forces have been asked to maintain restraint, two people were shot dead, and another one on the subsequent day. Apart from the falsehood of such assurances, skepticism and mistrust is kept alive by the memory of years of repression and brutality, coupled with failed attempts at dialogue and interlocution in the past. The sincerity of New Delhi can be best measured by ending this bloodbath on streets and making the atmosphere further conducive for dialogue by introduction of genuine confidence building measures like demilitarisation, removal of AFSPA, and gearing up the legal justice system to fairly probe cases of violations.

But first of all, New Delhi must come out of the denial mode and change both its mindset and course on dealing with the Kashmir conflict. The Indian government has done everything under the sun to prolong the crisis, feed it through a vicious cycle of repression and brutalities and then concoct more lies to justify the brutality, thus criminalising the masses’ desires for liberty, freedom and equality. This conflict management militarily has cost India huge sums of money, manpower, loss of lives of soldiers who do not count but for oiling the state’s propaganda machinery. Besides, such a policy of feeding conflicts murders the basic spirit and inspiration of the Indian constitution as the state decides to cling on to troubled territories by butchering its people and bulldozing the very essence of Indian democracy, and its cherished values of liberty and equality. Conflicts have to be resolved politically and in an enlightened manner.

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal ([email protected]) is Executive Editor, Kashmir Times

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