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Decoding The Myth Of Burhan Wani – And What Delhi Is Ignoring Again

A sea of people came to the funeral of Burhan Wani, the photogenic 22-year-old Kashmiri jihadist killed last week.

The crowd at Wani’s South Kashmir hometown of Tral appeared largely peaceful; but, elsewhere, violence broke out. At least 21 people were killed over the weekend and, it’s important to note, almost half of the 300 injured were members of the security forces. Government offices have been attacked across the state; Kashmir looks to be on the edge of another major eruption.

And such an eruption has been coming for some time. New Delhi largely wasted a decade of uneasy quiet, imagining that it meant that peace had returned to the Valley, and  in the years since 2008, as anger has built up, it has shown itself bereft of any ideas other than those that it used to quell militancy in the 1990s. Vajpayee’s new beginning, when he promised to treat Kashmir with “insaniyat“, has been betrayed by New Delhi’s complacency.

As the Valley’s mourning of Wani’s death shows, New Delhi has been fooling itself if it thinks Kashmir is moving towards “normalcy” – or that it is edging towards acceptance of its place within the Indian state. The wounds of the 1990s were deep; the state was angry, but it needed time to recover. Yet those wounds stayed open, and so the state stayed angry. In fact, a whole new generation arrived, even angrier, and radicalised itself on Facebook.

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, grievances do not die out on their own; they need to be addressed. New Delhi imagined that young Kashmiris, who weren’t exposed to the violence of the 1990s, might be better disposed to the Indian state than their parents or elder brothers. But life for a young man in the most militarised area in the world is a series of humiliations, some petty, some not. The occasional horrific incident – the rapes and murders that are the inevitable consequence of any security force being granted legal impunity – would reverberate across their blogs, their Twitter timelines, their Facebook pages. Nor could the memory of crackdowns and curfews die when anyone with a mobile phone could go online and uncover the excesses of the past. Worst of all, if they sought on the other side of the ledger for some act of restitution by the Indian state, there was not one that they could find.

22-year-old Burhan Wani had become the face of new militancy in Kashmir

And so you had boys like Wani, boys who left home at 15 to become militants, and then seemed to spend most of their time arranging themselves artistically with guns for photos they would then post online. This is not to minimise the threat that boys like Wani posed as they turned into men; it is to emphasise it. The life of a militant, however ersatz in some cases, was being glamorised once again.

And, meanwhile, politics continued to be cynical and unchanging; “soft” separatists got into bed with the Sangh Parivar; geriatric fundamentalists took Indian handouts while brutally imposing Islamism on what may once have been, in the dim past, a nationalist struggle; and New Delhi kept on making plans guaranteed to prevent Kashmiris from feeling secure, especially about their land – suggesting it be handed over to temple trusts earlier, and to retired soldiers now.

But not as many were being killed, so people thought Kashmir was “normal”.

This is nonsense. Kashmir will not be normal till it is treated like it is normal. It is not going to be normal while it is the most militarised part of the world, with one soldier for every 15 or so residents. It is not going to be a normal Indian state while basic Indian rights are suspended, and those omnipresent soldiers know they are above the laws that constrain them in the “mainland”. It is not going to be normal, or even slightly Indian, till the state holds itself accountable for its actions, the way it would in other parts of India.

The legend that grew around Wani, true or not, underlines these truths. Here is the legend: that Wani, a 15-year-old schoolboy, “good in studies”, the son of a schoolmaster, saw his elder brother beaten up by men in the uniforms of the Indian state and ran away – to pick up a gun, and return as a jihadist. Note why this story resonates: an “educated” boy, not someone without prospects; the elder brother, who should be a protector, rendered helpless; the feeling of helplessness turned into power once you have a gun. There’s a reason why Wani became the first homegrown Kashmiri jihadist to be famous across the Valley for over a decade. Remember who he was killed with, too: his lieutenant was a former “surrendered” militant, who picked up a gun again two years ago. Do these stories sound like they’re from a place becoming more peaceful?

New Delhi’s enforcers, it seems, are unable to understand the power of a story. They did not understand that ending a story like this with a “martyr’s death” would multiply its power manifold. According to Muzamil Jaleel in The Indian Express, they had decided to kill Wani already; they waited only for the Chief Minister’s party to win an election in Anantnag, and then they moved in on where Wani was. If they understand only one way to deal with the Wanis of the world, then this unimaginative stupidity will prove our undoing.

Burhan Wani (Centre), a militant of Hizbul Mujahideen, was influential on social media

With the Congress’ trademark clunky triteness, its spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi tweeted: I cannot mourn a man who took up arms against my state. Well, don’t – nobody expects you to. But if that’s your first reaction to a hundred thousand mourners in Kashmir, then you’re at best missing the point, and at worst a liberal cynically playing to a hyper-nationalist gallery. If New Delhi’s politicians do not seek to even understand what drives stories like Wani’s, what gives such stories power and builds them into blood-soaked legends, and how legends moved that mob of mourners, then they should quit and go back to jobs where they are capable of more coherent thought.

Nor do you have to sympathise with Wani’s decision to become a jihadist to try and figure out who he was and what led him to the choices he made – for that is essential to understanding how to prevent others from following him. This is patently obvious; yet to India’s most stubborn “nationalists”, who would be outraged if they underwent half the humiliations that most Kashmiris endure stoically and non-violently, see even this realist case for understanding as, well, another symptom of that dreaded disease, anti-nationalitis.

After all, why bother to understand? Flood a few thousand more troops into the Valley, shoot more people, declare more curfews, look again away when tortures and rapes happen. Did we not, using overwhelming force and abandoning our principles, crush this anger when it was last expressed?

But a lot has changed since the 1990s. For one, Pakistan has been relatively uninvolved this time around. (So far, that is – let’s hope they’re smart enough to resist the temptation to meddle.) For another, global jihad is qualitatively and quantitatively different from what it was in 1991. And finally, there are young Kashmiris all over India’s cities now, even in our smaller towns.

It may be too late to get this generation of Kashmiris to see themselves as Indian; but it is perhaps not too late to make them believe that taking up arms is not worth it. Threatening them with a sure death will not make that happen – if we have learnt anything from observing the growth of global jihadism, then we have learnt that it is now a cult of death. Asaduddin Owaisi, speaking passionately against ISIS in Hyderabad last week, made this explicit, saying that the problem was that young Muslims were dying, instead of living, for Islam.

No, if this incipient intifada is to be prevented, we need something different. We need a touch of understanding – understanding that making people feel that they are occupied, that subjecting them to humiliations at the hands of representatives of the Indian state, that allowing state violence without accountability, has dangerous consequences. We need a touch of imagination – imagine if, instead of ending Wani’s story with a martyr’s death, we had ended it by showing him up as the preening, immature thug he no doubt was?

We need, perhaps, a touch of Vajpayee’s “insaniyat“.

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