On the surface, the killing of most wanted Burhan Muzaffar Wani in a joint operation by J&K police and Rashtriya Rifles in Kokernag today is a shot in the arm for the security establishment. But given the current ferment in the Valley, this watershed in the new phase of militancy may set off a new, more volatile phase.
For, in life, Burhan had become the poster boy of new-age militancy, in which educated young men from the Valley took up arms for the first time after the 1990 uprising and trained themselves locally to wage a battle against what they saw as an “occupation”.
In his death, security and political observers say, Burhan could become the rallying point of a renewed indigenous militancy and give rise to a potent theme for fresh recruitment.
After the first phase in 1990, two major shifts took place in the militant movement in Kashmir — local participation fell and outfits such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Al-badr and Jaish-e-Mohammad, with almost entirely non-local (read Pakistani) cadre, took over.
As a result, militants who were killed in encounters were largely faceless because the names they were identified with were aliases. And although there were periods when local recruits joined such groups, the complexion of militancy during this period remained primarily non-local.
Burhan changed all that.
First, he took off the mask and identified himself as a local from Tral. Then he used the tools of social media to reach out to youth who were “angry with the never-ending militarisation” and the status quo. He posted selfies and even videos of their lives in hiding. Recently, he appeared in a video inviting young Kashmiris to join militancy.
Burhan was the first local militant, after 1990, to become known in almost every Kashmiri household by his name, primarily because people could relate to him and his story.
This story has, in fact, become a legend in villages around Tral, his home town.
It goes like this: One evening, Burhan had gone for a motorcycle ride with his brother Khalid and a friend when they were beaten up by personnel from the Special Operations Group (SOG) of J&K police. His brother lay unconscious on the road while Burhan and his friend escaped.
This was the tipping point. Burhan was 15 and a student of class X, when he left home in 2010 to become a militant.
Burhan is also from a highly educated family. His father Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, who teaches mathematics, is the principal of a higher secondary school while his mother Maimoona Muzaffar is a postgraduate.
Burhan’s brother Khalid, who was killed last year while returning from a meeting with his younger brother, was an M.Com degree holder. The Wanis have another younger son and a daughter, both students.
This new local militancy has been directly linked to the way the government is seen to have crushed the mass agitations in the summers of 2008 and 2010, when scores of protesters were killed. Burhan became the poster boy of the rage that followed.
Apart from the demand for self-determination, religion played a very important role in the motivation of local youth. And when the PDP, with its base in South Kashmir and a promise of self-rule joined the BJP to form a government last year, it turned the Kashmir story black and white again.
It led to a political situation where anger and agitation translated into more local recruits for militant groups.
A police officer in South Kashmir said Burhan was to this new phase of militancy what Ishfaq Majeed, the JKLF commander killed in 1990, was to the previous generation. “There are so many stories woven around him that he has become a legend across this region. For almost 15 years, Kashmiri youngsters refrained from joining the militant ranks. Those who did preferred to be OGWs (Over Ground Workers) or couriers. Burhan brought the militant movement back to youngsters here,” said the officer.
”Earlier, local recruits would be sent across the border for arms training. After Burhan became known, we have witnessed a new situation. There are more than 60 local militants active in South Kashmir who have trained locally,” said the officer.
Sources said J&K police had been tracking the movements of Burhan for the last two months and were waiting for the bypoll in Anantnag, where Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was contesting, to end before moving in.
”The decision to bump off Burhan had already been taken. There was a view within the establishment against killing him. That wasn’t heeded. I have no doubt that his killing will create a lot of rage among youngsters and substantially increase local militant recruitments than if he was arrested,” said the officer.
Initially limited to South Kashmir, Burhan’s influence extended substantially across the Valley due to his presence on social media. “Of late, the situation started to change a lot in North Kashmir, too. Look at what’s happening in Kupwara, which is a garrison town. We witness stone-pelting and protests every Friday. In Lolab, an alleged army informer’s house was attacked after a militant was killed in an encounter. This hasn’t happened in a long time,’’ said a police officer.
”There is a lot of anger among youth. There is a lot of anxiety, as well. A lot will depend on what will happen at the time of his funeral in Tral. If there are more deaths, it may well be the beginning of another cycle of protests,’’ said a senior police officer. “What Burhan started won’t end with his death, it may get a fresh life with his death,’’ he said.