A terrorist’s days are always numbered and so were Burhan Wani’s. Leading the new militancy in South Kashmir, the 22-year-old angry young man from the passionately anti-India town of Tral brought an aura of romance to terror in South Kashmir. Induced into leading a renegade life because of the allegedly undignified treatment by a few errant policemen, Burhan swore retribution. Rather than follow the path of extreme violence, he acquired a Robin Hood image through social media, which catapulted him to iconic fame in the eyes of those favouring a fracture from India. This enabled him to attract 60-70 young local Kashmiris to a similar cause, and empowered them to take the path of violence. In reality, his new militancy was all about indigenous struggle, with “azadi” as the aspiration; hence the attraction.
Burhan met his end at Kokernag in an encounter which was in the offing for some time once the focus of intelligence had him in the spotlight. His death expectedly sparked widespread violence in the streets. The situation throws up many questions which need to be answered here, in as much black and white and least through shades of grey. Was it necessary to neutralise Burhan at a time when all triggers attempted by the separatists had failed to instigate a return to the situation in 2008-10? Could it have awaited the termination of the Amarnath Yatra, the implications being obvious?
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Intelligence generated opportunities to neutralise an important terrorist who has acquired inspirational status, do not come easily. Terrorist leaders of the past have survived over 10 years in the same area in South Kashmir and Burhan was becoming larger than life, an embarrassment to the army and police. The decision to target him was correct. The decision to hand over his body for burial with full knowledge of the implications, was a bold one and no doubt considered by all stakeholders. This decision too was correct because it diluted the angst to some degree. Without the body, prayers “in absentia” would still have taken place all over South Kashmir and Srinagar; what the tempers would have been like could not be ascertained.
The more important thing to examine is the continued linkage between the directors sitting across the LoC and the speed with which the stone-throwing mobs mobilised, as if the contingency was well thought out. The focus with which 17 police stations were targeted on the first day appeared almost like a military plan. Remote places like D.H. Pora near Shopian, otherwise low in terror activity and with mainstream political influence, erupted unpredictably. Mobs were bold enough even to target the air force station at Awantipura and the BSF camp nearby, a far cry from 2010.
The deduction is clear. With the improvement in Pakistan’s internal security situation, focus has returned to Kashmir to arrest the situation perceived as slipping from Pakistan’s control. Pathankot was the first attempt; it upset the peace process. Handwara and Sainik Colonies were the second and third attempted triggers; both failed. Contingency planning probably focused on the potential neutralisation of a terrorist leader perceived as charismatic by the public. That a terrorist leader’s days are numbered has already been stated and in today’s environment the average life span in militancy is a mere six months. Burhan was pushing his luck for five years.
The officials admit that the violence was expected, as is the norm in Kashmir, but the speed, scale and spread were not. A return to 2008-10 spelt advantage for the deep state in Pakistan, and for the separatists and ideologues, who had been vainly attempting a revival of the mass upsurge and not finding the trigger to achieve the desired effect. And that really is the story behind the sordid drama being played out all over again.
The Central and state governments are being accused of being in denial of the problem and barking up the wrong tree, with the former engaging Pakistan in a peace process which will apparently go nowhere. That may be a trifle unfair; I do believe that the issues are mutually exclusive. What is, however, wholly true is the dearth of a strategy. Anyone who has worked in and experienced Kashmir’s turbulence will tell you that the angst and the alienation come from the sheer lack of communication, the inability of the political community to shed the fears of 26 years of proxy conflict and engage deeply with their constituencies; the lack of grassroot politics and the mistaken belief that polls make up for all that. In the absence of this engagement, a wide space has been opened to the religious ideologues. Can anyone deny that the so-called radicalisation of society and power at the hands of the rabblerousing clergy happened right under our noses? Reports were frequently made but the buck was passed through chains of bureaucracy without application of mind on how to tackle it.
The inevitable question is: What next? There is no option but to cast aside all political differences and come on to the same page. Leaving ego aside, all-party delegations must get to the ground and engage those willing to be engaged even as no nonsense is broached on the law and order front. They can even meet the clergy, if necessary, to stop impassioning the street with sermons and negativity. Let the Unified Command burn the midnight oil to come up with options for reducing strife at the tactical level. In 2010, it was the brigade commanders and officers below that rank who proved tenacious and subtle in dealing with elders and youth alike. There is no guarantee it will work this time — but try we must.
Whenever this phase passes, let Delhi’s think tanks focus on Kashmir instead of giving priority to issues of faraway West Asia and South China Sea. That, too, is important but not as much as the home turf which needs more ideas on how to communicate better with a population awaiting just that. All is not lost, but it will be, if the message does not sink in this time.