Burhan Wani May Have Been Betrayed by His Hosts
Around 4 pm on July 8, Junaid and his friend went out for for a walk from Peer Takia to the adjoining village of Sheikh Takia and beyond. As the duo reached Bemduru village, they met a local, Abdul Mehmood, who informed them of high security cover in the area, since some official was expected to visit the place.
The two boys walked ahead till they heard gun shots, and began running back home in Peer Takia. Instead of taking the main road, they took the shortest way through the paddy fields. In less than five minutes, they were at Peer Takia and the firing had stopped.
At Peer Takia, a group of men had already gathered, proceeding towards Bemduru, the spot where gunshots were heard. The group was unaware of the actual situation but were marching to save whoever had been caught in the encounter. Ten minutes later, the firing resumed, this time to banish the crowds that had reached the spot. The gun shots were heard till late in the evening but the operation was over, slaying 22-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and two others.
Bemduru is about 20 km from the main town of Islamabad, 85 km south of Srinagar, and is a cluster of closely packed houses. No road connects it to the main town. It is believed that Burhan and his accomplice had been living in a house there for a couple of days. The house was the maternal home of Sartaj Sheikh, the other militant killed along with Burhan. Sartaj was a resident of an adjoining village, Sheikh Takia. The structure where the militants had been staying was a large mud house, shared by three families.
There were no passages internally and the families lived virtually separately. At one end, the house had a newly constructed concrete structure, serving as a kitchen. Burhan and his friends were in a room adjacent to it when they were encircled by the J&K police’s special operations group from Srinagar and Anantnag, backed by the army’s Rashtriya Rifles.
At the time of the encounter, Sartaj’s uncle and his wife were not present in their house, but their daughters were. The girls remained safe during the encounter and soon after the family left for an undisclosed location for safety concerns. None of the locals claim having witnessed the encounter begin. Hence, what is known is many versions of what happened during those few minutes. The closest spot from where bystanders watched was a mosque. Amongst those who caught a glimpse of what was happening outside was a young local boy, Isaam. He remembers hearing the gunshots, after which they all ducked and could barely see what was happening.
Was Burhan Killed in Retaliatory Firing?
After a few shots, the third militant was also killed. By now, the rumour had spread that Burhan had been killed and mourning had started in the village.
This is one of the versions of the encounter. Whatever the real story, by 5:45 pm, reports of Burhan’s death were confirmed.
By 7 pm, mobile services in Islamabad and Anantnag were snapped and by midnight internet services across the Valley had been suspended. The gag did not keep the crowds from gathering for Burhan’s funeral prayers at Tral and at Sheikh Takia for Sartaj and the other militant.
Burhan’s body was taken to Tral as the other two were taken to the police station in Kokernag. With Burhan, the media’s focus turned to Tral.
Back in Kokernag, after hours of protests that continued till midnight, Junaid recalls hearing women singing. Around 2:00 am, the two dead bodies had been brought to Sheikh Takia, and Sartaj’s home and the police station had been set on fire.
The following morning, a crowd spread to at least 6 kms, as the locals recall, gathered to offer funeral prayers for the two. People continued coming in and the prayers were offered thrice. There were also funeral prayers for Burhan.
Aftermath of the Encounter
Back in Bemduru, eeriness had dawned. “There was movement of people but the town was quiet,” says Rahim, a local. The place where Burhan was shot had been cordoned off. It was covered with a green chador, the one that is used to cover the graves at shrines. People came with flowers and in no time they had created a memorial for Burhan. “Women were taking the soil and rubbing it on their faces,” he says.
Rahim also recalls a group of well-built men with their faces covered visiting the place and reading out a letter from Burhan’s father.
The unidentified men had also sought pledges from those present on joining them in their holy mission, says Rahim.
Who Was the Informant?
The encounter, however, changed Bemduru forever. People from the neighbouring villages believe that someone from the village had informed the security agencies, probably someone from the family with whom the militants were living. Those enraged by this news pledged to burn down the whole village.
Gulzar, a local who claims to have seen blood stains on the walls of the room where the militants were living, said:
The family poisoned them and their bodies had become numb when they were raided, and hence could not fight back. The story about them trying to retaliate and run away is a mere farce. They were shot by the forces in the room. It was apparent that they had been dragged out. If the militants had been killed while trying to escape and the bodies were found outside, where did the blood stains in the room come from?
Gulzar and others also question the claim that Burhan tried to run despite the cover of security forces. “Anyone having any knowledge of combat will know that it would have been safer to stay indoors than to try and run,” they say.
Three days after the encounter, Junaid visited the village again. “I have never seen a place so grim and people so scared,” he says. “As I walked past, a woman started wailing and ran for cover.”
Bemduru Bears the Brunt
The perceived threat was not unfounded. By July 15, five houses in Bemduru had been torched, including the one where Burhan and his associates lived before the encounter. The local newspapers had, however, reported that the house had been blasted using at least two landmines that led to the killing of militants.
With the house set on fire, the evidence and clues for anyone wishing to probe how the encounter had taken place were destroyed. Although for many Burhan was a terrorist who was doomed to meet the end he met, the ambiguity surrounding the encounter will continue to rake controversies.
Speaking to the media, senior People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader and MP Muzzafer Hussain Beigh raised the issue demanding a probe into Burhan’s killing.
Beigh questioned the methodology of the encounter, which he alleged was in violation of a Supreme Court ruling. He accused the security forces of not having followed standard operating procedure. In an operation that is said to have ended in three-and-a-half minutes, the militants were not given a warning and asked to surrender, said Beigh, alleging violation of the apex court guidelines. Deputy CM Nirmal Singh rebuffed the PDP’s demand for a court of inquiry exposing the fissures in the vision of the coalition partners in handling the crises and ruling the state.
The writer is a Srinagar-based freelance journalist.
(The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)