Last year on 8 July as the news of new-age militant commander Burhan Wani’s death spread through Kashmir like wildfire, thousands of youth thronged to his native village in Tral to attend the funeral procession.
This year on his first death anniversary, authorities feared more trouble. A week earlier, separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had jointly called for a strike and a rally to Tral. United Jihad Council, an amalgamation of militant groups based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir had also issued a week-long programme, Hafta-e-Shuhuda (martyrs’ week), calling for shutdowns in the Valley on 8 July and 13 July. However, UJC later curtailed their call to its base in PoK after fearing it might undermine separatist leadership in the Valley.
On the ground, however, sensing a strict clampdown on that day, hundreds of young men from different parts of south Kashmir were trying to make their way to Tral a day or two earlier.
We are going to Tral to show our solidarity with Burhan’s family. We want his mother to know that even if one Burhan has died, there are thousands of Burhans in Kashmir.Amjad, a 22-year-old from Sopore to The Quint
All In the Name of ‘Burhan Bhai’
Amjad, along with seven of his friends, left for Tral on 7 July. “He deserves respect. He laid down his life fighting for us,” Sameer, 27, said. All of them had told their families that they were going to Pahalgam.
For young men like Amjad, the urge to reach Tral came from the “love for Burhan Bhai, and the cause he represented”. There was also a rumour doing the rounds about “Tral Brati”. Social media had been abuzz about a militant recruitment drive in Tral to be held on the day by former Hizb Commander Zakir Musa, who has become the new face of militancy after openly rebelling against the Hurriyat leadership and accusing them of playing politics of convenience.
Militants Filling the Political Vaccum
Since Wani’s death last year, new age militancy has gained tremendous support from the civilian populace in Kashmir. Even if it hasn’t translated into a swelling up of the number of militants operating in Kashmir, popular sentiment, particularly among the young, has shifted towards militancy which is now being increasingly dominated by local militants.
Young men pelting stones at government forces to help militants escape from encounter sites has become routine despite an imminent threat to life.
The alienation from mainstream politics is quite evident on the ground. But the failure of the last civilian uprising led by the joint leadership of Hurriyat post Burhan Wani’s death has caused many to question their ways and methods.
While the State crushed the uprising using extreme force – over 80 people were killed and hundreds injured by pellets – the one-track approach of Hurriyat, with hartals and protest calendars without any real roadmap for the future, has reduced their appeal. Even during last year’s mass protests, Hurriyat never really seemed to be in control of things.
And after the five-month-long mass civilian uprising ignited by Wani’s death last year fizzled out, Hurriyat has tried to steer clear of giving unnecessary hartal calls. Even when they call for it, it hasn’t had the same effect. While it is no stranger to infighting, a clear discord within the Hurriyat has become more evident in the last one year.
According to political observers in the Valley, Hurriyat’s strategy has become limited and outdated. And it is not able to resonate with the youth who feel a higher degree of alienation today, in the way the likes of Burhan Wani, seen as fighting from the front have. “But at the same time, it still has a role to play.”
Signs of Anger Against Hurriyat Visible On the Ground
On 1 July, when the news of Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Bashir Ahmed Wani alias Bashir Lashkari’s death in an encounter at Brentti village in Anantnag spread, thousands of men, women, and children gathered at his home in the Souf village in Kokernag waiting for his body to arrive. Bashir, a senior militant who had been in and out of militancy since 1996, gained prominence recently after gunning down six policemen in a well-planned attack.
By around 5 pm in the evening, microphones and speakers had been arranged to address the large gathering while still waiting for Lashkari’s body to arrive. A sidewalk pavement was used as the stage. Bearded men were delivering epilogues about the slain militant to the mostly young audience.
One of the men on stage then took control of the microphone and announced to the crowd that senior Hurriyat leader SAS Geelani would be addressing them over the phone. This pronouncement, however, wasn’t received well by the crowd.
Immediately, a group of young men started shouting slogans in favour of dissenting militant commander Zakir Musa. Soon the man was asked to get down from the stage as the chorus of slogans supporting Musa grew louder. Later, when Lashkari’s body arrived at around 7:30, it wasn’t draped in the customary Pakistani flag.
Back in the 90s when militancy was at its peak, Hurriyat leaders attending funeral processions of militants was a norm, even when civilians mostly stayed away. Geelani had championed the militant movement. In the context of that, how things unfolded in Souf village that evening marks a tectonic shift on the ground.
By the evening of 8 July, Amjad and his friends returned to their village. They were all disappointed about not making it to Burhan’s home. The authorities had sealed all entry and exit points leading towards Tral.
They had left their car at Hayun village, some five kilometers from Tral in the hopes of making it there through the orchards. But the entire Tral had been turned into a garrison that day.
“There were 10 to 15 police vehicles surrounding Burhan Bhai’s house. CRPF, Police, and Special Task Force were deployed everywhere,” said Amjad. But he will go there in the next few days, he confidently asserts.