TRAGEDY OR TRIUMPH: THE DEATH OF THE “POSTER BOY”


By Omkar Mahajan
Editor-in-Chief

On July 8, 2016, Burhaan Muzaffar Wani, along with two accomplices, was killed by Special Operations Forces of the Indian Police and Military in a standoff that lasted for nearly two hours.
Wani was the 21 year old “poster boy” of the Kashmiri separatist movement and the commander of the Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen. The Hizbul Mujahideen has been designated as a terrorist organization by India, the United States, and the European Union. Shortly after Wani’s death, ensuing mobocracy and mass ataxia erupted. Some saw his death as a triumph and were glad that a top terrorist leader was killed. Others viewed him as a misguided youth who traversed down the wrong path to terrorism. Regardless of whether it was a tragedy or a triumph, Wani’s death will do little to ensure peace in Kashmir and is instead more likely to cause instability, turmoil, and prolonged violence both in the near future and long term. Furthermore, it’s expected that many people in Kashmir will view Wani as a martyr and a freedom fighter.

Who is Burhaan Muzaffar Wani?
Wani was born in the city of Tral, Kashmir where he enjoyed a privileged childhood. His father, Muzaffar Ahmed Wani, was the principal of a local high school and a member of the notorious extremist group, Jamaat-i-Islami. In 2010, Burhaan Muzaffar Wani dropped out of school and joined the Hizbul Mujahideen after being allegedly harassed by police. He quickly rose through the ranks due to his leadership skills and savvy use of social media. He was also popular with the locals. In 2015, Wani became the top commander and leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen due to the deaths of many senior officials above him. During that same year, his older brother Khalid Muzaffar Wani was killed by the Indian Security Forces. The Wani family claims that Khalid Muzaffar Wani was not a terrorist and was killed because he was the brother of the top militant commander. According to the father, the body of Khalid Muzaffar Wani did not have any bullet wounds but rather looked as if it had been heavily tortured. On the other hand, the Indian Security forces report that Khalid Muzaffar Wani was recruiting youth to join Burhaan Muzaffar Wani’s extremist organization. Nonetheless, to many people of Kashmir, Khalid Muzaffar Wani’s death represents one of a multitudinous number of civilians eradicated at the hands of the police force.

Following the death of his older brother, Burhaan Muzaffar Wani utilized social media sites and apps such as Facebook and Whatsapp to disperse his videos urging others to join the separatist organizations. His vast presence on Facebook enabled him to recruit dozens of teenagers from various villages each. The Indian state classified him as a terrorist and placed a 1 million Rupee bounty on his head and even attempted several assassination plots. After all, in several of his videos, he announced plans to decimate Sainik colonies in Kashmir because he felt that they were altering the natural demographics of Kashmir. In another video, he expressed disapproval of Kashmiri Pandit relocation settlements and threatened to bombard the Pandit community and juxtaposed it to the situation of Israel. In several of his videos, he advocated attacks on the police and military. Many scholars state that his videos had a considerable following and heavily appealed to the youth of Kashmir.

In contrast to the labels of being a terrorist and a peril to society, the local populace elucidated quite a different picture of Wani. The fact that he was able to defy all odds and expectations and survive previous assassination attempts turned him into a legend. There were stories that he sometimes visited home dressed as a girl and left money behind for those that needed it. There were rumors that local girls from Kanpur desired to marry him and wrote his name in their blood. He was frequently discussed over cups of chai and the stories, myths and legends surrounding him immortalized him as somewhat of a folk hero and local celebrity with parallels to Robin Hood. Moreover, his young age set him apart from others and thus, he was seen as a champion to the youth of Kashmir. It’s rare to see someone at his age in a high position of power with significant influence over people. Despite many in the local community being sympathetic towards him, it should be noted that he was an extremist and the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, which is a designated terrorist organization responsible for dozens of attacks claiming the lives of thousands over the years. The Hizbul Mujahideen also has more than 10,000 fighters and has massacred non-Muslims and people not supportive of it. In order to fully understand Wani’s role and the political situation in Kashmir, it is important to examine the history of Kashmir.

A Brief History of Kashmir
For numerous centuries, Kashmir was an independent state in South Asia. The present day state of modern Kashmir is landlocked in South Asia and is surrounded by India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and Tajikistan. Even when Kashmir was ruled under various kingdoms and empires such as the Mauryan Empire, the Kushan Empire, the Ghandaran Kingdom, the Durrani Kingdom, the Mughals, and later Sikh Rule, Kashmir maintained its autonomy due to isolation in the north and the mountainous terrain that surrounded it. In other words, it recognized the authority of larger empires, but was practically an independent state since it exercised almost complete control over its own affairs and was relatively self-autonomous.

Additionally, rulers of Kashmir were of differing faiths and backgrounds throughout the years. Kashmir has been ruled by Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and others. Thus, it is not a surprise that people of various faiths were able to live peacefully together and intermarriage between different faiths was not uncommon. Due to this isolation from the rest of South Asia, Kashmir developed a culture distinct from the rest of South Asia. For instance, while much of South Asia had a relatively intransigent caste system and a patriarchal society, Kashmir did not have a rigid caste system and was relatively egalitarian with equal rights granted to even women. Furthermore, the language in Kashmir, Koshur, differed markedly from those spoken in South Asia and had more in common with Dari and Farsi. The cuisine, customs, and clothing were also dissimilar and antithetical from those of South Asia. The people of Kashmir developed a distinct culture and identity of their own and some saw themselves as their own independent state.

However, the situation of Kashmir drastically changed during the British occupation of South Asia. In 1947, when the British left and granted South Asia its independence, they partitioned it into two states of a Muslim majority Pakistan and a Hindu majority India. Kashmir, being located between India and Pakistan, was expected to join the Muslim majority state of Pakistan since Kashmir had a majority Muslim population in many parts. However, the king of Kashmir, Hari Singh, desired to maintain an independent state of Kashmir. Unfortunately for him, Pathans from Pakistan who disagreed with his idea of independence invaded Kashmir. After receiving help to fight off the invaders, Kashmir was forced to make a decision of whether to join Pakistan or India. Prime Minister Mehr Chand Mahajan made the controversial decision to join India in late 1947 viewing it as the safer option. Ever since then, the conflict was never fully resolved.

Kashmir Today
Today, in some parts of Kashmir, over 95% of the people desire an independent state.[1] On the other hand, both Pakistan and India claim that Kashmir belongs to each. Border skirmishes and wars between Pakistan and India over Kashmir have been recurrent throughout the years. In fact, this remains the oldest unresolved United Nations conflict. In 1999, the conflict nearly escalated to nuclear war. Kashmir is the sole natural gas provider to Pakistan and has a huge agriculture industry that India profits from.[2] Both nations are unlikely to yield their holds over Kashmir anytime in the near future. As a result, this has inflamed numerous people living in Kashmir since they are caught between the conflict of India and Pakistan. Individual Kashmiris sometimes find themselves harassed and mistreated by the armies and police of Pakistan and India and they’ve seen their homeland transform into a warzone.

There are currently 153 militant organizations operating throughout Kashmir.[3] Kashmir’s poor and undeveloped infrastructure, along with large areas being warzones, has enabled Kashmir to turn into a hotbed and breeding ground for militant radicalism. Oppression by both sides has fueled negative sentiments towards Pakistan and India with many people resenting the police and military. History has shown us that when people are oppressed, a backlash will occur once oppression reaches a certain point. The lack of opportunities in Kashmir compels many youth to join militant organizations where sadly, many are brainwashed into not only attacking the police and military, but also performing atrocities and targeted acts of violence on innocent civilians. As troubling as this is, there isn’t anything to celebrate about the deaths of brainwashed youth.

Although the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen is dead and his death is seen as a victory for those fighting against terrorism and militant radicals, others see it as the story of a lost child brainwashed into a killing machine. The oppression in Kashmir has led many to sympathize with militant commanders in Kashmir.  In fact, over 20,000 people attended Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s funeral and the number of youth that will now join militant organizations is expected to increase exponentially. Already, there have been mass protests regarding his death and dozens of innocent bystanders have been killed in the ensuing turmoil in the past few days. Wani is now seen as a martyr and it’s likely that the people will never forget about him.

Following these mass protests, the entire state of Kashmir was placed on lockdown and under curfew. Additionally, internet access and telephone communications were suspended. While the Chief Minister of Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, believes that Wani’s death will not have a long lasting impact on Kashmir, legislative assemblyman and former Chief Minister of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah disagrees. On twitter, Abdullah voiced his concerns that the intended effects and goals of the operation to kill Wani will fail in the long run. “Mark my words. Burhan’s ability to recruit in to militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media,” Abdullah tweeted.

This attempt to control violence and suppress the chaos backfired and instead more protests and attacks occurred resulting in more deaths. Violence has escalated and hopes of peace reaching Kashmir now become a distant unlikely reality as brutality and pandemonium materialize. After all, violence usually does not quell down violence but in a state in which people are oppressed, a lack of resources is present, and violence is constantly occurring, it seems as though violence is indeed inevitable. Many can disagree on the significance of Wani’s death and whether it was a tragedy or triumph but many will agree that his death will lead to more violence. Perhaps Wani should have been captured alive.

[1] Robert Bradnock, “KASHMIR: Counting in Kashmir.” The World Today 66.6 (2010): 27-28. JSTOR.

[2] S.D. Surendra, “Explaining Social Mobilization in Pakistan: A Comparative Case Study of Baluchistan and Azad Kashmir.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29.2 (2009): 246-58.

[3] K. Santhanam, Jihadis in Jammu and Kashmir: A Portrait Gallery. New Delhi: Sage, 2003. Print.

Image by Kashmir Global

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