The July 8, 2016, death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani in an encounter with security forces was the trigger for arguably the biggest upsurge in popular anger the Kashmir Valley has seen since 2010. Shams Irfan, a reporter for Kashmir Life, was in Tral near Wani’s village on the day of his death. His revealing, first-person account of the way people around him reacted to the news provides a glimpse into an emotional dynamic that people in the rest of India seem unaware of.
Note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2016. It is being republished on the anniversary of Burhan Wani’s death
Tral (Jammu & Kashmir): On July 8, I was in Shikargah, a meadow within a pine forest on the edge of Tral, a town of 17,000 people in south Kashmir. The meadow and the forest, which were a no-go zone because of the conflict since the early 1990s, were opened to the public recently. A new stone gate was erected. On weekends and holidays, families and young men from nearby villages and towns had begun trickling to the area.
The forests of Shikargah, despite the presence of an army garrison at its entrance, came to be associated with the legend of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, who joined the Hizbul Mujahideen at 15 and became the most famous militant commander in Kashmir in the past few years. As the sun set in the distance, the Eid revellers at Shikargah began to pack and leave. A silence fell over the meadow. I could hear the wind rustle through pine leaves and wild berries. Tral and its nearby villages, which are surrounded by half a dozen garrisons, have stayed indoors after sunset since the onset of militancy in 1990.
I was walking down the steep road from Shikargah to Tral with a few friends when a text message alerted me to an encounter in Bamdoora village in Anantnag district, some 40 kilometres further south. I alerted my newspaper in Srinagar and told a colleague to keep a tab on the news from Bamdoora, a village I had never heard of before. It was 6 pm.
I drove around Tral with the friends I was staying with. It was now 8 pm, I was drinking tea with my friends in their house. We were on our Eid holiday; our conversations would drift in numerous directions but always circle back to the story of Burhan and his associates. I called my office to inform my colleagues that I was staying back in Tral and to check about the encounter in Bamdoora. “One militant named Sartaj is dead,” my online editor said. “Two more have been killed, but not identified yet.”
Two minutes later he called back. He was nervous. “Burhan is dead! Please confirm.” A little later, I got confirmation from the street. Around 50 young boys followed by older men, women and children, singing elegies for Burhan, were marching towards his home in Sharifabad, about two kilometres away. As their voices faded, a grim silence blanketed the street. And night fell. Minutes later, the loudspeakers of local mosques resounded with cries throughout Tral: Burhan tum zinda ho (Burhan, you live!) My journalistic instincts kicked in; I decided to follow the mourners.
Making my way past wailing women and hundreds of protestors on motorcycles, as well as a number of quickly erected blockades outside military installations and garrisons, I reached the town square at Tral where about 5,000 people had gathered. One could see that with every passing minute, their patience was running out, as was space in the square. For the next two hours, people continued to pour in from Srinagar in the north and Anantnag in the south. Since there had been no official announcement to the effect, people were praying and hoping that the news about Burhan having been killed was not correct. Then home minister Rajnath Singh officially declared Burhan’s killing in the encounter. I started walking towards Burhan’s home. On a street corner near his home, women began singing traditional Kashmiri marriage songs reserved for the arrival of a bridegroom. “He is coming home after six years,” said one woman, who remembered him as a shy, bookish boy. “I have kept heena for him. I will put it on his hands. He is our hero,” said another woman. On the other end of town, announcements were made from public address systems, requesting townsfolk to arrange food for visitors waiting for Burhan’s body.
As a journalist, one thinks one has seen every possible situation. But one had not seen anything like this before. Every home offered food but the people gathered there refused to eat. “We are not here for food,” a group of youngsters from Srinagar said. “We are here to see our brother’s face.” A local young man, who was wearing a mask, circled the square shouting in a husky voice, “Brothers, if you feel like eating, please follow me!” He waited for almost 15 minutes. Nobody followed him. There was just a sea of angry faces that refused to move.
At 10:30 pm, the downpour began; the dark night sky lit up with lightning, followed by thunderclaps. The pounding of the rain over tin roofs, the minarets of the mosque, and the recently paved roads accentuated the atmosphere of gloom. There was just one question on everybody’s lips: When is Burhan coming home? Four hours later, at 2.30 am, they brought his body. By next morning, tens of thousands of mourners from towns and villages across Kashmir had gathered in Tral. They came in trucks, buses, tractor trolleys, cars; they came on motorcycles, scooters, and cycles; and they came on foot. They came from Baramulla and Sopore in northern Kashmir; they came from Srinagar in central Kashmir; they came from Anantnag and Pulwama in south Kashmir; they came from across the Pir Panjals, from Poonch and Rajouri in Jammu.
I decided to follow a group of mourners. I made my way through apple orchards, brand new courtyards, vegetable gardens, leaping over boundary walls so as to avoid the main road, which is within sight of a major garrison housing the army, CRPF, STF, and the Tral police station. After half an hour, I found myself near the garrison. There, a group of teenage boys were attending to those injured in stone-pelting battles with the troops. A local druggist, trying hard to keep an expressionless face, his hands soaked in blood and mud, was busy stitching a 16-year-old boy’s head – the 16th injured person he had tended to since morning. A small section of road had become the new LoC. The boys were throwing stones at the troops who, alleged a local, had marked Burhan’s death by setting off firecrackers. The troops were retaliating with stones, teargas shells, and occasional aerial firing.
A makeshift medical camp had been set up by the local population. There was one injured person every 15 minutes. A girl in her early 20s supplied fresh lemon juice mixed with Tang to the boys in front throwing stones about 300 meters away. Her grandmother was busy refilling the empty bottles that were brought back. In 15 minutes, I saw her make two dashes to the front.
Burhan’s funeral was scheduled to be held at 9.30 am in the four-and-a-half acre eidgah, a ground used for Eid prayers. The crowd of mourners was so dense and so immense that it took me an hour to walk a few kilometres. The last 500 metres, I didn’t even have to walk. The crowd carried me into the eidgah, which was packed tight, bursting beyond its capacity. The eidgah, which normally accommodates about 50,000 people at one time, was packed to the brim, and after each round of funeral prayers people kept leaving and new mourners filled it again. By the end of the day, about 200,000 people would have joined the multiple rounds.
I decided to move further ahead. It took me another 30 minutes to wade through the half way mark from where I could see what was going on. From that vantage point, my phone could catch Burhan’s face. His body was placed on a makeshift stage built on a tractor trolley, surrounded by around 50 volunteers – their faces covered – who were trying to bring a semblance of order to the crowd milling for a glimpse of Burhan. Huge crowds waited outside the eidgah ground. After the first funeral prayer at 9.30 am, a large part of the crowd left and the people waiting outside surged inside. To allow each new batch to pray, funeral prayers were held back to back around 40 times.
At one point, a huge wave of people starting from where Burhan’s body was placed headed towards one of the exit points. A young man in a green t-shirt was leading the crowd. I took out my phone to take a photograph but my hand was pushed down by somebody. The young man had moved ahead. The person who was still holding my hand told me sternly, “That is Sabzaar Ahmad. We don’t want this video to land in the lap of the police.”
Sabzaar Ahmad, 25, is one of the militants in Burhan’s group. He too picked up arms in 2015 after Burhan’s elder brother, Khalid Muzaffar Wani, was killed by the security forces in the Kamla forests of Tral. I saw a large group of boys following Ahmad as he was being led out, some trying to touch his hands, some trying to hug him. Some got to shake his hand and some women managed to kiss his forehead before he was whisked away. Half an hour later, I saw a bigger wave of people headed in my direction. Leading them was a tall young boy, whose face was partially covered in a bandana. I was told he was Zakir, a boy from a neighbouring village who was studying civil engineering at a college in Chandigarh before he joined Burhan in 2015. Hundreds of hands reached out for Zakir.
Exhausted by the waves of thousands of people still arriving at eidghah, I began looking for a “quiet” place to sit for a while. Umar, my host who was holding my hand tightly, inched through the crowds, past a group of boys singing songs in praise of Burhan, and stopped near the other end of the eidgah. I climbed onto on a raised platform of a graveyard shaded by Chinar trees. This was the spot where many militants from Tral who had been killed since 1990 were buried.
From my vantage point, I could see around 20 boys, their faces covered, standing in a circle around Burhan’s freshly dug grave. Burhan’s father, Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, a school principal was sitting by his son’s grave, lost in his thoughts and silently staring at the crowd in the distance. He didn’t utter a word. Nobody did. Suddenly, he turned around and looked for a long moment at the resting place of his older son Khalid, who lay one grave apart from Burhan’s.
Meanwhile, I learnt that Burhan’s body had been taken home for one last time – final homecoming, said someone. By then, the mobile network had already been blocked. I walked to my friend’s house to call my office from a landline. On the way back, I saw hundreds of roadside kitchens preparing food for the people who had come to mourn Burhan. Women, children and young girls stood outside their homes, offering water and tea to visitors. The girl whom I had seen in the morning near the stone pelting ‘frontline’, was still running back carrying half-a-dozen empty bottles in her hands. The local medic I had met was still at work where I had last seen him. He was going home to take a shower and change his bloodied clothes. “I must have dressed over 50 injured boys so far,” he said.
When I returned to the eidgah after dictating my story over the phone, Burhan had been buried. But the crowds still kept coming. A young boy entering the eidgah from its front gate, caught my attention. His face covered by a motorcycle helmet, he was clad in a light blue kurta pajama and had slippers on his feet. He walked towards the graveyard but did not take off his helmet. Curious, I edged closer to him. He wore a white mask beneath the helmet. Stray locks of curly hair spilled out of the helmet. He went straight to Burhan’s grave and offered prayers, all the while keeping his helmet on. I looked closer and saw he was crying. He turned around, looked at us, picked up a handful of soil from the grave, and walked out towards his motorcycle. A group of suspicious boys surrounded him. Then he took off his helmet and revealed his identity – it was Zakir again. He was back after changing his clothes, probably to avoid recognition. One man he spoke to before riding off told me that he had come to salute his commander. He was carrying a pistol for the purpose. But as it was crowed near the grave, he didn’t open fire and left.
I stuck around wanting to see what would happen next. A little later, a few others from Burhan’s 12 arrived. They fired their guns in the air to salute their commander and then melted away.
In the next few days, the Valley erupted in protests. Stones, pellets, and bullets flew in all directions. In two weeks, 45 protesters and one policeman were killed and around 3000 people injured. More than 100 individuals suffered debilitating pellet injuries to their eyes. One of the youngest victims of the rubber pellets was 5-year-old Zohra. I met her in Srinagar’s Shri Maharaj Hari Singh hospital. Zohra, who had 12 pellets in her legs, had only one thing to tell me. “Main Burhan bhai ko bolungi policewalo ne mujhe mara (I will tell Burhan that the policemen have beaten me).’
Leaving the hospital, I began my slow trudge towards office.
Shams Irfan is a Srinagar based Journalist. He works with Kashmir Life.