Of Militants and Martyrs: The Two Conflicting Narratives in Kashmir

The seemingly endless cycle of tragedy in Kashmir has now embarked on a melancholic phase of competitive iconography – that of Burhan Wani the militant and Umer Fayaz the martyr.

In recent days, the entire nation has witnessed the contrasting narratives of two ill-fated Kashmiri youth. The unfortunate storylines of these young men are dissimilar for the most part but have the same personal denouement. Their tales are lamentable, if only because they died young – one at 22 and the other a year older. However, one died challenging the state and the other, because he had chosen to defend it.

If these tragedies are to be overcome, past juxtapositions are best shunned. Populist simplifications depict one tragedy as a national calamity but deprecates the other as treachery. Human tragedy often gets belittled when the lives of young Indians trapped in conflict are viewed only in terms of the larger picture. But ignoring the human dimension in conflict resolution can have lethal consequences.

The seemingly endless cycle of tragedy in Kashmir has now embarked on a melancholic phase of competitive iconography. On the one hand, the image of Burhan Wani is amplified to bolster belligerence on the streets of south Kashmir. On the other side of the Valley, the persona of Lieutenant Umer Fayaz is being used to push through the idea of muscular nationalism. On Saturday (May 13), a candlelight vigil was also held for him in Delhi, indicating that constituencies outside Kashmir are being milked. If Wani was the poster boy for militants and developed a popular following in death, Fayaz is being projected as a role model for Kashmiri youth by the state and its supporters.

Those romanticising the militant’s death in a police encounter have just an underdone impression of future. Similarly, those envisioning a time when Kashmiri youth foresee their future on the path Fayaz chose – not just as a career option, but as an endorsement of state strategy – are doing so without accompanying groundwork. It is not enough to ensure that thousands apply for a few hundred police jobs because this only amplifies limitations in livelihood choices in the Valley. For those building a romantic halo around Fayaz’s persona, his memory is as much a commodity as Wani was for those who bemoan him.

The two youngsters who died for the ’cause’ they believed in, were propelled by antagonistic dreams. Wani was drawn into militancy and violence inspired partly by decades of subversive campaigns and disinformation. But he also picked up the gun because of an intrinsic, youthful fascination for rebellion and protest.

However questionable this choice may be, the state must understand why periodically and in different regions of the country, new generations of youngsters believe in the old dictum – power flows from the barrel of the gun. Fayaz too picked up the gun, but his purpose was in complete conflict with Wani’s. He walked the path where elimination of the latter and his kind, is one of the professional objectives.

In every nation, conflicting routes to chasing fantasies, or realising goals, always exist. For every soldier, there is a peacenik in the world. In colonial India too, for every freedom fighter, there was an Indian soldier in British employment. Two ‘musts’ on the itinerary of visitors to the Indian capital are India Gate and Rajghat. The first was built by the British as the All India War Memorial, in memory of more than eighty thousand Indian soldiers killed in World War One. The second, though – Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi (memorial) – evokes memories of sacrifices made by thousands of freedom fighters. People visit both memorials, in thousands, though soldiers and nationalists were on opposite ends of the colonial divide.

After independence, the government of free India did not treat British-built memorials of Indian soldiers – like India Gate or the Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade Memorial, now known as Teen Murti – the same way as British aristocracy memorials, whose statues were despatched to the Coronation Park, a desolate corner of the capital. In their struggles, Indian nationalists faced the wrath of colonial forces, the bulk of who were of Indian origin, but they were not denigrated after independence.

No studies are known to have been done probing the motivation of Indians who joined the British civil services, enlisted in colonial army or police, but it is widely believed that they did so because of the security provided by the job. Yet, they were not derided. Indira Gandhi, in fact, added the Amar Jawan Jyoti after the 1971 war at India Gate to further sanctify the memorial.

No comparison can be made between contemporary terrorists and freedom fighters. But the government must not lose sight of its eventual objective of mainstreaming the disgruntled. A mature state must figure out what drives people to rebellion. The regime must also seek reasons why even ordinary people in the Valley are rebelling, providing cover to militants and slamming the likes of Fayaz – even disrupting his funeral. Every Kashmiri with a stone in hand is not propped by an enemy state across the border. Homegrown terror has local reasons.

The state must find ways in which these several million people can reinstate their faith in the establishment. Progenies of those working against the state must be provided opportunities to abandon that path. This can be achieved by persuasion, not by use of state power. The state cannot lose sight of the fact that the people are its own.

Without a doubt, the government’s strategy to build a campaign centring on the slain soldier and promoting him as an alternate icon will be counter-productive. Instead of encouraging Kashmiri youth to join the state’s ‘fighting arms’, the government-backed drive is likely to cause a public backlash against Kashmiri youth considering the forces as a career option. Their decision to become protectors of the state need not be publicised. This offensive must remain noiseless, especially in the political constituency outside the Valley.

Fayaz is not the first Kashmiri youth to join the government and consequently face the wrath of militants. On May 1, five Jammu and Kashmir policemen and two bank officials were killed in a terror strike. It was the latest in several terrorist actions in which local security personnel were either specifically targeted or became ‘accidental’ casualties.

These incidents anger Kashmiri people against terrorists no doubt – but they keep the rage personal fearing reprisals from militants. Championing Fayaz and equating terrorists who killed him with those who disrupted the soldier’s funeral or even those who throw stones at security forces, suggest a poor understanding of the ground situation. Government strategy must not be based on the conclusion that every Kashmiri is a militant or separatist.

While army generals can be expected to speak aggressively from the hip, it is the task of the political leadership to moderate extreme passion and explore nuances in the narratives. Regrettably, there is little to differentiate between responses of ministers and generals.

Comparing the unfortunate divergence in the paths of Wani and Fayaz will not wean away the thousands who chant the former’s name and throw stones to seek retribution for him. In addition, this will only make the task of those wanting to follow footsteps of Fayaz more difficult. This ‘my-icon’ versus ‘your-icon’ social-media driven conflict must be halted at the earliest.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin