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The Burhan effect: will his death dampen armed militancy?

Riyaz-ur-Rahman | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:48 IST

In July last year, a picture of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, flanked by 10 fresh recruits, appeared on Facebook and went viral. Faces uncovered, they sat on the slope of a thick orchard somewhere in South Kashmir with Kalashnikovs hung off their shoulders.

Striking deliberate poses, all faced the camera with calmness; some also with a hint of a smile.

The image held an overpowering appeal for Kashmir's new generation, which was already showing signs of deep estrangement from New Delhi. The image was widely shared on Facebook and WhatsApp, building, along the way, a pro-militancy conversation.

Also read- Burhan Wani, poster boy of Kashmir's new militancy, killed in encounter

The Burhan effect

The picture heralded the arrival of a new age of militancy in Kashmir, and captured what is called the "Burhan effect" on the ongoing jihad: for the first time in a decade, the ratio between indigenous and the foreign militants had changed in favour of the former. Out of 142 active militants in the Kashmir Valley, 88 were locals, and the rest from Pakistan.

The equation still holds. By the latest count, around 145 militants are active in the Valley, out of which 91 are locals and 54 foreigners.

And this has been Burhan's single-handed achievement. Ever since he took up the gun in 2010 at the age of 17, Burhan had captured the imagination of the new angry Kashmir generation.

This generation had been completely bred in the political conflict in the state, but it had held off its allegiance to any political ideology before being swept away by the upsurge over the 2008 Amarnath land row. A predominant majority of the youth was suddenly drawn to the separatist ideology.

Burhan became the pin-up boy of Kashmiri jihad for this generation; someone they could relate to as against the obscure, faceless foreign jihadis. He was seen as someone who had graduated from stone-throwing to guns for a more well-matched fight with the government forces.

Burhan played to this sentiment. By taking to social media and posting his pictures and videos and those of his colleagues, he imparted a renewed romance to the militancy, and invested it with a moral glamour, as a fight against an oppressive system.

Also read- Burhan Wani in life and death: an icon for Kashmir's Gen Next?

Incidental role?

However, the role of his persona in effecting this change may have only been incidental. He just happened to take up arms at a strategic time.

By 2010, militancy had been in decline for almost a decade. The memory of the darkest era - the early 1990s - had faded, more so for the 20 year olds who had little conscious memory of the period.

Under the circumstances, a 17-year-old handsome boy with a gun came as a nostalgic throwback to the failed youthful challenge to New Delhi.

According to police sources, the 'Burhan effect' brought a hundred more local militants to the otherwise depleted Hizbul Mujahideen ranks, which put the outfit back in the vanguard of the Kashmiri jihad. None of these recruits, however, went to Pakistan, but were trained locally. In some cases, they were even forced to snatch weapons for themselves from policemen standing guard in public places.

So, unlike battle-hardened and well-trained foreign jihadis, they could inflict little real damage and, when tracked down by security agencies, most of them were killed without much of a fight.

As was inevitable, after the initial social media high, the new recruits found it hard to evade the security net. Since 2015, around 180 militants have lost their lives, 80 of them in the past six months. This inexorable counter-insurgency onslaught has now culminated in the killing of Burhan himself.

What will the fallout be?

Will 23-year-old Burhan's death act as a dampener to the Valley's new jihad rush, and expose once again the futility of this dangerous option?

"This could act both ways. A rational takeaway certainly should be the futility of the violence and the impossibility of evading death when you take up arms," said a police officer. "But it could give a fillip to recruitment, with Burhan becoming a stronger symbol of jihad in death than he was before. We are keeping our fingers crossed."

Former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, however, sees the latter possibility as likelier than the former.

"Mark my words - Burhan's ability to recruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media," Omar wrote on Twitter.

"After many years, I hear slogans for 'Azadi' resonate from the mosque in my uptown Srinagar locality. Kashmir's disaffected got a new icon yesterday," the National Conference leader said.

Also read- Omar Abdullah says Burhan Wani is an 'icon' for Kashmir's disaffected

Abdullah has a point. A sea of people participated in Burhan's funeral in South Kashmir. For the first time since the 1990s, Srinagar woke up to a series of nocturnal revolts, with loudspeakers booming with Azadi slogans.

Several urban parts of the Valley witnessed a raucous rumble of the seething masses moving through the streets.

The echoes were not limited to the Valley's major towns alone - the protests also spread to the larger countryside, and swept into the hitherto-insulated border areas. These are the kind of places which might be frequent sites of militant violence, but have been always cut off from the heady Azadi groundswell in the plains.

"But this could peter out in a day or two. And situation could be normal again," said the police officer, adding that there have been instances in the past when neutralising a high-profile militant had put an extended damper on the militancy. "We could hope for a similar outcome here."

Can't help the situation

The successive killings of scores of militants, most of them local, over the past six months, has also caused a section of people to speak disapprovingly of the recourse to the gun - albeit in hushed tones. So have some separatist leaders. But they don't feel the situation can be helped.

"No democratic space is allowed for Azadi groups to carry out their activities. (Syed Ali Shah) Geelani sahib has been under house arrest for the past six years," says Hurriyat (G) spokesman Ayaz Akber. "There is no space even for peaceful protests. So, the only option for the youth to resist India is to go underground and pick up the gun."

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 9 July 2016, 9:14 IST