It was July 8, 2016, the last day of my two-week holiday which I had come to spend with my family in Kashmir. It was also the first Friday after Eid-ul-Fitr, and I went to offer afternoon prayers at Darul Uloom, Noor-Ul-Islam, Tral. As I was left the mosque after prayers, my eyes caught sight of a man with a long beard, dressed in traditional shalwar-kameez and a white skull-cap. It was the man who had taught me maths in my 11th class at Government Higher Secondary School, Tral, and it was also the man who happens to be the father of the iconic militant commander, Burhan Wani. Yes, it was Muzzafar Ahmad Wani. I went to him and we exchanged greetings. He looked happy, not knowing that in a few hours he would hear news of his son being killed in an encounter with security forces in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
After I left the mosque, I went with one of my cousins to Doodhpathri, a village some 15 kilometres from Tral town, surrounded by lush green mountains and inhabited by Gujjars. We took pictures of Gujjar children and their kothas.
When I came back, I was trying to upload some pictures on Facebook when I saw a post by a journalist friend that Burhan Wani had been killed. As I was trying to confirm the news from different sources, I heard a group of young girls chanting, “Burhan Tere Khoon Se Inquilaab Ayega”, which in itself confirmed the news.
I cancelled my plans of leaving for Delhi on July 9 and instead went to cover the most historic funeral of my life.
Being born and brought up in Tral – a town which has been a hot bed of militancy since the 1990s – I have seen countless funerals of militants, youths whose bravery we would discuss in our classrooms. But never have I seen such a number of people at any funeral.
I saw for the first time scores of militants openly attending a rebel’s funeral. I saw emotional and excited youth carrying this rebel’s last remains on their shoulders. For the first time at any funeral, I saw a militant raise slogans in support of Azaadi. I heard him chant, “Mubarak ho, mubarak ho, Tral ko mubarak ho!” A young man identified the chanter as Wasim from Shopian. For the time he was there, people were asked not to take any pictures.
I saw hundreds of young boys running after him to shake hands. I saw young boys in large numbers encircling militants who had come to pay their respects to their slain commander. I saw people kissing and hugging these militants.
I remember when Saleem Khan, another top militant commander who also hailed from Tral, was killed in 2001. I was still in school and I remember huge crowds converging on his village of Lorrow Jagir to participate in his funeral. More than a decade and a half has passed since then, but I clearly recollect people calling his death a great loss to the struggle, the same way people talked about Burhan on June 9. In the intervening years, Tral has seen new faces rising up through the ranks of the Hizbul Mujahideen. None of them, however, achieved the fame Burhan did in his six years as an active militant.
“I’m 70 years old,” said Ghulam Mohammed, who walked 12 kilometres to attend the funeral. “Not in the past 27 years of conflict or even once in my entire life have I seen such a sea of people at any funeral.”
Burhan was among three militants killed by security forces in south Kashmir’s Kokernag area on July 8, 2016. The moment the news was confirmed that he was one of the three slain, thousands of people marched towards Tral. The cheer and bonhomie of the just-concluded Eid celebrations were soon overtaken by Azaadi and pro-Burhan slogans. Hundreds of youths from various parts of the Valley – even some from Jammu division – reached his village of Sharifabad that night, even before Burhan’s body was brought there.
Pro-freedom camp called for a shutdown, and the government imposed restrictions. It was clear that very night what the coming days would be. There were protests throughout the Valley. Everywhere, people were seen chanting pro-Burhan slogans.
At many places, clashes were reported between protesters and security forces. Sensing trouble, the Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP-BJP government suspended mobile phone and internet services in the Valley. Despite strict restrictions imposed by the authorities, an estimated three lakh people participated in Burhan’s funeral.
Syed Ali Geelani, chairman of Hurriyat Conference, termed the people’s participation in the funeral as a clear referendum. “Burhan’s martyrdom has proved that the struggle for freedom is holy and is justified as the whole nation supports it.”
The son of a higher secondary school principal, Burhan joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2010 at the age of 15. According to Burhan’s father, he and his brother Khalid Muzzafar Wani – killed by government forces in 2015 – were allegedly beaten up by police in 2010 for no fault of theirs. “To me, that was the moment which changed Burhan and made him become a militant,” Muzzafar Ahmad told me in an interview in 2014.
His youth and his bravado in sharing pictures and videos with fellow militants over social media made Burhan a household name in Kashmir. His pictures would frequently go viral and were often run on Indian news channels for days. He has been widely credited with reviving the armed resistance in Kashmir.
Despite having spent my whole youth in Tral, as well as covering many funerals as a reporter, I was surprised to see the public reaction to the killing of Burhan Wani. I have never seen women taking out a protest march at night in support of a militant, chanting pro-freedom slogans. Photographers who have covered almost every funeral in south Kashmir in the past six years told me that they have never seen so many people at any militant’s funeral.
“I have never participated in any militant’s funeral in my entire life or taken part in any protest march, but today I couldn’t stop myself,” said a childhood friend. “I participated in Burhan’s funeral today and I was asking myself that if people like him are not heroes then who is?” he added.
There is nothing new in women participating in a militant’s funeral in Kashmir, but for the first time I saw a girl as young as six and a lady as old as 90 march towards Tral Eidgah for this one. I saw thousands of young girls coming out of their homes, marching towards Burhan’s funeral amid slogans in support of Azaadi and the militants.
Since my childhood, I have seen volunteers offering juice and water to people during funerals, but for the first time, I saw people setting up langars, collecting cooked rice and vegetables from village to village to feed the people who, despite the restrictions, had come to attend the funeral from different parts of the state. Hundreds of families cooked rice twice, thrice, so that all the attendees could be offered food.
Not only Muslims, a large number of Sikhs also visited Burhan’s home and the Eidgah, where dozens of funeral prayers were offered for him.
I saw an old Sikh man waiting in queue for almost an hour to get a glimpse of the slain militant. There were scores of Sikh youth present, offering water to the funeral’s attendees.
I clearly remember the days when people would run from their homes if they heard the army was coming towards their village, or if there was an encounter in their vicinity. But that situation has changed. Now, if there is an encounter between militants and forces anywhere in the Valley, the local population often engages in stone-pelting so the militants can escape the cordon.
A day after Burhan’s funeral, I saw people marching towards the village of Midoora after some people claimed that Zakir Mussa, one of Burhan’s associates, was trapped there. Hundreds of youths descended on the village, but the news was fake.
Two weeks after Burhan was killed, a female Kashmiri student studying in a top Delhi university told me: “Many in India are surprised to see the outpouring of love for Burhan Wani in Kashmir. For Indians, a terrorist was killed, but for us a hero was martyred.”
“Burhan was and will be a hero to Kashmiris because he did what most couldn’t dare do after witnessing the gory years of the 1990s. He rebelled against the atrocities of India. Years of protesting peacefully haven’t borne any fruit, so people saw a glimpse of hope in Burhan,” she added.