TRAL, Jammu and Kashmir — Muzaffar Ahmad Wani shrugged and smiled, but he did not say how the word “India” came to be scribbled in black over the fading white marks that had once read, “We want freedom.”
For two years after the Indian army killed his son, Burhan Wani, journalists crowded his driveway in the scenic town of Tral in south Kashmir. They asked him why the son of a school principal had taken up arms against the Indian state.
The journalists are long gone, and Wani and his wife, Maimoona Muzaffar, who have lost two sons to the violence in conflict-ravaged Kashmir, have embraced their solitude.
As his wife poured out juice from a can, Wani laughed and said that he had recently shooed away a lone journalist who had come asking about the Modi government revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status on 5 August, and demoting its only Muslim-majority state to a Union Territory.
The Modi government says that the abrogation of Article 370 will lead to growth and employment and private investments in education, health and tourism. The Kashmiris fear land-grabbing and demographic changes.
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“I’m tired. I’m very tired,” said Wani, stroking his salt-and-pepper beard. “I’ve said everything I had to about Burhan. There is nothing left to say.”
After a pause, he said, “About 370, I’m neither a politician nor a policy maker. I’m just a school principal. I have nothing to say.”
Wani added, “Go to the main market and you will have your answer.”
On a sunny day in September, all the shops were closed in the main market of Tral, a town that some people call a “hub of militancy,” and others call a “liberated area.”
Except for the armed soldiers shifting their weight and equipment, and a solitary horse carriage trotting past the shuttered stores, everything was quiet in the otherwise busy marketplace.
In Srinagar, there was talk of some shops that tried to open being burnt in Tral, but the locals say nothing.
Whether anger is driving people to persist with the shutdown or fear of retaliation from militants, Wani refused to say.
Whether the Modi government’s suddenly revoking Article 370 will provoke more young men into joining the militancy, Wani refused to say.
“I cannot answer questions like this,” Wani said. “No one can say anything in Kashmir these days. If I say something in the morning, then they will take me away in the evening. I will land up in Delhi or Agra jail. Then who will look after my family?”
“I have lost two sons in this violence. I’m living to make sure that no shadow falls on the son and the daughter I have left,” he said.
No one can say anything in Kashmir these days.
Wani’s 20-year-son is studying to become a radiologist.
His elder brother, Burhan Wani, was still in school when he left to become a militant in 2010. He was 22-years-old when he was killed in 2016. The Hizbul Mujahideen commander became famous as one of the first militants in Kashmir to wield social media to promote militancy. A photograph of him with 10 other militants dressed in army fatigues with kalashnikovs strapped across their chests went viral. As did a video of him playing cricket.
He promised safe passage to the Hindus who travel to Kashmir for the Amarnath pilgrimage. He threatened violence against the J&K police. He offered to protect Kashmiri Pandits if they returned to their homes, but threatened to attack “Israel-type colonies” — housing settlements proposed for Kashmiri Pandits, the vast majority of whom fled Kashmir when they were targeted by Islamic militants in the early nineties.
Wani’s critics were sceptical of promises, pointing to the Hizbul Mujahideen’s long and bloody past in Kashmir.
But the lanky youth with a trimmed beard made people wonder if the new generation of Kashmiri militants might be relatable young men, perhaps even less inclined towards bloodshed. The state saw the social media savvy militant as a dangerous foe who was swaying more young men to take up arms. The “poster boy” of the militancy had a Rs. 10 lakh bounty on his head.
Burhan Wani’s death on 8 July, 2016 triggered massive protests which went on for four months, bringing life to a standstill in Kashmir. At least 80 people were killed and many more blinded in the violent clashes between Kashmiris and Indian security forces that used pellet guns at the time.
Khalid Wani, Burhan’s elder brother, was killed by security forces one year earlier, when he went to meet him in the forests near Tral. The Indian Army said that he too was aiding the militancy. His father says he was beaten with gun butts.
The last of the 11 militants who appeared with the Kalashnikovs in the photo shared by Burhan Wani in 2015 was killed this year.
Today, Burhan Wani’s face is plastered all over Soura, a volatile area in Srinagar, where people are carrying out protests against the abrogation of Article 370 since 5 August, despite the influx of fresh troops and the severing of mobile phone services and the internet for over two months.
Burhan Wani’s face is flanked by graffiti welcoming Pakistan, the Pakistan army, the Taliban, a host of militant outfits, and significantly, the face of Osaib Altaf, a 17 year old who was the first civilian casualty since Section 370 was annulled.
Last month, Hayat Ahmed Butt, a heavyset man in his fifties, who organizes the protests inside Soura, pointed to a black and white image of Burhan Wani’s which was stuck to the gate of the mosque inside Soura and said, “You have heard of Burhan Wani? He is one of our heros. A real hero.”
Burhan Wani’s father refused to say how this makes him feel.
“I’m not angry with him is all I can say,” he said. “I’ve never been angry with him.”
The story goes that Burhan Wani ran away and joined the militancy after he was harassed and his brother, Khalid, was beaten by Indian security forces when he was in class 10.
While counting off the names of a few militants and their college degrees, his father said, “The only thing I will say is that there are educated boys, more educated than Burhan was, who are going into militancy. Someone should ask ‘why’?”
I’m living to make sure that no shadow falls on the son and the daughter I have left.
Wani and his wife have spoken often about their son to the media, never quite condoning his choices, but never condemning him either.
Now, they are terrified of speaking out. They make that clear.
“You must write that I went to meet Burhan Wani’s father but he did not say anything about the current situation,” said Wani.
“They have arrested Farooq Abdullah, P. Chidambaram. Look at how they treat Ghulam Nabi Azad? Who am I? No one,” he said. “I’m just a man who has lost two sons to violence and is afraid of the future for my two remaining children. My elderly parents live with me. I have to take care of them too.”
As the conversation turned to how long the shutdown against Article 370 would last and who is driving it, Wani said, “I don’t want to say anything political, but I want to say something on humanitarian grounds. We have the right to live and breathe. Please let us live.”
“There should be no war. Young men on every side will die,” he added. “There is nothing to be gained from war.”
We have the right to live and breathe. Please let us live.
Every time Wani would forget his own diktat to self-censor and let himself go, Maimoona would find a way to interrupt him. There are consequences to them speaking out, she said.
The Indian government, Maimoona said, did not renew her husband’s passport when he applied for a new one to go for Hajj.
Long and dreary days stretch out before the Wani family.
They rarely get news from the rest of the Kashmir Valley because of the communication blackout, and they don’t trust the Indian news channels, Wani said. “The only thing TV is good for is movies,” he said.
Maimoona spoke of losing track of time and watching movies to kill the monotony.
The school of which he is a principal is closed, and he cannot say when classes will resume, Wani said.
Doing nothing day-after-day is taking its psychological toll, Maimoona said, as she cleared the empty juice glasses. “We are very depressed but we cannot say anything,” she said.
“Why is everyone after Kashmir?” asked Wani.
There should be no war. Young men on every side will die.