When the body of slain militant Shariq Ahmad Bhat was brought to his village of Nyaina-Bandina in Awantipora on Wednesday, thousands of men, women and children joined his funeral procession. Bhat, part of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen group, was killed earlier in the day in an encounter with security forces in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. One civilian also lost his life in the subsequent protests.
More than his death, what surprised many was the number of people participating in his funeral and burial.
Ali Mohammad Akhoon, a gravedigger, who buried Bhat, said in a sullen voice that when he raised his both hands to lower the shrouded body into the grave, he couldn't see the sky above.
“I don’t know when I got out of the grave and when we buried him. It was as if a sea of people had gathered there. It must have inspired someone else in that ground to chose this path, which has only one end: Death,” Shah told Firstpost at his home in Awantipora, late on Wednesday.
Shah's journey of burying people in Pulwama started much before the insurgency started in 1990s, and in those days a dead body would arrive almost daily. However, the difference between now and then is, as Shah points out, that managing the burial was much easier than it is today. “Every one wants to see the face of the dead militant,” he says, explaining the crowds that gather at funerals these days.
In October 2015, when security forces killed Lashkar-e-Taiba’s divisional commander in Kashmir, Abu Qasim, in Kulgam district, thousands of people joined his funeral procession and burial. His death proved to be a major blow to the LeT in south Kashmir.
Soon after the news spread on social media, almost all the roads leading to Kulgam filled with people rushing to participate in the funeral. Angry protesters clashed with the police and army following clashes.
“A politician in Kashmir would throw bags full of money to get these kinds of crowds,” Nisar Ahmad Wagay, a shopkeeper in Kulgam market told Firstpost after the funeral.
A stark, but uncomfortable reality is staring at Kashmir today: In recent years crowds have surprisingly increased at every funeral of a militant. Whenever a Kashmir militant is killed, a football stadium size crowd fills in. Those who can’t find a place on ground, climb the trees.
“This is stark reality in today's Kashmir and beyond Banihal (Jawahar Tunnel) there is no recognition of this fact. It should open the eyes. Somewhere something is failing the people,” Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, says.
The number of people participating in militant funerals is a sharp reminder of how uncertain things still are in Kashmir, even today despite the semblance of peace on the surface. Every such funeral is not just a dilemma but also a freighting sight for security establishment.
“In one instance, when a militant was killed and thousands of people arrived for his funeral. I prayed to God that they didn't attack my police station,” said a station house officer from south Kashmir in hushed tones.
“Imagine if 5,000 people start throwing stones at your police station. It will become a stone quarry in five minutes. You can’t kill people,” he adds.
At every funeral prayer of militants these days, Kashmiri women sing songs of valour; garland their dead bodies. Henna is applied on their bare hands, as most of these young militants remain unmarried. Rhetorical speeches are made; people record them on their smart phones. Videos are edited; the militants face is stacked on top of screen, while the shots of encounter site and the funeral play down. Later, these videos are circulated aggressively through Whatsapp, Facebook and other forms of social media.
Somewhere someone gets inspired and the next day he is missing from his home.
Professor Noor Mohammad Baba, a political analyst and a keen Kashmir observer based in Srinagar, says it is surprising that despite almost zero mobilisation from outside, people from peripheral areas fill the grounds. Any one participating in these funerals is contesting normal politics and this is not outside of politics.
“Although social media plays its role in communication it is not responsible for the mobilisation of crowds. A part of it is spontaneous. Mobilisation is persuasion and here no one could persuade you to do something that involves such a risk,” Baba told Firstpost.
Over the last five years Kashmir militants have been using social media websites to reach out to people. One day security forces block the pages on Facebook and the next, the same page crops up in another place by another name.
“Gone are the days when they (militants) used to remain in hiding with their faces covered. Now they make videos, take pictures, upload them on Facebook and get thousands of likes! There are endless pages, and despite security agencies blocking them, they just prop up in another place on another day,” a police official says.
“Looking at the number of people using social media, particularly Facebook, it is one reason why you see people flock to funerals when these militants die,” he added.
“Normal politics has failed to diminish the sympathy... and it can’t. There is a political problem that needs to be addressed. The alienation continues and the institutions of politics and governance have not been able to address it. Every funeral of a militant is a bleak reminder of how these institutions have failed,” said Baba.