Decoding Burhan Wani: Kashmiri youths seek moral exemplars, not paid agents

One must try to understand what makes the current generation of Kashmiri youth tick. This has become urgent after their explosive demonstrations of anger over the killing of Burhan Wani.

A file image of Burhan Wani. CNN-News18

A file image of Burhan Wani. CNN-News18

A major narrative among young Kashmiris focuses on Wani’s moral superiority. He was soft-spoken, pleasant and was reputed to have an incorruptible character. Many young Kashmiris assert that he was 'pure' – celibate, without any vices, leave alone addictions. More important in the context of the militancy of 1990, he and his men did not interfere in disputes or local issues, leave alone extort anything.

Policymakers who use moneybags, and give corruption a free rein in Kashmir, to win the support of elites should take an urgent lesson from this – young Kashmiris respond to exemplars of high morality, not to paid agents.
Fresh-faced youthfulness was vital to Wani’s rockstar persona. Even while he became a heroic ideal, he remained 'one of us'. He hailed from a small town, was what is loosely called 'middle class’ (his father was a school principal), and had taken up a weapon when only 15 after being arbitrarily and unjustly abused and slapped by policemen – after they allegedly ordered him to bring them cigarettes, and he did.

Images and videos on social media went a long way to forming his public persona. In the past, militants in the field had generally been shadowy, albeit sometimes larger-than-life, figures. The security forces have sometimes struggled to get a picture of a militant even a decade after he has been in the field.

By contrast, Wani’s pictures and videos were everywhere. They showed camaraderie with an apparently close-knit group of youthful militants who were also friends – almost like the legendary 'merry band' led by Robin Hood. The comrades played cricket, roamed through forests, and sat with automatic rifles in fatigues by picturesque streams.
At such places, he would 'motivate’ young people to join his ranks. Some did. Most responded with fervour even if they did not actually take the plunge. In young minds, militancy thus became linked to familiar, happy spaces rather than a dark esoteric world.

Another aspect of the one-of-us image is that he was perceived as homegrown; a huge proportion of young Kashmiris could empathise with him. His band were respected for having honed their skills locally, never crossing the Line of Control for arms or training. Many of their automatic and small arms were snatched from security forces.

Societal factors

To adequately understand Burhan’s popularity, and what it portends, one must go deeper – by analysing contemporary society. We must focus on the amorphous generation of today’s Kashmiri youth, particularly teenagers, more than on Hizb, Lashkar, Hurriyat, Islamic State, Pakistan or any other nation-state or organisation.

This is a generation that has known only violence, instability and militarization since birth. Over the past eight years, they have been fed on highly orchestrated, very selective narratives of repression, exploitation and worldwide oppression of Muslims – even while unprecedented urbanisation, technological assets, monetary wealth, consumption and aspirations have shaped their world.

Many find it tough to cope with confusing and often frustrating social situations. These often include dysfunctional (emergent) unitary families, an often hollow education system, non-traditional social spaces, and vastly increased pressures towards religiosity.

Global narratives

Wani’s popularity also holds a lesson for those who focus exclusively on nation-state frames – young Kashmiris are not by and large inspired by what they see and hear of Pakistan either; their discourse is more often internationalist and idealistic.

They commonly deploy religion-based rhetoric and frames, but these are often only their vehicles to express deeply felt angst that they find difficult to adequately express otherwise. One might even draw parallels at certain levels between the vision, fuzzy and not-quite-thought-through, that inspires them and those that inspired student 'revolutionaries' in places like Paris in 1968.

Unfortunately, 'security' analysts, who rule policymaking, are generally stuck in the frames of nation-states. At best, they try to cope with outfits which they thrust into their statist frames as 'non-state actors' – organisations such as Hizb or networks such as Islamic State.

Rights and justice

Abstract concepts like justice and rights are more relevant. Burhan shot to stardom after his elder brother, Khalid, was brutally killed on 13 April 2015. Even if the story is true that Khalid was an over-ground worker and key organiser of militancy in the Tral area, the return of his body without a jaw, teeth, eyes, nose or ears resonated with young Kashmiris. It represented the worst of the torture they have grown up watching, fearing, and to which they were now getting immunised.

It is important to note that the chief objects of attack over the past week have been police stations and paramilitary camps, but generally not army camps or convoys. This pattern was even sharper during the prolonged summer of stone-pelting in 2010. Some of the schoolboys who used to pelt stones at Baramulla’s infamous 'cement bridge' told me that June that they would let an army truck pass; they used abusive language for the police and CRPF.

The fact is that those who were born around, or a little before, the turn of the millennium have suffered police excesses and crass behavior from some CRPF units. Generally, the army’s behavior and response patterns have improved considerably over these years – although incidents like the Machil murders in early 2010 and Khalid’s killing last year have a hugely alienating effect.

If analysts and policymakers remain oblivious to these complexities of young Kashmiris’ lived experience, there is a grave risk that the angsts of this generation will continue to show up in unexpected ways – sometimes explosively.

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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2016 17:49:52 IST

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