Decoding Burhan Wani and Kashmir unrest: Is 'Indian oppression' to blame?

It has been just over three days since Indian security forces eliminated top terrorist recruiter Burhan Wani. Valiant efforts are already well under way to romanticise and rationalise the Hizbul Mujaheedin commander's crimes and provide a narrative of victimhood to justify the widespread turbulence in Kashmir that has left 23 people dead so far and over 250 injured.

The glorification of Wani, the 22-year-old tech savvy terrorist, is on at full swing. He is being projected as a larger-than-life figure who inspired thousands of oppressed local Kashmiri youths to intifada against the oppressive Indian state using social media tools.

A file image of Burhan Wani. CNN-News18

A file image of Burhan Wani. CNN-News18

In this avatar, Wani wasn't the terrorist who roamed around with a Rs 10 lakh bounty over his head, having dropped out from school at 15 and becoming a delinquent with a string of police cases against his name; he wasn't instrumental in brainwashing many local boys to take up the gun by glamorising terror through social media; he wasn't the Hizbul commander who released videos warning of attacks if colonies for Sainiks and Kashmiri Pandits were set up in the Valley; he wasn't the terrorist involved in the 2013 killing of four Rashtriya Rifles men in Buchoo Baala area in his hometown Tral; he wasn't the terrorist to warn the J&K Police of more attacks; he wasn't even the first Kashmiri militant to spring the idea of a Khilafat, an Islamic State, through a Facebook video which became wildly popular. No, Burhan Wani wasn't any of these.

In the sanitised yet glamorised version of Wani, he was just an armed rebel with strikingly good looks, a Che Guevara prototype if you like, who came from an affluent family and wouldn't have gone into terrorism had it not been for the Indian army's torturous and sadistic ways. Stress was laid on how his father Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, who teaches mathematics, is the principal of a higher secondary school while his mother Maimoona Muzaffar is a postgraduate and how his brother was wronged by security forces.

Politicians raised doubts about his terror credentials and public intellectuals termed the neutralising of a terrorist as 'extra judicial killing', an allegation immediately picked up by Pakistan.

This deliberate attempt to normalise terrorists and seek justification for their actions has been tried many times before the world over. Terrorists and suicide bombers have been described as friendly and likeable, attractive to women. Suggestions are made that the state has failed to assimilate them properly — implying that the acts of insurgency, in this case, were India's fault. The next step is to indulge in the time-tested narrative of political correctness — explaining away terrorism as driven by grievances.

This sexing up of Burhan is running simultaneous to the victimhood narrative which is being used as a blanket term to explain the protests and attacks against Indian government and its security apparatus. It is said that Kashmir is perpetually boiling because residents have no human rights, are daily humiliated and lack economic opportunities or chance of a better future. This, it is said, has resulted in extreme anger, hopelessness and is the reason why youth are taking up the gun and indulging in terrorism.

The myth around grievance, oppression and poverty causing terrorism has been debunked by almost every major study in the subject but like a bad dream, the lazy idea refuses to fade away.

Kashmiris have every right to a better future, better economic opportunity and prosperity as every other Indian citizen but to suggest that addressing these will uproot terrorism is based on pure conjecture.

In an article titled The Roots Of Terrorism, columnist and economist Sultan Mehmood, an advisor to the Dutch government on macroeconomic policies, says: A myriad of studies go against the “conventional wisdom” view of terrorism. "The story goes that it is those poor, young, illiterate and brainwashed teens who have nothing to live for that turn to terrorism. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth."

He says "not a single study could make a cogent case that terrorism had economic roots", and quotes a work by authors Martin Gassebner and Simon Luechinger of the KOF Swiss Economic Institute who "estimated 13.4 million different equations, drew on 43 different studies and 65 correlates of terrorism to conclude that higher levels of poverty and illiteracy are not associated with greater terrorism."

The author also quotes Professor C Christine Fair from Georgetown University who used data on 141 killed militants to find that terrorists in Pakistan are recruited from middle-class and well-educated families. A finding further corroborated by Graeme Blair and others at Princeton University. "In a robust survey of 6,000 individuals across Pakistan, it is found that the poor are actually 23 times more averse to extremist violence relative to middle-class citizens."

These have also been substantiated elsewhere. Author and columnist Salil Tripathi wrote in Wall Street Journal that to suggest "poverty breeds a sense of deprivation among the poor and … compel the poor — driven to desperation because of social injustices — to turn to terror", is a "reductive revolutionary rhetoric masquerading as an explanation… It plays on collective guilt, seeking to rationalize the unjustifiable."

He goes on to make the point that millions of poor people who live in abject conditions in Africa and Asia suffer from widespread diseases, persistent malnutrition and have even experienced strife and violence. "But the poor there do not routinely blow up buses or turn their bodies into bombs. To suggest that the poor will become terrorists unless their plight is addressed is gratuitous; worse, it insults them — most poor lead dignified lives, trying heroically to improve their lives when they have little control over their destinies."

Where must we seek the answer for sustained insurgency in Kashmir then? Firstpost has argued in a recent article that Pakistan's proxy war has a huge role to play in the unrest.

Beyond that, there is also the question of radicalisation. An oft-ignored facet of the Burhan Wani story is the clear indication, from a recently conducted interview with his father Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, that the militant's sudden reference to Khilafat — the calling card of Islamic State — has a lot to do with the radicalisation in his family.

"It is a hard task (fighting against the Indian state), but a Muslim has his faith in God. He knows if he dies in the path of God, he goes to God. In our religion, whosoever dies because of the oppression from India, or by an Indian bullet, doesn’t die. He goes from this world to the other world (as promised in the Quran); there will be no disease in that world, no oppression. This is what our Islam tells us. That’s why Muslims don’t fear that. We prefer dying with honour rather than living a life of shame under oppression," Burhan's father was quoted, a saying by Hindustan Times in an interview.

On the possibility that Burhan might get killed one day, (the interview was conducted before his death), Muzaffar said: "Yes, I do get a bit disturbed, but our Islam says that God, Quran and the Prophet are bigger than anything, even bigger and more important than our sons. It’s not the other way round. If our God is not happy with us then we don’t need our sons. Our God should be happy with us even if my son’s or my sacrifice is needed for that."

In his seminal book Leaderless Jihad, former CIA officer, forensic psychiatrist and counter-terrorism consultant Marc Sageman shows how in the age of internet and social media, terrorism needs no single leader to spread its tentacles. Sageman, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, studied 500 militants before putting forward his theory that a terrorist passes through four stages.

"The initial trigger is a sense of moral outrage, usually over some incident of Muslim suffering in Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya or elsewhere. This then acquires a broader context, becoming part of a “morality play” in which Islam and the West (in this case, India) are seen to be at perpetual war.

"In stage three, the global and the local are fused, as geopolitical grievance resonates with personal experience of discrimination or joblessness.

"And finally the individual joins a terrorist cell, which becomes a surrogate family, nurturing the jihadist world-view and preparing the initiate for martyrdom. Many Muslims pass through the first three phases; only a few take the final step."

This is a strong case in favour of radicalisation playing a decisive part in the making of a terrorist. And also a case against reflexive and reductive analyses of terror.

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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2016 00:11:11 IST

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