Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old “commander” of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen gunned down last week by the security forces in Anantnag, was credited with mobilising a new generation of the disaffected in Jammu and Kashmir. In the violent aftermath of his death, however, young men and women have taken the fight to the security forces on the street. Pitched battles have engulfed the Valley. Wani was obviously a prize catch. His engaging manner had turned him into a legend before his death, as he coasted on personal charisma and social media smarts to become the ‘poster boy’ of a new phase of Kashmiri militancy that is homegrown. But having got their man, the security forces failed spectacularly in managing the situation. After the death of over a hundred Kashmiris in the stone-pelting protests in the summer of 2010, the J&K police and the paramilitary forces were said to have evolved less lethal ways of bringing under control what is essentially political mobilisation. The fact that so many civilians have been killed or injured in the eye this month, with a high percentage having possibly lost vision altogether, suggests that no care has gone into keeping the casualties low. Faced with an attacking mob, policemen are bound to perceive a sense of siege. But it is imperative that any response should be measured and never grossly disproportionate to the cause of action — forgetting this lesson in Kashmir has time and again led to the fuelling of a further cycle of protests, to attracting more impressionable and aggrieved youngsters to attack symbols of authority.
This is a cycle that cannot be broken by brute force. The Central and State governments have reached out to the Opposition and separatist leaders to dissuade young Kashmiris from street violence. But appeals for calm must be strengthened with a demonstrable capacity for a political conversation. When tens of thousands of Kashmiris hit the streets in mourning for a fallen militant, there is a spectrum of political opinion that presents itself. They can be dispersed with pellets. But if ‘mainstream’ politics does not speak to them, if their arguments are not heard patiently to be countered or fleshed out, as the case may be, the calm that eventually obtains will be an illusion. The Valley has been restive for more than a year now. In this period, Wani is not the only militant whose funeral has drawn people in the thousands. But after long, after more than a decade of violence led by foreign militants, he was the rare local boy to be seen in a leadership role. To put his mourners in a with-us-against-us binary would, as Omar Abdullah has said, give him a recruiting power from beyond the grave.