A former engineering student has emerged as the successor of slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, asking the people of Kashmir to continue the agitation till the region achieves its goal of “azadi”.
An 8-minute video message by Zakir Rashid Bhat is being seen as confirmation of his elevation to the post once held by Wani, whose killing on July 8 sparked violent street protests in the Valley.
“We all know how the martyrdom of our three brothers (Wani and two other militants) has brought movement to a new point. Now we need to support this struggle and take it to its logical conclusion,” Bhat said in Urdu in the video, mailed to local media houses on Tuesday and widely circulated through mobile messaging service WhatsApp.
The Hizb had earlier named one Mehmood Ghaznavi as Wani’s successor but many believe it to be an alias of Bhat.
Bhat, said to be around 22 years, was a student of civil engineering in Chandigarh before he returned to his ancestral village Noorpura in Pulwama in 2013 and joined the Hizbul Mujahideen, the only surviving Kashmir-based militant group.
Bhat’s video, in which he appeared in military fatigues sitting on a chair with three AK assault rifles in the background, comes amid a wave of violent protests that started a day after Wani’s killing.
At least 65 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in clashes between stone-pelting protesters and security forces and the Valley has remained under curfew for the 40th day till Wednesday.
More than 2,000 people have also been injured with many suffering eye injuries – including children as young as five year olds -- from pellets fired by security forces, fanning anti-India sentiments across the Valley.
“You should support it (protests) wholeheartedly. The hartals and protests should continue. Whosoever calls off the strike, it should not be allowed as we are only the followers of Allah...Till azadi we will keep struggling,” he said.
Media-savvy Wani was the first militant leader to extensively use social media to lure educated youth into the fight for “independence of the disputed region”.
Asking Kashmiris not to believe rumours, Bhat said that people should not have burnt down the house in which Burhan was killed in Kokernag.
“This is wrong. We should not take any step without any investigations. Because (by doing so) it leads to loss of mujahideens as people hesitate to give us shelter fearing their houses would be burnt if something untoward happens,” said the son of a government employee.
Bhat also asked the youth to shun recruitment drive for special police officers (SPOs) saying they will be used to “create another Ikhwan”, a counter-insurgency force formed in the mid-nineties that was accused of human rights violations.
“They want us to fight each other. Every brother should remain away from this. Whosoever takes part in this drive will be responsible himself.”
Criticising the “Indian media” for alleged lopsided portrayal of Kashmiri militants, Bhat said those branded “dreaded terrorists…are common human beings who left their homes and took to gun because of tyranny of India”.
Bhat, however, added there were “some good people” in India.
“I have lived in many Indian states and I think some people there believe in human values. They accept that there is tyranny against Kashmiris,” said Bhat, who was a close associate of Wani and had appeared in a now-famous photograph showing 11 young gun-toting militants in battle fatigues posing against the backdrop of what appeared to be an apple orchard.