The rise of Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander gunned down by security forces on Friday, coincided with the return of numerous Kashmiri youngsters to the militant fold after more than a decade.
Some might even argue that the 21-year-old Wani played a key role in attracting Kashmiri youngsters to the Hizb, thanks to his use of slick propaganda videos and social media tools such as Facebook and WhatsApp.
For the past year, Wani had been the most visible face of the Hizb, the most powerful of the indigenous militant groups active in Jammu and Kashmir, appearing in videos that taunted the security forces and warned of more attacks.
The rakish militant, usually seen wearing combat fatigues and holding an assault rifle, was the embodiment of the new recruits attracted by the Hizb: More educated, tech-savvy and frustrated with the lack of movement in resolving the Kashmir issue at the political level.
“Burhan really created the new militancy – he became an icon overnight and was a driving force for the youth to join militancy,” Shujaat Bukhari, the editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir newspaper.
“He essentially represented the face of the indigenous Kashmiri militant, who had disappeared for close to 10 to 15 years. After the foreigners took over the militancy, the ratio of indigenous militants had declined to almost 30%,” said Bukhari told Hindustan Times on phone from Srinagar.
Experts argue that once the Pakistan-backed foreign fighters took over the militancy in the mid-1990s, Kashmiri youngsters began shunning the terror groups as they were fed up of the unrelenting violence and the heavy handed tactics of the foreigners.
This trend was followed by the rapprochement between India and Pakistan in 2003, which gave rise to political engagement with the Kashmiri leadership and even talks of a settlement of the Kashmir issue.
According to former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, the two sides came close to a solution based on his four-point formula, which envisaged no changes to the region’s borders, gradual thinning down of troops and some amount of self-governance.
But Musharraf’s ouster led to the Kashmir issue falling by the wayside and the 2008 Mumbai attacks resulted in the breakdown of ties between India and Pakistan.
“All this gave rise to a sense of despondency in Kashmir. The people feel the issue is only being seen as a law and order problem and not the political issue that it is,” said Bukhari.
“The rise of intolerance across India also pushed some Kashmiris towards violence,” he added.
Wani’s killing marks a tactical gain for the security forces engaged in anti-militancy operations but there are some who argue that the commander could be more dangerous dead than alive.
“There is a possibility he could become a stronger rallying point for militants if he is projected as a martyr. The militants have become more sophisticated in their use of social media as a tool for indoctrination and recruitment,” said a security official who did not want to be named as he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.
Bukhari argued that the only way forward is tackling the matter as a political issue and working towards a political settlement, which would necessarily mean engaging with Pakistan too.
Though the BJP is part of the ruling coalition in Jammu and Kashmir, experts feel it is the central government which will have to take the lead in this process. “There isn’t much in hand for the state government to do,” said Bukhari.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @rezhasan)