The day they killed Burhan: Two years on, a Kashmiri remembers the death of the militant leader

A man walks past shuttered shops in Srinagar, in July 2016, during the curfew following Burhan Wani's death. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
08 July, 2018

On 8 July 2016, I was home for Eid. It was my fourth evening back in Srinagar. I was in the living room, flipping through a family album. The room smelled of musk, and the embroidered curtains fluttered in the breeze. My father entered the room looking bewildered and sad. In a quavering voice, he said, “Burhan is dead.”

I opened the window that faces the street. Two women, squatting in a corner, were wailing. As they saw me, they confirmed my father’s news. The 22-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen had been killed, along with two of his comrades, by Indian armed forces near the town of Kokernag in South Kashmir. My mother gave a deep, mournful cry, and started beating her chest. I knew right then that this death would consume us for a long time to come.

Across the street, the shops were closing. People were leaving their homes to gather at an intersection on 90 Feet Road. I followed them, picking up a few of my friends on the way.A crowd had already gathered. A group of young boys was burning a truck tyre. A few others climbed the billboards, tore off the government advertisements and started sloganeering for Burhan. All around us, far into the distance, thick rings of smoke were rising to the sky, along with wails and slogans. The air was grim and scary.

I thought back to three days earlier, when I had come out with my family to finish our Eid shopping. Throughout the day, we had meandered through Srinagar’s crowded alleys and streets. The air was festive. Everybody was buying something or the other. At Jamia Masjid, teenagers smiled and waved at each other.

Now, there was only anger. My friends and I stood at a shop front, watching the protesters as they shouted slogans and threw stones. Many of the people around me had suffered personal losses under the military occupation. Burhan’s death had brought with it old memories and a new resolve to fight oppression. They were probably living vicariously, seeing their anger being vented out by the young protestors.

A short, sturdy boy appeared from an alley. He uprooted the iron casing that guarded the plants on the embankment and gave a harsh scolding to those of us who were on the sidelines, for not responding to the slogans. He pushed people into the crowd, then sat beside us and broke down. He cried for Burhan. The fit of rage numbed him—he passed out for some time, then rose up and melted into the thick crowd that had by then turned into a long mourners’ procession.

Along with a few shopkeepers, I went looking for supplies into a nearby warehouse, which was stacked with crates of juice. In a short time, we had distributed thousands of juice packs among the crowd. Some others supplied biscuits, snacks and fruits. Someone else was sprinkling cold water on the mourning faces.

Within hours, graffiti extolling Burhan Wani’s martyrdom had appeared everywhere—on walls, shop shutters and electric poles. At the intersection, some kids had put up a billboard renaming it “Burhan Chowk.”

We all knew Burhan. He was a household name, who was talked about over dinner plates, discussed in cafes, in the mosques and even in our bedrooms. Sporting a trimmed beard, he would often show himself through videos and pictures. In one video, apparently shot before he picked up the gun, he plays cricket in his lawn. In another, he is in the middle of the militant group he commanded. In one picture, he wears a coy smile. In another, he stands on a mountaintop with a picturesque background in green fatigues with a gun in his hand.

I often heard my aunts talking about how Burhan would look with a long beard. They all agreed his close-trimmed beard suited him better. It was in vogue to have his wallpaper in one’s phone, to have a song singing his praises in the music folder.

The killing of Burhan made me conscious of his name. I remembered my school friend, Burhan, who picked working in a garage to continuing his studies. My teenage cousin was also named Burhan. In one of our neighbouring mosques, a cleric was called Burhanuddin. The Quran, too, is called Burhan, something that could be a touchstone, telling you truth from falsehood.

In the days that followed, the government maintained a strict curfew. Soldiers were posted in every alley and street, and they threatened anyone who came out of their house. They wouldn’t even let us peek through the windows.

The curfew and the erratic electric supply left our rooms claustrophobic and stifling. Within a week, the alleys were full of uncollected trash and reeked of shit. The drain that ran alongside our house was clogged. We ran out of essentials such as milk, vegetables and rice. All the grocery stores were empty. Women would leave early in the morning to gather food in groups—they were scared of walking the streets alone. They went to the floating gardens in the Dal Lake, returning with rotten vegetables and bug-infested pulses.

On the day we went for our Eid shopping, my family had been in a happy mood. As we drove home from the bazaar, my father sang a Bollywood song, and whistled. My mother reminisced about how he had been able to impress any woman with his whistling. Father laughed jauntily. But now, under the stress of the constant scarcity, my parents often quarrelled. In the absence of medicine, my mother’s blood pressure shot up regularly, reddening her face and making her eyes look gloomy. She would lock herself in a room, draw the curtains and try to sleep. My father smoked dreadfully.

As the long, tedious days rolled on, the dead piled up. Every day we woke up to news of killings, of people being blinded, jailed or brutally beaten. It took on a perverse rhythm of sorts. It is dreadful to think of that rhythm now—the news was news only if it talked of death. We seemed to want more death. Injuries no longer impressed our morbid curiosity. We looked for a crescendo. If it was one boy killed today, we expected two tomorrow, and the number to continue rising. Perhaps this is what war brings—one gets inured and look forward to deaths.

Nevertheless, when 14-year-old InshaMushtaq was blinded after being struck by over a hundred pellets during a protest in her neighbourhood on 12 July, we all went mad. I pounded the television with a screwdriver and smashed the radio. My father cried like a baby.

The grief choked us.To keep ourselves sane, we tried to conceal from each other the killings that happened on the streets. But we knew about them anyway—I would find out from my friends, my father from men in the neighbourhood, my mother from the mourning women. We unsubscribed from our newspaper and resolved to no longer watch the news or talk about politics.

In our family album, a picture shows my father outside the cinema, staring towards the camera while a cigarette hangs coyly from his mouth. In the photograph, he has a thick moustache and a long-collared safari shirt. My mother stands beside him, hunched, her hair made up into a long braid and a fluffy scarf on her shoulders revealing her hair. The year is 1985. My parents were engaged that year. Their families had agreed to their marriage after years of courtship.

In another photograph, taken in 1987, my father sits on a boulder in the middle of a shimmering brook. He wears a sweltering sweater and bell-bottomed trousers. Behind him stands my mother, her hands on his shoulders, this time giving a broad smile that my father echoes. Both look straight into the camera. They look happy and audacious. The photograph is monochromatic, and was taken a few weeks after I was conceived.

Back then, they were in their early twenties. It was before a section of the youth, disenchanted by India after years of broken promises and rigged elections, took up arms and brought home violence. Since then, my father has spent three decades of his prime conscious of being killed at any time. My mother has spent those years worrying about his safe return from a day’s work. They never took such photographs again. The militants burned the cinemas, and the army expropriated those that were left and turned them into military posts.

Burhan’s memory runs deep within us. In the two years since his killing, I have often found my mother listening to a song:

Fasl-e-gulhai ab jahanmein
Ae shahidon, tum kahanho?
Ae shahidon, tum kahanho?

It is spring all around
Where are you, our martyrs?
The flower gardens are fresh
Where are you, our martyrs?

This song, by Mir Hasan Mir, went viral after the 2014 Peshawar school massacre, in which 132 children were killed. My mother listens to it when she is cooking or cleaning, when things look happy and when she feels healthy. The song is a cry of mourning, of pity, and of melancholy. It is the sadness that spring brings.

Last September, I spent a windy evening at Pari Mahal, a terraced garden that overlooks the Dal Lake. Srinagar looked alive and content. The snow-capped Mahadev peak looked resplendent in the background. A group of boys was seated under a chinar tree, playing some music. As they talked, they occasionally broke out into guffaws. One of them came to ask me for a lighter. I gave him a matchbox. He lit his cigarette and rejoined his group. Soon, he too played the song my mother keeps listening to.

As the music drifted around the garden, it brought with it mournful gloom. In the middle of everything that would qualify as happiness, the memory of Burhan tormented us. The tourists wandering nearby must have wondered why such a discordant song was being played. It was an odd song, like a scar or a blob or a stain on the picturesque beauty around us, an ugly glaring white in the middle of a kaleidoscope of natural colours.

When things feel peaceful even for a day in Kashmir, when there is a short lull in the killings, we miss Burhan, his disjointed teeth, his trimmed beard. We miss him for what he couldn’t become—a cricketer, perhaps.