On 8 July 2016, as the sun was about to set behind the mountains of Kashmir, a photograph sent the entire region into mourning. The photo showed the dead body of Burhan Wani, a 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander—he was lying on a stretcher with blood stains on his t-shirt and his face. Indian security forces had killed him that day during an encounter in Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
The next morning, 65 kilometers south of Srinagar, on the Anantnag-Verinag road located close to Larkipora village, I took a left turn near the army garrison of the 19 Rashtriya Rifles, a counter-insurgency wing of the Indian Army. I stopped at the camp to speak to the soldiers who were stationed there. They told me that they were joyous because they were returning from a successful mission. In contrast to the soldiers, the roads were filled with people wearing expressions of sorrow and concern. They walked in small groups with an apparent urgency. Motorcycles drove past them, pressing their horns and leaving a trail of dust. The scene was the same for the next eight kilometers. Everyone was heading to Bamdoora village in Anantnag, where Burhan and his two associates were gunned down.
As I entered Bamdoora, I noticed a narrow alley, flanked by a few two-storey houses and willow trees, which was jam-packed with people. Several people were walking towards and returning from the house in which Burhan spent his last night. Through a passage in the alley, I walked for around a hundred metres before reaching a cluster of homes, the first of which was the site of the encounter. The location appeared unusual. Normally after an encounter between security forces and militants in Kashmir, what is left is rubble, but the house was intact. Except for a few small holes on the main gate, caused by the bullets, and the blood that was visible on the lawn, the encounter had left no other apparent trace.
The house in which Burhan Wani and his associates—Sartaj Ahmad Sheikh and Pervaiz Ahmad—were staying when they were killed belonged to Farooq Ahmad Wani, an employee of the state’s forest department and Sheikh’s maternal uncle. The household comprised six members—Farooq, his wife Manzoora, and their four daughters—and the militants had come to their house a night before the encounter.
By 9 July, Kashmir had erupted on the streets. More than a dozen civilians were killed during the protests, and hundreds injured. In Bamdoora, a surge of emotionally charged people visited the encounter site in the days that followed the killing. Two days later, when I visited the village again, two young men outside Farooq’s house told me that they had walked from Verinag, a town around 15 kilometers away, to mourn. I saw another woman shower flower petals on the spot and then break down into tears. Although the village residents had temporarily fenced off the entrance of the alley, there was still enough space to enter it. A bearded man was serving water to the visitors near the entrance to the alley. “The bodies of shaheed”—the martyrs—“were lying here,” another man told the visitors in an emotional voice.