In the days that led up to the first death anniversary of Burhan Wani, a steady stream of visitors made their way to his parents’ home in Shareefabad, in south Kashmir’s Tral town. Most visitors, Burhan’s father Muzaffar Ahmed Wani told me, would stay for a while. The guests would offer their condolences to him and his wife, Maimoona. They would then pray at Burhan’s grave, located only a few minutes from the house. Some of the younger visitors, Muzaffar said, insisted on taking a photograph with him before they left. “He’s Burhan bhai’s father,” Muzaffar said he heard a group of eager-looking teenage boys whisper to each other, before asking for one.
Burhan, a 21-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed by Indian security forces on 8 July 2016 during an encounter in the state’s Anantnag district. Burhan had left his home to join the rebel group in 2010, and had become known in the valley as the new face of the militancy. In the days following his death, as protests erupted across the state, scores of people from across Kashmir visited Muzaffar and Maimoona’s house, and continued to do so in the subsequent months. “I didn’t know so many people would come from far-off places and villages I hadn’t even heard of,” he told me. “People came even from places as far as Doda, Kishtwar, Ramban and Tangdar areas,” Muzaffar added. “They all wanted to see me and see where Burhan lived.” Small groups trickled in over the next few months as well, he continued, and none left before offering a prayer at Burhan’s grave.
I visited Muzaffar’s home on 3 July 2017. Large-sized text covered white-painted brick walls on either side of the gate. “KHALID AND BURHAN. STILL IN OUR HEARTS. WE WANT FREEDOM,” it read. Muzaffar was dressed in a white khan suit. He told me that with the anniversary of his son’s death approaching, he had been reluctant to speak to media persons. “Some Delhi channels distorted my views last year,” he said.
We sat in a room on the ground floor of the two-storey house. Over the course of our conversation, Muzaffar talked to me about his son’s life. He spoke of Burhan with a note of resignation in his voice, often stroking his grey beard as he talked.
When Burhan was school-going boy, Muzaffar told me, a group of soldiers from the army had visited their locality for a routine check. An army officer asked Burhan what he wanted to be when he grew up, Muzaffar said. “Main soldier banna chahta hun,”—I want to become a soldier, he told me his son responded.
Muzaffar recounted an incident that occurred in the summer of 2010, a few months before Burhan joined the militancy. On a summer day in 2010, Burhan, who was 15 years old at the time, was heading for a picnic with his older brother Khalid. Burhan was riding his new motorcycle, Muzaffar told me. They were stopped by a group of security personnel—these included soldiers from the army, Muzaffar said. (Later news reports noted that group comprised personnel from the Special Operations Group, the elite counter-insurgency force of the state police.) Muzaffar told me that the security personnel beat up the teenager.
The run-in had a profound impact on Burhan, he continued. “He was very angry and mentally disturbed after that beating. He felt humiliated,” Muzaffar said. He said that he tried to pacify his son, and encouraged him to leave Kashmir. He tried to persuade Burhan to attend the Aligarh Muslim University, and even asked him to move to the United Kingdom. “But he didn’t want to go out,” Muzaffar said.
“He would always talk about that beating, asking why he was treated like that when he had done nothing,” Muzaffar continued. “Sometimes, he spoke of seeking revenge for his humiliation.”
A few months after that incident, Burhan left home without informing anyone. Muzaffar said he didn’t file a missing-persons complaint for a week, hoping that his son would return. The police called him a few days later, Muzaffar continued, and confirmed what he had suspected all along—that Burhan had joined the militancy.
Burhan visited the house two months later, Muzaffar said. This time, his son had a gun, and was accompanied by his associates from the Hizbul Mujahideen. “He sat outside the house for a brief while,” he said. “I asked him if he was tired and wanted to return home.”
“My life begins now,” Muzaffar said Burhan responded. “My previous years were wasted.”
That was the last time Burhan visited home, Muzaffar added.
In April 2015, the family experienced a terrible ordeal. That month, 25-year-old Khalid, Burhan’s brother, was killed in the hilly forest area of Tral, allegedly while visiting Burhan. Muzaffar said that the army personnel, who Khalid ran into in the forest, beat his son to death. The security forces alleged that Khalid was a “listed over-ground worker” of the Hizbul Mujahideen—a charge that, Muzaffar said, even the local police had refuted. Khalid had “not picked up arms,” Muzaffar told me. “His only crime was that he was Burhan’s brother.” “His death pained us a lot, as it was unexpected,” Muzaffar continued. “I get nightmares about it even today.”
Muzaffar told me that he first learned of the encounter during which Burhan was killed through an Urdu news bulletin, at close to 7.30 pm, on 8 July 2016. “Then some people came home and said Burhan was among the killed,” he said. He didn’t believe them. Visitors then began pouring into his home. “[Burhan’s] photos appeared on social media, which some people who had gathered here showed me,” Muzaffar said. When he saw the images of his son’s body, Muzaffar said he could no longer control himself, and broke down. He let out a cry in mourning.
By this time, the news of Burhan’s death had spread far and wide. Clashes and protests began breaking out in the state.
“Normally when militants are caught in an encounter from which they know they can’t escape alive, they make a final call to their parents,” Muzaffar said. “But Burhan did not contact us at all, not even on the day he was killed.”
“When Burhan left home in 2010, he was mentally prepared,” Muzaffar said. “We also came to accept his decision with time,” “He was my son and he left this world as god willed,” he added. Muzaffar then paused. “I’ve come to accept his fate,” he said. “Now it’s up to people how they remember him.”
When Burhan’s body was brought home the next day, tens of thousands of people turned up to attend his funeral. Muzaffar said he appealed to all the people who had assembled there to mourn peacefully and to not participate in any violent protests. “Burhan had not harmed anyone while he was alive,” he said he told the mourners. He added that he was pained to hear of the violence that followed his son’s death. “I had no idea that the situation would take a violent turn and there would be clashes and so many civilians would die.”
Since Burhan’s death, many people across the state have come to know of Muzaffar as well, and often visit him, eager to hear his thoughts. I asked him if he felt that people looked up to him. “I’m not a leader,” he said. “I’m just Burhan’s father.”
Muzaffar said that he was thankful to all the people who supported his son, and those Burhan stayed with after he left home. “They fed him, gave him shelter and came in thousands to attend his funeral knowing the risks involved,” he said. “I thank all of them.” “I don’t ask anyone to pick up a gun,” he continued. He then repeated that Burhan did not harm anyone. In a video of Burhanthat was released close to a month before his death, Muzaffar added, his son had spoken about the return of Kashmiri Pandits and assured Hindu pilgrims participating in the upcoming Amarnath Yatra that they need not worry about their safety. “My son was not a criminal,” he said.
I asked Muzaffar for his thoughts on the political climate in Kashmir, and the resurgence of the militancy. According to him, young men in Kashmir are not being lured into picking up arms. “Every young man in Kashmir thinks independently,” he said. “They see what’s happening around and they react to the injustices the way they want to.”
He added that politicians in Delhi and Kashmir were “fuelling the fire” in the region by making provocative statements. “The Indian government is deceiving its people by hiding the ground realities of Kashmir,” Muzaffar said. “They don’t tell their people the real story of Kashmir.”
Muzaffar was also critical of the ruling People’s Democratic Party and its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. He noted that, at the time that the alliance was formed, the parties had said that they would engage in dialogue with internal stakeholders regardless of their ideological views—which could include separatist groups such as the Hurriyat conference. “But even after more than two years of this government, they have done nothing to initiate a sincere dialogue,” he said. “People know that the real power and control lies in New Delhi, not in Kashmir,” he added. “It was none other than India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had promised plebiscite to Kashmiris decades ago in Lal Chowk,” Muzaffar continued. “But those promises were never fulfilled.”
On my way out, as he walked me to the gate, I asked Muzaffar what he thought the Indian state could do to prevent young men like Burhan from joining the militancy. “The state will not make any progress if the government continues to use force and suppress people,” Muzaffar said. “Azadi is the birthright of Kashmiris,” he added. “Let people live and decide their future without more bloodshed.”