Burhan Wani: The rise and fall of the Kashmiri militant and social media star

The 21-year-old, who was killed by Indian security forces on July 8, may symbolise a change in the nature of radicalism – in the words of one sociologist, a shift “from bullets to words”.

A picture of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani being held up during a rally in Islamabad condemning the violence in Kashmir on July 24, 2016. Caren Firouz / Reuters

NEW DELHI // His arms cradling an automatic rifle, Burhan Wani is seen in photographs on social media wearing T-shirts or camouflage fatigues, his beard rakishly trimmed.

In his videos, he is shown playing cricket or eating with his friends; one shows him washing up, his hands cupped full of icemelt.

These images made Wani hugely popular in his native Kashmir, where the 21-year-old militant enlisted in the cause of fighting for his homeland’s freedom from India. In fact, Wani may have been the first social media star among Kashmir’s rebels. He may also symbolise a change in the nature of radicalism – in the words of one sociologist, a shift “from bullets to words”.

For Wani and many fellow Kashmiris, social media serves as a vent for expression and a site protest and debate ideas, said D Chitralekha, of the Centre for Media Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“There’s a more nuanced shift happening, from armed radicalism to debate, from bullets to words.”

Since Indian security forces killed Wani on July 8, Kashmir has been wracked by uprisings against the state. At least 68 people – security personnel as well as civilians – have died in clashes between the army and the police on one side and young Kashmiris on the other. Thousands more have been injured.

The last six weeks of turmoil in Kashmir have become one of the most pressing problems currently facing prime minister Narendra Modi’s government.

On Monday, opposition leaders from the state of Jammu & Kashmir met Mr Modi to press for a solution.

“Those who have lost their lives during recent disturbances are part of us, our nation,” Mr Modi said. “Whether the lives lost are of our youth, security personnel or police, it distresses us.”

After Wani’s death, Kashmir witnessed a fierce clampdown on telecommunications, with mobile internet services suspended and outgoing cell phone calls sporadically barred. The clampdown is a routine part of the Indian government’s strategy to deal with unrest in Kashmir – an effort to make it difficult for Kashmiris to coordinate or mobilise.

The protests and rallies over the past six weeks were organised in old-fashioned ways, said Fahad Shah, the editor of The Kashmir Walla, a monthly magazine about politics and culture.

"If there's a rally, there will be word of mouth," Mr Shah told The National. "If you have a landline, maybe you'll call around and tell people. They'll stick posters on walls, or announce it in mosques, or maybe even send letters."

For the most part, Mr Shah said, the militants of the 1990s were not popular enough to be recognised in public. But the man whose death triggered these waves of violence relied upon far more newfangled methods of communication. “With Burhan Wani, people put a face to the name. Their videos went viral on social media, and that connected with the youth. It was the first time something like this was happening.”

Suddenly a militant was not just an anonymous figure roaming the region with arms and ammunition slung around his body. He was flesh and blood. “These images humanised these rebels,” Mr Shah said.

Born in the region of Tral, in western Kashmir, Wani was the son of a school principal. He joined the Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant group, at the age of 15, reportedly after running away from home when his brother was beaten up by Indian security personnel.

Although he had never been linked conclusively to attacks on Indian troops, Wani was judged to be a rising danger. Last year, the government placed a one-million-rupee bounty for information that could lead to his arrest.

Since Wani’s death, other militants have followed in his footsteps. Zakir Rashid Bhat, a 21-year-old engineering student, took up arms three years ago. Last week, Bhat appeared in his own eight-minute video that was shared on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“I am neither a commander nor the chief of any outfit,” Bhat said in the video. “I am a soldier of Allah who wants to warn you about India’s nefarious designs.”

But Dr Chitralekha said it is impossible to conclude that youngsters are being influenced by social media to take up a life of militancy.

"Only a small slice of Kashmiris will join groups like Hizbul Mujahideen, and those would have joined anyway," Dr Chitralekha, who studies the relationship between new media and the so-called radicalisation of young Kashmiri men and women, told The National. "I haven't met anyone who said they joined a militant group because of something they saw on Facebook. But it's definitely true that a large segment of Kashmiri youth is angry. They're highly educated, they have aspirations, but they're frustrated."

For these Kashmiris, Dr Chitralekha said, social media serves as a vent for expression, and as a site to protest and debate ideas. “There’s a more nuanced shift happening, from armed radicalism to debate, from bullets to words.”

As a result, she added, it would be a mistake for the Indian government to ban social media or continue with indiscriminate suspensions of mobile services. As yet, the state has not floated any plans to ban social media in Kashmir.

“Imagine how maddening it must be to not know whether you will be able to send a text message whenever you want to,” Dr Chitralekha said.

“This is a generation that has grown up with social media, and banning it will only alienate them further.”