Why I think Burhan Wani’s encounter was extra-judicial killing
An appeal to the conscience of every Indian citizen – to tune down the shrill media noise for a bit, take a step back from the easy, packaged “discourse” being dished out, and ask try and ask ourselves some uncomfortable but necessary questions.
I am being asked by various persons in the media to comment on my apparently “controversial” and “shocking” claim that Burhan Wani’s killing was “extra-judicial” and must be probed. Let me begin with a few remarks about this issue.
For most Kashmiris, it may not matter all that much whether or not Burhan Wani was killed in a “fake” encounter or a “genuine” one.
What matters is that the Indian State killed him – just as it has killed and is killing so many other Kashmiri youngsters. Their grief, their rage, does not depend on the authenticity or otherwise of the encounter.
They have no expectations of due process or of justice from the Indian State.
It is civil liberties activists who – in what sometimes feels like an exhausting, futile exercise – demand that due process be followed, that the mandates of the Indian Constitution be respected, that the armed forces in conflict areas be held accountable.
The Supreme Court has, more than once, decreed that an FIR be lodged in every single encounter and a magisterial enquiry as well as a criminal investigation and trial take place. Lodging an FIR and conducting a trial in every encounter means assuming that every encounter could be fake till proved otherwise – i.e till it proved that no option remained for the police/armed forces but to shoot to kill in self-defence.
The Supreme Court verdict of 2014 lays down detailed guidelines in this respect.
More recently, the Supreme Court on July 8, 2016, while hearing a petition for the repeal of AFSPA in light of some 1528 fake encounters, reiterated the obvious: that contrary to the claims of certain politicians and media anchors, it is utterly irrelevant whether the person killed is a militant or a civilian – there is no excuse for an extra judicial killing even if the person killed is a “terrorist”, a “criminal”, a militant.
Pause a moment and think about that astounding number – 1528 murders by the Indian armed forces – in Manipur alone. A number that the Supreme Court has not found to be fantastic or a crazy exaggeration.
Such a number forces us to see that fake encounters – extra-judicial executions – are not an aberration but on the contrary, enjoy the blessings of the political powers and the armed command as well.
Such killings, then, are policy.
When this is the case, how can even well-meaning people raise their eyebrows when we question the authenticity of the Burhan Wani encounter? How can they be so sure that this particular encounter is genuine?
Moving on, let us examine the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing and the political implications of that killing and the killings of civilians that have followed. It is obvious that thousands of Kashmiris came out on the streets to mourn Burhan Wani and many thousands more mourned him in their own homes.
They are being fired upon and killed – the death toll is 30 now (more than 100 were killed last summer in the uprising) and rising.
One way of wrapping our heads around this reality, of course, is to assume that every Kashmiri who mourns Burhan Wani and demands Azaadi is a “terrorist”, and deserves to die “like a dog” on the streets.
A Twitter handle followed by the PM of India has tweeted as much:
@ggiittiikkaa – “20k attended the funeral of terrorist Burhan. Should have dropped a bomb and given Azadi to these 20k pigs.”
If you are among those who are willing and able to brand an entire people as terrorist pigs and recommend genocide, then I have nothing to say to you. All I have to say to you is that while your words may be pleasing to your own chosen audience of jingoists, the world will only see it as evidence of the atrocities to which Kashmiris are subjected in India.
If Kashmiris are seen in India as pigs, not as human beings with legitimate political views and demands, if their very grief is illegitimate, then why should they want to remain a part of India?
However, I am assuming with some hope that there are some or several of you who might at least be willing to ask why Kashmiris are mourning and protesting, rather than assuming them all to be “terrorists”.
First, ask yourself why Burhan Wani chose the path he did.
As Shuddhabrata Sengupta noted in his piece “Kashmir Burns, Again” on Kafila:
“In October 2010, Burhan Wani, then sixteen years old, was on a motorcycle, with his brother Khalid Wani, and a friend. They were out on a bike ride, through Tral, the area that they had grown up in, as teenage boys do, anywhere. They were stopped at a Special Operations Group picket of the Jammu and Kashmir Police and ordered to get cigarettes for the troopers. Khalid went and got the cigarettes, Burhan and the friend waited. After the transaction, for no apparent reason, the troopers pounced on the boys, beat them up severely, damaged the bike, which had been Khalid’s pride and joy. Khalid lost consciousness. But perhaps it was Burhan who suffered the greatest injury, and that injury, an invisible one, was what any self respecting young person with a sense of dignity might feel when beaten for no reason other than the fact that he is there to be beaten.”
Remember, from July to September 2010, some 112 civilians were killed on Kashmir’s streets in the most arbitrary manner possible.
All those killings weighed on the 16-year-old Burhan Wani’s mind as his joy-ride on a bike turned into an exercise in humiliation and violence.
As Shuddhabrata writes, “It is possible that Burhan the teenager died that day when his brother’s motorcycle was stopped so casually, so callously. It is possible that Burhan the ‘militant’, who grew to be ‘militant commander’ was born that very same day….Commander Burhan Wani was produced and destroyed by the Indian state, which made it impossible for a young, intelligent, charismatic man like Burhan to salvage his dignity by any means other than that of being an armed combatant.”
This time around, yet more Kashmiri people are being killed, blinded, maimed, humiliated, bludgeoned. Tear gas is being used inside hospitals; ambulances ferrying the injured are being attacked.
Now step back for a moment, and think back to a moment when you – the self-righteous, patriotic Indian citizen – last participated in a protest that the government, the police considered illegitimate.
Take for instance the December 2012 protests, when many thousands came out at India Gate to protest rape. If you were among them, or even if you sympathised with them, remember how angry you were with a government that used lathis, and tear gas against the protesters?
Now imagine for a moment, that instead of lathis, bullets were used, and protesters blinded or killed.
Imagine that the media instead of projecting the movement as admirable and the police as brutal, were to celebrate the killings of the protesters – all in the name of “the nation”.
Imagine that this were not a one-time occurrence, but a cycle of bloodshed of civilians that repeats itself over and over, for decades.
What would that do to you? What will young Kashmiris do today? How many more Burhans will be produced and destroyed?
Now, this article is not the place for a discourse on the history of the Kashmir problem. I will simply say that if you have stuck with me so far, consider my suggestion that you read up on Kashmir.
Read, not to satisfy yourself that Kashmir is “an integral part of India” – but to find out, dispassionately, what leads so many Kashmiris to declare otherwise. I warn you, though, that such reading will be disturbing.
It will shake up your idea of everything you think you know.
Be prepared to feel deep shame and discomfort about much that has been done to Kashmir in our name.
As long as we – and our governments – refuse to entertain even the possibility that Kashmiris have a legitimate case for self-determination, no solution to the Kashmir “problem” is possible.
It is easy, comforting even, to tell ourselves the fairy tale that what is happening in Kashmir now is a “nationalist” battle of noble Indian soldiers against evil Kashmiri terrorists.
But such an attitude on our part can only deepen the wound on the Kashmiri psyche, alienate Kashmiris further, take us all further away from a solution to the Kashmir issue.
We need to accept that Kashmir is not a “law and order” problem, or a terror problem created by Pakistan. The Kashmir question is not that of “how does India deal with terrorists”.
It is a question of how a political solution to the political problem of Kashmir will be found, and that is why, instead of repeating ad infinitum that Burhan Wani was a terrorist who died a terrorist’s death, we need to ask – by killing Burhan Wani, by killing civilian mourners and protesters, what political message is the Indian State seeking to give to Kashmiris?
Every such killing is a body blow even to the dream of a solution to the Kashmir question.
Burhan Wani was a militant, an insurgent, no doubt.
He made videos exhorting Kashmiri youth to join the armed insurgency. But it is important to remember, as Shuddhabrata’s piece reminds us, that in his last video, the list of those he declared he and his outfit would not harm, outweigh the mist of those they promised to fight.
In that video, he said (to quote again from “Kashmir Burns, Again”): “he and his fellow fighters will not touch Hindu pilgrims on the Amaranth Pilgrimage in Kashmir.”
He says that the pilgrimage is their right, and nothing should prevent them from undertaking their religious duties. He also says that they will not hurt Kashmiri policemen who do not hurt them.
He appeals to Kashmiri Pundits to return and live again as neighbors with Kashmiri Muslims, but says that any efforts to make what he calls “Israeli” style “settlements” (referring here to the the armed and fortified Israeli settler enclaves within West-Bank-Palestine) will be resisted.
If we accept the reality that separatist groups are an important part of Kashmir’s political landscape (arguably commanding greater influence than the NCP or PDP), then such statements by such groups are important and welcome.
The Indian State should have been talking to Burhan Wani, not killing him.
What, then, can take us closer to a solution? What should a “solution” look like?
Well, any genuine, lasting solution must be one that ordinary Kashmiri people see as in keeping with their dignity. A Kashmir kept as “an integral part of India” by humiliating and bludgeoning Kashmiris into submission and an uneasy silence punctuated by periodic outbursts of protests or insurgent violence – is no solution at all.
We need to be able to listen to Kashmiris rather than harangue them.
We need to tell our governments to withdraw the overwhelming military footprint from the Valley – get soldiers’ boots off Kashmiris’ necks and make genuine dialogues (in which Kashmiris are able to express themselves fully and freely and be heard with respect) on Kashmir possible.
A report on the 2010 killings by Vrinda Grover, Bela Somari, Sukumar Muralidharan and Ravi Hemadri had concluded by recommending “minimally, a substantial reduction of the military presence in Kashmir, the withdrawal of all special security laws that establish a climate of impunity for the security agencies, the release of all persons detained under these laws, and credible investigations into the recent killings.”
Instead of those minimal steps, the Indian establishment instead continued with the opposite.
Kashmiri students outside the Valley have had to live in fear, not only of harassment by the Indian security establishment, but increasingly of violence at the hands of right-wing outfits looking for the slightest pretext.
And to make matters worse, prominent Indian media houses lost no opportunity to humiliate and taunt Kashmiris. Even the occasion of a tragic flood was not spared – even on that occasion, Kashmiris protesting against inadequate relief, like human beings in natural calamities the world over – were painted as “anti-national” ingrates, while relief work by Army troops was lauded as an alibi against allegations of custodial rapes and killings in other contexts.
Enough is enough.
The sickening cycle of blood of Kashmiri civilians, accompanied by the equally sickening sound and fury of celebratory jingoism via media and political pulpits, must stop.
And no, it is not enough for the Home Minister or Kashmiri politicians to be issuing “calls for peace” and “appeals to Kashmiri parents to keep their kids home”.
What we can do is to say “Not in our name”.
What we can and must do is to make the demand for a peaceful and dignified solution to the Kashmir issue that is in keeping with the wishes of the people of Kashmir, a demand not just of the Kashmir Valley, but of every corner of India.
“You may say I’m a dreamer”(or you may say I’m a terrorist slut) but I’m not the only one.
I will hope. I will work for it.
PS: A while ago, I got a call from what looked like a US-based number. Some “nationalist” NRI man, no doubt, who called to ask me if I was part of Burhan Wani’s harem, and how many ways I would like to be raped. No doubt, this post too will result in more of the same abuse and ugliness. No matter. But those of you who do in fact read this – if at all it makes you pause and think and resolve to reconsider “inherited”, preconceived ideas on Kashmir even a little bit, I request you to add your voice to the comments, and share the piece. Send it to at least one other person whom you think might like to read it, even if they might not agree with every word in it.
(A version of this post first appeared on the writer’s FB page.)