By Bilal Handoo
As he fell on the afternoon of 8 July 2016, a 20-something girl exploded in ire, confronting the army soldiers with stones. It was the first protest of that smouldering summer, erupting hours before the passage would send the entire Valley in mass mourning, and in cycle of rage.
The dissenting girl had been serving the rebel since the other day. But now, he was lying, along with his associate, in the back-alley of her home — pale, bleeding, lifeless.
He was Burhan Wani, the boy militant who would captain the new age militancy in Kashmir, without ‘firing a single shot.’
That place of first protest was Bamdoora, down in southern Kashmir’s Anantnag district. And the protester was a host of the rebel commander, and his two associates—one of them her cousin.
Soon as the media corps drove to the place to cover the biggest news of that year, a Kashmiri cop took the protesting girl away, and handed her over to the newsmen, saying, “Please take care of her. Otherwise, they’ll kill her!”
What happened at Bamdoora might be an open-and-shut case for many, but the details of the operations and final hours of the charismatic commander along with his two brothers-in-arms—Sartaj and Parvez—is still a matter of intrigue, interest and investigation.
The high-profile rebel passage instantly created the militant mood—marked with death wish and anarchy—on streets across Kashmir. It even sparked and set off the traditional pacifist pockets of south, otherwise known for their notorious indifference.
How did the soldiers manage to trace the safe house with accurate intelligence, remains a work in progress. The popular theory, however, suggests that presence of then Director Intelligence Bureau and now Delhi’s interlocutor on Kashmir, Dineshwar Sharma in Srinagar
“Perhaps that summer passage will be remembered for its unprecedented public upheaval, where even policemen’s father would seek forgiveness for their sons’ actions in public assembly,” says a senior scribe from south Kashmir.
“In my own village in Kulgam,” the newsman continues, “I saw this group of girls marching down to Tral, a day after Burhan’s killing. They were crying a river, ‘We’ve become orphan, again!’ The very sight puzzled me. Then my relative told me that Burhan would visit and take care of these orphan girls like a parent. So, obviously, it was a personal loss for many such families who were sharing some secretive connection with the fallen commander. For many others, the loss had to do with the rebel’s cause, they identify themselves with.”
Burhan was “2,190 days” a rebel, as his father would count over his funeral, during which he was given “5,000 meals.” His host families and vast network of sympathisers, many say, not only rose to an occasion but triggered an uncontainable sentimental storm in the form of street agitation.
“In fact,” the scribe says, “south Kashmir is still in the state of uprising, even after New Delhi did many security permutations and combinations to tame the tiger.”
But before Burhan Wani would step in idyllic hamlet of Bamdoora as a travel-weary guerrilla, whose six-year-stint in woods and wilderness had cut a romantic rebel’s image of him, some loose intelligence had alerted a Srinagar-based counterinsurgent officer of a deputy superintendent rank about one Tral boy’s militant moves to Baramulla.
“The intelligence had it that a boy from Tral is in Baramulla to receive two insurgents,” a senior police officer, well-versed with the operation, says. They were probably the ‘foreign terrorists’, he says, using the euphemism for Pakistani militants fighting in Kashmir.
To capture the trio, the counterinsurgent officer showed up in plainclothes at Shalteng, on the outskirts of Srinagar, and started checking the vehicles coming from northern Kashmir. Hawking the vehicular movement, he saw a boy breaking the checkpoint and driving past on a bike.
A chase ensued after the officer mounted on his bike and followed the boy. On the crowded Srinagar roads, many confused the chase as a high-octane bike race between the two rowdies. The officer overpowered the boy at Samboora, where he detained him, apparently by flashing a handgun.
Later in the custody, the boy would divulge some startling details about the insurgent connections across Kashmir. But when asked about the two militants he was supposed to receive at Baramulla, the boy answered, “they did not show up.”
As the interrogation toughened, the boy would tell the counterinsurgent cops that he was tasked to handle the duo by someone sitting in Tral.
In the run-up to the momentous summer which would again broadcast the Kashmir conflict—marked by new phase of killings, maiming and mass-blinding—worldwide, those custodial details were very significant for the security apparatus.
Then as the sleuths started their hunt for another Tral man, apparently remote-controlling the militant operations on his cellphone, the plot thickened.
“By the time he was caught,” the police officer says, “it was found that even he was a dot in the larger pattern at play.” He would tell his interrogators that even he was tasked to task someone to handle the insurgent duo at Baramulla.
Bypassing the surveillance, the man was in touch with another person through BBM messages. As it soon turned out, this Tral man had received instructions from someone sitting in Anantnag.
As another raid party went to arrest the man at Anantnag, the secret police found itself being outsmarted by the insurgent network. Even he was a cog in the wheel.
In the custody, the Anantnag man would tell the police, “I’m not much aware, except that I was told by my source to task someone to attend the two men at Baramulla and drop them at Bamdoora…”
From Baramulla to Bamdoora, the police officer says, one thing followed another, like an unfolding plot where different faceless and nameless characters were involved, and playing their secretive role in sustaining the insurgency in Kashmir.
Before the raid party would rush to Bamdoora, the three insurgents had already arrived there, in a very dramatic manner.
It was second Eid, and at around 10: 30 pm, not many lamps were flickering in Bamdoora. It was then rebel Sartaj Ahmad guided his commander and other associate to his maternal uncle’s home for a night stay.
He jumped over the fence and threw small mud specks at the window to alert the family. Only his maternal aunt and cousin were awake.
“As one after another mud bits struck our window and made noise,” says Sartaj’s maternal aunt Manzoora, “I thought it might be a bumblebee striking itself against the window.”
But when two more similar noises followed, the mother understood that perhaps Sartaj had come. He had announced his two previous arrivals in the similar manner.
Attending to the noises, Manzoora’s elder daughter Bilqis opened the window and quietly went to unlatch the door. Before Sartaj could enter, he instructed her to open the main door, quietly, and take the two guests in.
As the family ushered them in, they quietly retired to a room. Manzoora could make out that the guests were dead tired. It took her a while to realise that among the three was Burhan Wani — who by then, was ruling over imaginations, for singlehandedly taking Indian State head-on in Kashmir with his virtual insurgent campaign.
Then Sartaj turned to his aunt: “Do we’ve some food?” The mother lamented, saying, “We just finished our dinner.”
What happened at Bamdoora might be an open-and-shut case for many, but the details of the operations and final hours of the charismatic commander along with his two brothers-in-arms—Sartaj and Parvez—is still a matter of intrigue, interest and investigation
Inside her newly constructed home, as Manzoora shares these details with Kashmir Narrator, she turns spirited, emotive and considerate. That night, it seems, is yet to pass for her.
“So when I expressed my helplessness over the dinner, Burhan ‘Soab’ intervened, saying, ‘No need to prepare anything. We already had our dinner.’ Saying this, he dropped his head down. It was perhaps his way of saying that we should not bother ourselves,” Manzoora recalls, as her two daughters and husband chip in with their own anecdotes of that night.
But Sartaj insisted that they had come from long journey and were without food. Then the family cooked some emergency dinner, which included some omelettes, and managed to serve some leftover ‘haakh’ to the guests.
As they were having their last dinner, Manzoora could see how Burhan had grown weak — unlike what his viral photos on internet showed him. “I was told by Sartaj that Burhan ‘Soab’ was battling some excruciating backache,” she says. “He was looking pale and haggard. Even Sartaj looked skinny. Only Parvez ‘Soab’ was in good shape.”
Burhan gave omelettes to his associates and finished his small dinner with ‘haakh.’ After dinner, Bilqis prepared a tea for the guests. She would tell her mother: “The way it’s sacred to meet Hajis, it’s equally sacred to meet these persons, who’ve abandoned everything for our sake.”
She was right. In Burhan’s case, being a rebel fighting the war of attrition against Indian State in Kashmir had come at the cost of a promised life, an American scholarship, and a bright future.
At certain point in conversation that night, the mother had affectionately told the guests, “You must be tired. Shall I wash your feet?”
“No, we are not tired as such. We came by car,” Sartaj replied. “How could you manage travelling by car when there’s so much of security around?” she shot back.
“We’ve our people, who take care of us,” Sartaj had smiled.
Then as clock struck midnight, the mother bid them goodnight and took her daughter along to sleep in an adjacent room.
Throughout that night, Manzoora could not sleep a wink. She stood near a window, opening into the main road. Deep inside, she was pleading to her lord that none of those rumbling vehicles plying on the not-so-far blacktop should come to a grinding halt — for if they did, then, she might land herself and her family in a big trouble.
The very thoughts shot up her pulse and set her heartbeat racing. In this struggle, the night faded with the stroke of the first light.
The rebels were still fast asleep. When she finally went to wake them up, Sartaj told her, “Burhan ‘Soab’ does not take salty tea. Please bring sweet tea with ‘bakirkhani’ for him.”
Bilqis brought the oven-fresh ‘bakirkhani’ for the commander at around 10 am, besides chicken and mutton for the trio’s lunch.
Then, Sartaj’s sister turned up. Before leaving at around 4:30 pm that day, she and Sartaj had a long chat inside a closed-door room, Manzoora says. But her arrival was not a coincidence.
“Before visiting us that night,” she says, “Sartaj had met his brother-in-law in Sagham at around 9:30 pm, and had invited him, his sister and kids for a meeting at our place the following day.”
Sartaj’s sister had showed up alone. Just like his short and sudden home arrivals would unnerve his family, Sartaj’s relatives had apparently skipped meeting, for the fear of consequences.
“After lunch that day,” Manzoora says, “Sartaj told me that his family ted him to surrender. It’s said that his family was in contact with SHO Achabal, Feroz Dar.” Dar was later killed in an ambush by suspected Lashker-e-Toiba militants.
But while Sartaj would do most of the talking that day, Burhan was the quietest of them all. He had maintained, as Manzoora describes it, a sage’s silence and would occasional break into a childlike smile. She wanted to talk to him. But fearing the unwanted movement around, she preferred to sit on the porch and keep an eye on things instead.
Any stranger around would make her feel uneasy. Perhaps, housing rebels—and that too, the ‘most wanted’ one—had its own mental strain for her. She rested her thoughts, briefly, after muezzin called for ‘asar’ prayers.
As she went inside to pray, she found Burhan making ablution in washroom, while the other two militants were cooling their heels around. They were supposed to stay with the family till the dusk that day.
But soon the first sign of danger, perturbing Manzoora since the previous night, surfaced. It was confirmed by Manzoora’s younger daughter, who had routinely peeked out of the kitchen window and ran to inform her mother: “Mummy, we’re doomed! They’re crawling towards our house!”
Manzoora rushed to inform Sartaj and Parvez about the cordon. Burhan was still in the washroom. The moment he stepped out, he raised his index finger towards Heavens, with a prayer on his lips. Manzoora recalls him calm and composite, who took his time to think.
Armed with three pistols, three AK-47s and rucksacks, the rebels made one bid to break the cordon. But it seemed the counterinsurgents had plugged the every possible gap for them to slip away.
Then Manzoora asked them to escape from the rooftop. But they refused saying that the noise would catch the attention of the soldiers. There was no way to escape from the three doors of the house, either. They were already on the target and trigger of the soldiers.
How did the soldiers manage to trace the safe house with accurate intelligence, remains a work in progress. The popular theory, however, suggests that presence of then Director Intelligence Bureau and now Delhi’s interlocutor on Kashmir, Dineshwar Sharma in Srinagar, and his subsequent meeting with Governor NN Vohra in Raj Bhavan that day, did make it a high-profile operation. The proponents of this theory cite Burhan Wani’s rising influence over Kashmir youth and his frequent videos.
“New Delhi had to do something about that chocolate-boy who was fast becoming its prominent adversary in Kashmir,” says a bureaucrat whose brushes with civil society in Srinagar are well known. “And despite a smear campaign against him, he was still swelling the rebel ranks in Kashmir with ease. The Home Ministry wanted to do something about him. In that backdrop, Dineshwar Sharma’s short summer trip does not seem to be misplaced.”
But secret police term such assertions as “reading too much into the accidental catch and the IB spymaster’s coincidental Valley visit”. One of them even quotes a PSO, who was part of the Bamdoora operation.
“After police nabbed that Anantnag guy who was part of that Baramulla militant deal,” the intelligence officer says, “he led the forces to Bamdoora, where the encounter broke out accidently.”
During cordon, he says, a constable had asked an elderly villager: “Chacha, kyaasa poutsch ma tchu kah aindrey,” (Uncle, do you’ve a guest inside?) By someone, he meant militants.
“The constable would later tell us how the villager became unnerved, and cried, ‘Aay’wiha ya’ (run, they’ve come to hunt you!)”
This is how, they say, it had started.
But not many are buying this theory. Among them is Burhan Wani’s father who believes the operation was planned months before.
Much of that belief comes from the rebel’s six-year stint, full of heroic instances of breaking the bigger cordons. Even the family who was with the rebel during his final hour talks about certain stray communications flying around their house that day.
Soon after the encounter, Manzoora says, she was approached by two village women, telling her that they had overheard army men cross-checking the location of her house on their mobile phones, minutes before gunning down her three guests.
“The women told me,” she says, “they overheard the army men saying on their cellphones, ‘Are you sure they’re inside the house adjacent to the tower?’ That house was ours. Once they told me this, I understood why the forces had staged a drama of searching the other houses in our hamlet in haste — before swarming our house, with resolve.”
In their last bid to save the guests, the family tried to divert the attention of the forces. But as some SOG men stepped inside their courtyard, Burhan, Manzoora says, told the girls: “You better go out. My sisters. We’re bound to meet the fate that Allah has written for us. But I do not want to put you in a harm’s way. Go out. They can do anything.”
But Bilqis was unrelenting. To guard the guests, she sent her younger sister to their terrace and asked her to pretend she was sweeping. She herself came out with a broom and began sweeping the fast dimmed porch.
“My daughters put themselves on stake for our guests that day,” Manzoora says. “Now when I think about it, it makes me feel so proud of them. Despite the peril, they put up brave faces. I want my Allah to reciprocate that gesture the day they’ll get married.”
Sizing the military moves from the corners of her eyes, Bilqis then planned another move to distract the gun-cocked troopers. “Let’s go to the farm, mother,” she cried from outside and walked through the courtyard, as if everything was hunky-dory around.
But all this proved too little, too late. The soldiers stood their ground, suggesting that the intelligence was accurate than accidental.
“Otherwise no one had a whiff of their presence in our house, except us and some of Sartaj’s family members,” says Manzoora.
Then the first shot rang in Bamdoora. On way to farm, Bilqis saw one SOG man withering in pain. He was shot in the leg. But who fired that opening shot, nobody knows.
At that moment, the rebels advised Manzoora and her family to run for safety. Before coming out, the mother saw Burhan offering prayers and cupping his hands upwards, in what was his last prayer.
Then, Manzoora says, he made two phone calls, informing someone that they were trapped and asked them to pray for them.
Once done with the calls, Sartaj sent Burhan and Parvez from the back-alley, in an apparent belief that a water body ahead might help them to hide.
But no sooner did they come out, the army troopers holding positions from opposite residential houses fired at them in a sniper-style.
With that gun rattle, the iconic commander who romanticised the idea of guerrilla warfare in post-2010 Kashmir fell on the ground. His associate Parvez was not far away from him.
Startled by sudden gunshots, Bilqis gave up the farm idea and ran back to her alley where she saw two of her guests lying dead. Among them was the fallen commander.
“I could not take it and started pelting stones at the killer troopers, who responded with aerial firing,” she recalls the first pro-Burhan protest of that summer.
Minutes later, her cousin Sartaj joined his colleagues.
“When he came out,” Manzoora says, “he was first fired by army and then, according to eye-witnesses, by SHO Feroz Dar, who wanted him to surrender.”
The gunfight did not last beyond 30 minutes, she says. It could’ve spanned over hours, if only the fallen rebels had decided to fight from inside the house.
“But mindful of our situation,” Manzoora says, “they saved our house and came out in the open to fight, where they met their fate.”
Crying her heart out near the bodies of her two guests, Bilqis saw forces stamping a seal on the assault spot. She could never know what it was about, as mourners shortly washed the blood-smeared spot.
Soon as the news spread and skyrocketed sentiments across the Valley, hordes of mourners marched to Bamdoora to have one last glimpse of their ‘beloved’ rebel’s last address.
“And then all hell broke loose,” Manzoora says, “when Sartaj’s mother cried during her mourning spell, “Maman kornay saal, ti maamni dieutnay zahar (On uncle’s invitation, your aunt poisoned you). Once this sentence fell on the ears of already seething people, they burned our house, without listening to our pleas.”
The ‘poison rumours’ had to do with the family history.
A decade before Burhan’s arrival in Bamdoora, a family relative was found dead in a suspicious state at Manzoora’s place. After Burhan’s killing became a flashpoint of rage, some of her distant relatives brought up the history to justify the alleged culpable role of the family.
“We faced a lot for that,” Bilqis says. “People literally bayed for our blood, as they believe we poisoned our revered guests.”
In the face of these charges, the family wanted to set the records straight, but found no keen audience around. They even wanted to meet the militants, then making rounds of their commander’s last refuge in Bamdoora.
“We even dispatched letters to mosques, asking people to probe us, but none turned up. Finally, my cousin Sartaj’s trust saved us from the social boycott. Some of his Mujahid brothers who had earlier spent time in our home with him confronted the ‘poison rumours’, saying that the family cannot do it.”
In between, Burhan Wani’s father visited Bamdoora, to express his solidarity with the family.
“Sorry, I could not keep my son’s promise,” Manzoora quotes Wani Sr, as saying. “One and a half year before his martyrdom, Burhan ‘Soab’ had taken a pledge from me that the house, in which he would meet his end, should be protected. I badly regret it that I could not keep his promise!”
Then as Bilqis’s family (after living in their maternal home for months) raised finances to construct their new home at the gutted site, many in a vengeful huff, debarred them — until a letter from the Hizb commander Ghaznavi came to their rescue.
“This message is for the nation, especially for the people of Bamdoora that the family where Burhan was martyred should not be harassed,” reads the Hizb stamped and signed letter, delivered to the family address, amid rising tensions at Bamdoora later that year. “The family where Burhan Bhai achieved martyrdom is like our own family. Their daughters are our sisters. Therefore, they should not be stopped from constructing their house. Our religion does not allow us to cast aspersions on anyone and punish someone without a concrete proof. Therefore, it’s an appeal to all of you to stay patient. Take care of your sentiments and follow the religion.”
But two years later, the last address of Burhan Wani is still struggling with shadows and shades. The family might laugh it out now, but they turn sullen upon recalling the tempest of fury they faced amidst the sea of sentiments.
“You can have your tea now,” Manzoora says, after spotting my untouched teacup. “Trust me, there’s no poison in it, as some people accuse us for!”
Some suppressed smiles follow, before Bilqis points to the back-alley where the commander had fallen along with his brother-in-arm.
The bullet holes on a rusty tin roof are still glaring, so are the memories of the incident which sent cries of azadi wafting through the garrisoned Gupkar in Srinagar and made ex-Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweet: “Kashmir’s disaffected got a new icon” whose “ability to recruit in to militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media.” Perhaps in his political life, Omar—in whose CMship Burhan became an insurgent—was never so right.
Rebel ranks, to New Delhi’s chagrin, are indeed swelling in Kashmir since that summer stroke. And the fallen commander is certainly emerging more dangerous from his grave.
This story was published in Kashmir Narrator’s June issue. To subscribe to Narrator’s print edition, mail here: [email protected]