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.
But tensions in Bamdoora were escalating behind the scenes. A rumour was spreading like a wild fire in the valley: that the residents of the house in which Burhan spent his last night had betrayed him.
On 11 July, during my visit to the village, two young men standing in the lawn of the house told me that “it was not a clean encounter.” The men, who did not reveal their identities to me, said, “The top commander and other two militants were killed but not even a single window glass has broken down. They [the family] poisoned them first.”
Hafizullah Wani, a 35-year-old resident of the village who lives near the entrance to the alley, recalled the increasing hostility against its residents. “Youth would come in rallies, shouting slogans of ‘Naarai Taqbeer Allah u Akhabar’”—Slogan of Monotheism, Allah is Great. He continued, “They would yell, saying, ‘Now are you happy? Is your thirst over?’” Hafizullah told me that the people in the surrounding villages, such as Dehruna and Oui, began to refer to the Wanis of Bamdoora as traitors.
Within three days after the encounter, people across Kashmir began alleging that Burhan was killed because Shabnam Jan, one of the daughters of Farooq Wani, was in contact with Indian Army. Soon after, Aadil Farooq, a postgraduate student from the nearby village of Dehruna, told me, a video went viral among the residents of the Bamdoora region. The video showed bed sheets in the room covered in blood and bullet holes on its walls.
The circulation of these videos compounded the escalating tension in and around the Bamdoora region. The residents of Bamdoora, which consisted of around 150 households, grew frightened, fearing the consequences that the circumstances surrounding Burhan’s death would have on them. I witnessed this fear when I visited the village in July 2016. Several residents told me at the time that the people visiting the encounter site had begun taunting and intimidating them by calling them “traitors.”
In July 2017, I visited the village again to find out how the death of the three militants had affected it and its residents. According to the residents I spoke to, 12 families comprising more than 150 people, most of whom were daily-wage labourers and farmers, were left homeless due to an attack upon their houses in the aftermath of Burhan’s death. They added that the attackers were outsiders to Bamdoora.
“We spent the nights in the lawn of the mosque fearing that we would be killed or burnt [if we stayed at home],” Khurshid Ahmad, whose house was located behind Farooq’s, on the rear side of the encounter site, told me. The mosque where Khurshid’s family stayed after the encounter was around 200 metres away from his house. The reasons for his fear came to be justified on the night of 17 July 2016, nine days after the encounter, when he and his family witnessed a mob ransack and burn down his house.
“Hundreds of masked youth appeared [at Farooq’s house] shouting slogans and abusing,” Khurshid said, before adding that he witnessed them burning down the house. “They did not stop there but did the same to the remaining houses,” Khurshid told me.
On 5 July 2017, I was walking on the ground upon which Khurshid’s house once stood as we spoke. Khurshid continued, “We were wailing [at the mosque] while the mob was breaking the doors and windows of our house and taking whatever attracted them and pouring petrol on what was useless.” “They put sand in the drums of rice,” he added.
Khurshid’s brother, Mushtaq Ahmad, and Farooq’s brother, Manzoor Ahmad, were also walking with us. Mushtaq used to stay with his brother whereas Manzoor stayed with his wife and six children in a house adjacent to Farooq’s house, with a shared roof. His house was also burnt down that night.
“If we learn that a page of Holy Quran has been disrespected, we die in protests for that,” Mushtaq told me. “But you know, I saw four Qurans burnt down in our house besides the books of my children.” “That day, our Quran was false as well,” he added before he sat down on the ground and cried loudly. Mushtaq asked how he was expected to know that there were militants in a different house several metres away from his own. “How do we know that in the first place and where does the question of informing the army come from? We came to know that Burhan has been killed from the internet and we were yet to come out of [our] house.”
Mushtaq is a father to three children and his family lives with Khurshid and his family. This extended household of 13 was staying in a tin shed situated at the spot on which their old house was located. The shed was approximately ten by 15 feet in dimension and was partitioned into two makeshift rooms.
In between his sobs, as he sat on the ground, Mushtaq continued angrily, “We were left [only] with what we were wearing. The condition was such that when we went to houses of our relatives in a nearby village, they told us categorically that ‘your stay won’t be possible.’” He told me his relatives were worried that if anyone in their village of Bragam, which is around six kilometers from Bamdoora, discovered that Mushtaq and his family came from the village in which Wani was killed, their house “might face the same fate.”
Farooq’s and Khurshid’s families both told me that in the days following the attack on their houses, most male members of the families went to a nearby forest at night to sleep. The women spent the nights at either their neighbours’ houses or at relatives’ houses in nearby villages. “My 12-year-old son had severe fever after the incident but I couldn’t dare to take him to hospital,” Mushtaq told me. “It was only after I begged a relative that he took him to a hospital, four days after [Mushtaq’s house was burnt] and registered his name as his son.”
Hafizullah told me that after the protestors ransacked and burnt the houses, they proceeded towards the apple orchard of Farooq Wani. He continued, “They not only chopped his orchards measuring three-kanals completely, but also axed Kashmir’s first-of-its-kind high-density apple orchard that was near Farooq’s orchard.” Hafizullah was referring to an apple orchard in the village that was celebrated as the first high-density orchard in the state, which Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, the former chief minister of Kashmir, had inaugurated in September 2015.
The gatekeeper of the orchard did not allow me to enter when I visited the village in July 2017, but on my previous visit, in July 2016, I had seen hundreds of trees that were cut down and the fruits, almost ripe, rolling around in the orchard. At the orchard, the protestors had also burnt tools that were lying scattered as well as a resting hut.
We left the ground upon which Mushtaq’s house once stood and made our way to Farooq Wani’s former house, where the encounter took place. All that remained from the house after the mob’s attack was a rubble of bricks, half-burnt blocks of wood and blackened tin sheets. We walked a few metres past the demolished house towards a bathroom. Mushtaq lifted a curtain at the entrance to the bathroom to reveal Farooq, his daughter Shabnam, and his wife sitting inside.
The family had converted their eight by six feet bathroom into a makeshift residence. “We constructed this bathroom just days before encounter and it was still unused,” Manzoora, Farooq’s wife, told me. “Where would I go with my four daughters?”
The family began to recount the events of the night that the three militants came to their house. “The guests arrived a night before [7 July] at around 10.30 at night. They were three—my cousin Sartaj, Burhan Wani and Pervaiz,” Shabnam, Farooq and Manzoora’s 21-year-old told me. She was wearing a pheran, a traditional woolen gown as she spoke, on a hot summer’s day and sat beside her mother as she spoke. “We served them dinner and they slept on first floor. In the morning, we served them breakfast and later lunch. They had some traditional salt tea in afternoon.”
“On that night [8 July], I was on duty in Sagam [a nearby village] and my four daughters and wife were at home,” Farooq told me. As Shabnam stopped speaking and bowed her head, Manzoora picked up the conversation. “Shabnam spotted the army when she opened a window to shake a dusty doormat. She yelled, ‘Tawan peov, we are doomed.’ The army was surrounding our village.”
Shabnam said, “They [the militants] told us to go out. Burhan told us, ‘You are all only women here, they can do anything.’” “After that, we don’t know anything,” she said. Both Shabnam and her mother abruptly stopped speaking after that.
No one in the village could provide the exact details of what happened on the day of the encounter. Most of the villagers told me that they thought the army was present for a scheduled VIP visit to the high-density orchard. “After the high-density apple orchard came into existence, ministers and lawmakers used to frequent our village. Even Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed visited once,” Hafizullah told me.
When I asked the families whose houses were burnt about their political stance considering they had provided shelter to militants as well as been attacked by their sympathisers, they told me that they are not on either side. “We fear even a mosquito now,” Mushtaq told me. “No one came to help us. Not even the Hurriyat came to our help, leave alone the government. I no longer want to live here. I wish to go somewhere far with my family and forget what happened to us,” he added.
Manzoor, Farooq’s brother, told me that when he approached the district administration seeking compensation, they were turned away. “People tell us, ‘you are mukhbirs’”—informants. He added that he was asked, “Who told you to kill Burhan?” Shabnam, who was pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from a private college in Bijbehara town in Kashmir, told me she was still facing a difficult time in college. “I went to college for one year but no one talked to me. I was taunted, ‘she is the killer of Burhan,’” Shabnam told me. “I don’t know if I can join my studies again.”
Manzoor worked as a daily-wage labourer in Srinagar. “On the day of the incident, I was in Srinagar and I reached home more than a week after,” he told me. “By then, my house was burnt. Tell me, what had I done?” Amir, his 18-year-old son, has also started working as a labourer now.
Most of the families who lost their houses have started constructing new structures in the village—except Manzoor and another resident of the village named Nisar Ahmad. Manzoor told me he had not started because he is apprehensive about living in the village again. I was unable to speak to Nisar because he was not in the village at the time of my visit and his wife refused to speak to me. Farooq said that he sold two kanals of land in order to start the construction of his house.
Farooq told me that in conversations with strangers, he does not identify his village. “We don’t know till when we will have to give a fake residence and we don’t know how long it will take for people to accept us,” Farooq told me. “If we are guilty, why don’t the militants come and kill us, once and for all?”
Aakash Hassan is a journalist working with the Srinagar-based weekly Kashmir Life.