It is the only gravestone with English letters on it: “Shaheed Muhammad Burhan ud din Wani”. He died at the age of 22, the tablet tells you, in Bemdoora, Kokernag on July 8, 2016. He was the son of Muzafar Wani. He had lived in Shareef Abad, Tral. He is buried in Tral town, a couple of kilometres from his home.

Tral is a deep green region in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, with orchards giving way to forested hills and glassy streams cutting through. It is here that the first stories about Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani emerged.

How he had gone out with his elder brother, Khalid, one day when they were stopped by security forces and beaten up. How he had vowed to fight the Indian Army then and left home at the age of 15. How, five years later, Khalid had set out with some biryani to meet his brother in the woods, only to be killed. The army claimed he was an overground worker of a militant group.

Last year, as news of the encounter that killed Burhan spread across the Valley, crowds from distant towns and villages started rushing towards Tral for his funeral. For the new militancy in Kashmir, Tral is ground zero.

‘Burhanz town’

In the drizzle of a June afternoon, Tral town looks like any other in South Kashmir. It is the month of Ramzan so fasts are kept and daily rhythms are slower. Old men laze in shops while women sail around inspecting the wares. The shops along the winding lanes of the market sell everything from squawking chickens to hookahs to burqas.

Tral is watchful. New arrivals at the main bus stand are duly noted and there are few people in the market. But every other building, from the government girl’s school to the water tank, proclaims it is “Burhanz town”. Nearly a year after the Hizbul commander’s death, the graffiti has been blotted out in many paces but the letters are still discernible.

Few people in the market will talk to strangers. But Bilal Ahmed, a cheery, whiskered man who owns a shop selling carpets and cushions and also moonlights as a journalist, takes questions in between customers.

Burhan Wani is more than a name in this town, almost everyone has personal associations with him or the family. His father, Muzafar Wani, is popular. “Burhan’s father used to come into town, he taught at the main Tral higher secondary school,” Ahmed said. “He taught me mathematics, he was a very good teacher. He made a name for himself.”

In a house not far from the market, one of Burhan Wani’s classmates remembers a “sharif” (decent) boy who had shown no inclination for militancy. “When we heard he had taken up arms, we were surprised, he was not like that,” he said. “The day before, he was preparing for his exams, but he did not write them.”

Burhan Wani's grave. Photo credit: Rayan Naqash.

Where forces dare

On the day of Burhan’s funeral, the town played host to the rest of the Valley. “To all the people passing through, we gave food – water, bananas, whatever we had at home,” Ahmed recounted. A businessman who had just got a consignment of goods turned it over to feed the visitors. Lakhs of people attended the service at the eidgah that day, according to Ahmed. The road from the eidgah near the market to the main bus stand was closed.

“The security forces were clever, they did not have deployment in the market,” Ahmed said. “That is still the norm. Whenever something happens, they have men deployed at the bus stand and near the camp [located at the entry point to the the town] but they do not come into the market or anywhere else.”

Others have also noted the reticence of the forces when it came to Tral, even the armed forces themselves. Last year, Ata Hasnain, who had served as general officer commanding of the Srinagar-based XV corps, had said that even when the army combed through South Kashmir in the 1990s, it did not touch Tral.

“That’s a strategy, police officers say,” a local journalist offered by way of explanation. They did not want to provide stone pelting crowds with a target; if they did it could mean collateral damage. The main town was also risky terrain for forces going in. Every 20 or 30 feet, there was a small gully opening out into the arterial roads of the main town, the journalist said, and each could spit forth militants.

During the protests of 2016, triggered by Burhan Wani’s death, civilians were relatively unscathed. “It was in Tral that not a single casualty occurred. Only on the first day, there were three or four casualties,” the journalist said.

Recently, there have been sorties by armed forces and villages in Tral saw crackdowns after years. About a month ago, the region also became the epicentre of another bout of protests. Sixteen-year-old Faizan Muzaffar Bhat and 27-year-old Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, a top commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, were killed in an encounter on May 27. The road rises up towards the mountains from the town of Tral, leading to Sabzar’s home, the village of Rathsuna.

Subzar Bhat (in the front row), Burhan Wani (in the middle).

Story of a bulb

The famous picture of the Burhan Wani group shows Sabzar in front, leaning back against his colleagues. He would have been a fresh recruit then, having joined the Hizbul Mujahideen after Khalid was killed in April 2015.

There were rumours that Sabzar would succeed Burhan as Hizbul commander in Kashmir. His death plunged the Valley into days of protest and stories about him spread everywhere. In a village in the Sangam area, the parents of Ishfaq Hameed Dar, another slain militant from the Burhan Wani group, tell a story about Sabzar’s funeral. His mother, bending over his lifeless body, had asked, “Why have you left us?” And tears started streaming down Sabzar’s face, say Ishfaq’s parents. They would not stop until he was buried.

In Rathsuna, his family and friends talk about more prosaic qualities. He never used the gun to extract material benefits, they say. “For two years he was a militant, but he did not have any power,” said an auqaf (wakf) committee member from the village. “The police took away his younger brother, told him they would give them electricity, but he refused.”

Residents of Tral now point out that the family of such a famous militant lives virtually without electricity. Sabzar’s father owns just two kanals (that is about a fifth of an acre) of land. One kanal is used for cultivating paddy and their house stands on the other. Their neighbours, who just bought an inverter, have extended an electricity line to their house. It is just enough to light a single bulb.

“The 15 to 16 houses in this lane do not have electricity,” said Sabzar’s mother, Jana Begum. The nearest transformer is about half a kilometre away. Residents on this road had bought their own cable to tap electricity from it. “We have water for just half an hour a day,” she added.

The state, says the auqaf committee member, has retreated from Rathsuna.“The youth here are graduates but they have to work in the fields,” he said. Until recently, the roads were pebbled nightmares. In the weeks after Sabzar died, parts of the road leading into the village have been tarred and smoothed.

Once it enters the village, it becomes the main road, passing by the mosque and the graveyard where Sabzar is buried. Local boys flock to it when they see outsiders have come to visit. Last year this road would be filled with protests, they said, and apart from one occasion, the security forces left them to it.

The house where Subzar Bhat's family lives. Photo credit: Rayan Naqash.

A playground by the graves

Local boys also hang around the graveyard in the town of Tral, where Burhan Wani is buried. “He was my friend,” said one schoolboy in a small voice. “I am in Class 12, he was in Class 10.” He was pointing to a gravestone beside Burhan’s. This is where 16-year-old Faizan is buried. “We used to play there,” his friend said, gesturing towards a field next to the graveyard. It lies empty now.

Faizan was about the same age as Burhan Wani when he left home. But he would survive less than two months as a militant. A year after Burhan’s death, the residents of Burhan’s town have found a new reason to visit the graveyard where he is buried.

A year after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed, triggering months of protest in Kashmir, returned to the picture that first made his band of militants famous in the Valley. This series is the story of the places they came from and how a year of protests have changed them. Read the other parts here.