“The Role of Men in Feminism,” reads the inscription on a memento that adorns the display cabinet in Mannan Wani’s room. The Aligarh Muslim University student had earned it for participating in a panel discussion.

But the research scholar seems to have given up on debates and discussions, at least for now.

Last week a picture of Mannan Wani posing with an assault rifle appeared online, the caption declaring his “activation date” as January 5 and identifying him by his new nom de guerre: Hamzah Bhai. An initiation ritual of sorts for Kashmiri militants of the social media age that has left his family devastated.

“Shocking, shocking, shocking,” a weary Bashir Wani murmured on January 10. He follows a drill he has grown accustomed to in the last few days: giving reporters a tour of his son’s room at their home in Tekipora in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district and showing his academic certificates while talking about the “unfortunate turn of events”.

Stubborn and extrovert, Mannan Wani was prone to aggression and had spent little time in his village, Bashir Wani said. Having studied in Jawahar Navodiya Vidayala’s boarding schools and graduating from a college in Srinagar, he went to Aligarh Muslim University in 2011.

At school, he was good in both studies and sports, playing in kabbadi tournaments across North India. He was also a cadet of the National Cadet Corps, voluntarily participating in Republic Day and Independence Day parades. “He was the best at it,” said Bashir Wani, a schoolteacher.

Asked how Mannan identified himself then, Bashir claimed, “He was a true Indian”.

If that was indeed the case, Mannan Wani’s worldview changed drastically after he moved out of Kashmir. Or, so it seems from his blog posts as well as Facebook and Twitter timelines. Although he was critical of the separatist leadership – he expressed disenchantment with the Hurriyat Conference – it was more out for frustration for what he considered their failure to “work for the same cause”.

In a blog post, he bemoaned that the “armed struggle was a complete failure” despite the militants “fighting with full vigor and noble intentions”. The reason, he wrote, was that Kashmir had its “very own people as collaborators”. He also lamented that “the establishment finds it easy to suppress our voices”.

Still, what really drove him to pick up the gun this January is difficult to say. “That is what we do not understand,” said Bashir Wani. “He had not directly faced trouble from the police either.”

‘Some episodes’

Although there had been “some episodes” over the years, Mannan Wani never showed any inclination towards the militancy, said his older brother Mubashir. The first episode occurred on August 15, 2010, when a college-going Mannan Wani was caught between stone-pelters and security forces in Srinagar. “He was beaten up,” Mubashir said. “He had tried to tell them that he was just a participant in the Independence Day parade and was not pelting stones, but they did not listen to him.”

Mannan Wani barely witnessed the five-month-long unrest of 2016, Mubashir said, but he was emotionally affected “just as all Kashmiris were”. Bashir Wani pointed out that, given the situation, “everyone was a radical then”.

Most recently in November last year, Mannan Wani was repeatedly subjected to questioning at security checkpoints on his way to Srinagar from Kupwara – an experience he later narrated in a post on his Facebook page. The page is no longer available and the family denies taking it down. “We had all dismissed the incident as routine,” said Bashir Wani. “He also did not say much about it and did not seem bothered. He posted something on Facebook. Maybe he was thinking something about it on the inside. It isn’t such a big deal for us [Kashmiris]. We have grown up in this and are used to it.”

Mubashir, too, said that Mannan Wani bore no resentment. “In 2010, when he was beaten, he said he would rather stay indoors on such days,” he said. “This [November incident] was also not a cause. We were surprised when he came home with shortened hair but he said he did it only to avoid hassles. If being beaten up or harassed can be a trigger, why was he at home for seven years? We are not glorifying the gun but just saying that he went for something else, for resolution of the Kashmir issue.”

His father is more blunt. “He had better ways of doing what he thought was needed but instead he chose this,” Bashir Wani said. “He has done wrong for himself, and for the society.”

Bashir Wani. Image: Rayan Naqash

Gone suddenly

Bashir Wani said he last spoke to his son on the evening of January 3. “It was a normal phone conversation,” he said. “We asked if he had gone to the class and how the weather was. He asked about home. He was normal.”

When he called again the next day, Mannan Wani’s phone was switched off. “He used to inform us about his activities,” Bashir Wani said. “So we thought that he was in Aligarh when we spoke on the phone.” He knew something was amiss.

The family found out that Mannan Wani had last called them from Delhi, where he was visiting a friend at Jamia Millia Islamia. A few days later, the picture surfaced.

“I still dont believe that he is gone,” Bashir Wani said. “He was a hardworking boy.

Mannan Wani, 26, was the first from Tekipora village, some 130 km from Srinagar, to pursue a doctorate. “Mannan was sharp,” said his father. “He would talk about everything, be it religion, politics, or history and culture...His vision was not for this society. I had told him to go abroad, to America considering the situation here. His passport is made. He was ready too.”

Worrying trend

Mannan Wani’s plunge into militancy comes at a time when the state and central governments have taken a series of steps to reach out to Kashmir’s disaffected people, such as giving amnesty to the youth booked in cases of stone-pelting and rehabilitating people injured by pellets. The police is also formulating a new surrender policy that encourages families of militants to publicly appeal to their sons to shun violence and “return to the mainstream”, although most such appeals issued so far have proved unsuccessful. More worryingly, police officials say that the militancy is “picking up” in North Kashmir. In the past few years, most local militants have come from South Kashmir.

Mannan Wani’s family, meanwhile, is trying to understand how he found his way to militant ranks from Aligarh Muslim University, hundreds of kilometres away. “He should come home,” his father said. “He should hold a pen instead.”