Behind the viral photograph: Wagoora’s teacher-turned-insurgent

Following a midnight encounter at Budgam lately, an old woman’s wailing photograph went viral on social media and was confused with the fallen insurgent’s mother. Behind that heartbreaking image is a tale of the teacher-turned-insurgent who left home only to return dead 11 months later to heartbreaking scenes in his village.

Wagoora’s idyllic alleys opening into highland pastures were waiting for the spring bloom when the ‘prodigal’ son returned home in a body bag. His nemesis had hit him exactly where it’s likely to haunt his people for a while now: ‘his warm face’.

After three bullets disfigured his looks in the midnight encounter at Budgam on March 25, Shafat Hussain Wani gave no signature smile, which otherwise the fallen insurgents of Kashmir are known to flash when they die fighting the “enemy”.

An evening before the gunfight, the insurgent’s mother had complained about her racing heart. Some strange pain made her restless, forcing her to make rounds of her house and courtyard.

Two of her sons thought that their mother is in the middle of her usual torment—“the burning longing”—which started the day her son left home on the pretext of some “task” in Srinagar.

That’s how most of those—the aspirant insurgents—leave home now. They quietly disappear from their homes to fight the war of attrition against the Indian establishment in Kashmir. With each joining, the insurgent ranks are swelling in the valley despite the biting counter-insurgent offensive reducing an insurgent’s lifespan to mere months now.

Only last week, the new Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chief’s son and 8 others—five from Kupwara, one each from Pulwama, Kakapora and Safa Kadal—left home, according to intelligence reports, to become insurgents. The Khanyar boy whose mother lately made an emotive appeal to ‘bring him home’ is the latest addition in the rebel ranks.

Last April, when Shafat left home, his mother suspended her routine: farming, cooking, washing, everything. She refused to embrace darkness by lighting up her room throughout the night in wait. Some random knock, murmur or clamour would make her feel ‘the son has returned’. But the eldest son and the new family headman, post her husband’s demise in 2015, never returned.

While she was fighting her longing, her two sons were caught between the ‘security’ summons and their mother’s fallen health.

Inside a tent pitched in her courtyard, the mother is now breaking into heartbreaking cries. Her face washed by tears incessantly coming out of her eyes. The other day when the son returned, dead, she had given him a long look, as if complaining, ‘Jaana [she would call her so], are you done with your ‘task’ for which you had left home?’

The lifeless Jaana could only give her a frozen look.

Hameeda (right), Shafat’s mother

Away from this solemn reunion, the shutterbugs captured a village woman turned up for Shafat’s funeral. Her mourning image was confused with the insurgent’s mother.

But beyond the cameras’ reach that day, many others had turned up at Shafat’s home to mourn: his students.

His students made a sizeable presence in his funeral and intensely mourned the passage of their teacher who taught them life-lessons other than their textbook syllabus.

“I just ran to his house once I learned about his martyrdom,” says Shahid, a thoughtful youngster taught by Shafat for ten years. “I lost my guide in him. He was simply the best.”

Inside the classroom, Shafat would come across more of a friend than a teacher. “But behind his calm face,” Shahid says, “Shafat Sir never gave any clue of his defiant character.” While Kashmir’s new age militancy is largely student-driven, the decision of the teacher did surprise many.

“I still remember his mastery over mathematics,” says Amir, Shafat’s another student, attending mourners at his teacher’s home. “He was equally brilliant in Hindi and Sciences.”

Shafat Wani

Back in 2016 when pro-Burhan protests had brought everything to a standstill in Kashmir, Shafat had responded to the situation, like many others, by giving home tuitions. By then, his private school stints had earned him a reputation of a “brilliant teacher” in the belt.

“But for some reasons, he couldn’t continue his studies after class 12,” says Imran Wani, Shafat’s younger brother, sitting among the mourners. “My brother was always ahead of his years.”

That impressive teaching stint lasted till he decided to do the “unthinkable” in the village, where the last gun had fallen silent as early as 2005. Some fifteen odd years before that, the villagers say, Master Ahsan Dar and his armed men had come to Wagoora in a tipper in pursuit of a police officer involved in Captain Rashid’s arrest.

Militancy was still in its infancy in Kashmir when Rashid, a well-known militant guide from Muzaffarabad, was arrested in a dramatic capture in northern Kashmir. In custody, the militant guide would give away some secrets, including how he was tasked to assassinate the then chief minister Farooq Abdullah.

But that day at Baramulla’s Wagoora, the ‘master’ had missed his target. Then, as insurgents began marching down in the town with firearms, a body of a woman—denounced as an informer—was thrown on a street to everyone’s shock. Later, as the state backlash made people prisoners  in their own homes, the likes of Shafat got their impressionable grooming.

And years later, when he decided to join one of the largest and most active Islamic militant organizations in South Asia, Lashkar-e-Taiba, many were reminded of the Wagoora’s militant past.

But like most of the young Kashmiris, the 30-year-old wouldn’t give any insurgent vibes — not even to his group of six friends, who used to meet and discuss everything under the sky in the village.

“Most of us would count on him,” says Zubair Ahmad, one of the six friends, wearing a woeful face over the friend’s passage. During the social media discussions revolving around religion, insurgency and other affair, Shafat would always come to the rescue of his friends. But now, the friend says, the debate is over.


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