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India was long avoiding what Burhan Wani has become

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SHAAR-I-SHALLI, INDIAN-HELD KASHMIR: When you visit Indian-held Kashmir and people will tell you stories about Burhan Wani, a separatist commander shot by Indian forces in a gunfire.

Villagers say Wani would slip out of the forests sometimes just to visit, a 22-year-old and an easy way of communication that made him different from earlier generations of Kashmir’s separatists.

They say he would play cricket with village boys, and visit orphanages. They say he would pay for the weddings of poor young women.

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In the weeks since Wani was killed on July 8, several stories have grown about Wani.

However, in death, Wani has become something that India has long feared: a homegrown separatist praised across the troubled region, a power against an unjustified Indian rule.

Today, rock-throwing high school students paint his name on shuttered storefronts — “BURHAN OUR HERO” — while everyone else mourns him.

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Wani had already revived Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest of Kashmir’s separatist groups, attracting dozens of new recruits with postings on Facebook and other social media sites.

Young, handsome and charismatic, Wani looked more like a college student.

Wani’s death sent tens of thousands of protesters into Kashmir’s cities and villages, beginning a cycle of protest-and-crackdown that has left more than 90 civilians dead — most killed by Indian forces — and thousands injured.

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Strikes, curfews and communications blackouts have effectively shuttered the region for more than seven weeks.

“He was a good man, a gentle man,” said Abdul Majeed, a farmer and elder in the village of Shaar-i-Shalli. “That’s why people cared about him.”

Kashmir has been at the centre of the conflict between India and Pakistan since they became independent in 1947. The Himalayan region is divided between the two countries, though both claim it in its entirety.

Freedom fighters have been fighting since the late 1980s for independence for Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan.

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