Fear and Exile

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The killing of a senior party worker literally sent PDP foot-soldiers looking for save heavens outside south Kashmir. Suhail A Shah reports what it takes to be a party worker in uncertain times like these

On a chilly December evening in 2014, suspected militants pumped multiple bullets into the abdomen of Sheeraz Ahamad Bhat, 30, a Sarpanch associated with People’s Democratic Party (PDP), leaving him grievously injured.

Few days later, a wheelchair bound Bhat returned home from the hospital and made sure he votes for the party candidate in the ongoing assembly elections.

He did exactly what he had been shot for.

Bhat, within the circle of PDP workers, is considered to be a daredevil who can go to any length for the love and loyalty of his party, the now ruling PDP.

Today, however, Bhat is in hiding. He has not visited his home for more than a week now, like dozens of other mainstream political workers from the south Kashmir region, most of them from the PDP and twin districts of ‘Pulwama and Shopian’.

“The circumstances were different back in 2014, when I voted despite getting almost killed,” Bhat said, while talking to Kashmir Life over phone from an undisclosed location.

Things, says Bhat, have changed and they have changed for worse. “The priority right now is to save your life,” he says.

Dozens of workers are presently putting up at hotels in Srinagar or Jammu; the fortified residences of their MLA’s or government accommodations elsewhere.

So what exactly has changed and how dangerous it is to be a mainstream political worker in Kashmir, more so in Pulwama and Shopian districts.

Life started getting difficult for these political workers, mostly the ground level unprotected ones, with the announcement of Lok Sabha by-polls for Islamabad constituency.

The seat had fallen vacant after Mehbooba Mufti resigned to take oath as Chief Minister, following her father and former CM, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s demise.

Advocate, Imtiyaz Ahmad Khan

According to sources, armed militants barged into the house of dozens of political workers across south Kashmir and threatened them to stay away from mainstream politics, voting in particular.

Three videos of political workers apologizing, amid tears and apparently on gun-point, for being associated with mainstream politics were released by Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in the build up to the polls, scheduled to take place on April 12.

The polling for Islamabad was deferred following protests on polling day in Srinagar parliamentary seat on April 9, wherein nine civilians lost their lives to forces firing.

But the postponement of polls was no good for these mostly unprotected workers, as situation kept taking a downslide.

PDP leader, Abdul Gani

One after another three people, including two lawyers – one of them the PDP president for Pulwama – have been killed and another one injured after the postponement of polls so far.

On April 15 two people were abducted and shot at in Kasabyar area of Rajpora in Pulwama district.

One of them, Bashir Ahmad Dar, 45, succumbed on the way to the hospital while his cousin, Altaf Dar got grievously injured.

Both were PDP workers and as per sources had been asked to dissociate themselves from mainstream politics by militants-they chose to ignore the warning.

The very next day, April 16, gunmen barged into the house of a lawyer, Imtiyaz Ahmad Khan, in Pinjoora village of neighboring Shopian district and shot him multiple times leading to his death.

While people speculated that Khan was killed because of his long term association with the opposition National Conference (NC), police disagrees.

“We think it was not a political killing. He served as a public prosecutor and we think it was a revenge killing by someone he got acquitted,” a senior police official from south Kashmir told Kashmir Life.

Sarpanch, Shiraz Ahmad Bhat

The most chilling of the killings came on Monday when the ruling PDP’s Pulwama district president, Abdul Gani Dar, was shot dead in broad day light, in front of his security guards.

“His guards were not armed. His vehicle was intercepted and he was taken down from his car before being shot dead by the militants,” Pulwama SP, Rayees Mohammad Bhat said, adding that his security guards are being questioned.

Dar’s killing was unnerving for mainstream political parties in more than one ways.

One, he was probably the first high profile politician to have been killed in a long time, leaving the small time workers feel all the more vulnerable.

“If a protected man can be killed like this in broad day light, in front of his guards, you can only imagine our fate,” said a PDP worker, requesting anonymity.

Two, the alienation towards mainstream politics in general masses that came to fore a day after Dar’s killing.

Dar’s own neighbours in Rohmoo village of the Pulwama district came out in large numbers and clashed with deployed government forces following rumors that some PDP leader was scheduled to visit the area.

“He was our neighbor and we did whatever we were supposed to do on his death, his brand of politics notwithstanding. He got punished for what he was,” a resident of Rohmoo told Kashmir Life, requesting anonymity, “But we cannot allow any other politician enter our village. They have sat over killings of hundreds of Kashmiri boys. It would have been a disgrace to the blood of those innocent souls.”

To add to the fear psychosis militants, in groups of two’s and three’s, have been consistently doing rounds in many villages across Pulwama and Shopian districts.

Moreover, a video of 30 armed militants, which recently surfaced on social media, has added to the dread.

Following the killings, condemnations came one after another.

Mainstream as well as the separatist leadership have condemned the killings, including Hurriyat (G) Chairman, Syed Ali Geelani.

But the condemnations have brought little respite to the restive political workers, who have been left between the devil and the deep sea, unprotected at that.

Many of the workers have altogether migrated to some other place or visit their homes during the day only, when they feel safer.

“Some are in Jammu, some in Srinagar and others putting up at their MLA’s houses. The party leadership has made arrangement for their stay in some Srinagar hotels as well,” a PDP leader from Shopian said. The leader, even though protected, is not staying at his house.

“I have an armed policeman protecting me and if God forbid militants come to attack me there will be a possible gunfight in the neighbourhood. We are already grappling with trust issues among general public,” the leader told Kashmir Life, on the condition of anonymity.

This leader was also among 15 member team summoned by Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti, prior to the scheduled polls in south Kashmir. “We categorically told madam (Mehbooba Mufti) that we won’t be able to move around,” he said.

Abdul Gani Lone, the headman of Ahgam village in Pulwama, had been associated with late Mufti Sayeed for over 40 years and has remained associated with the PDP even after Mufti’s demise.

Lone says in his long political career he has felt this unsafe only when Ikhwani’s operated in Kashmir.

“The situation is grim, very grim right now. I can feel the fear in the air. Every evening we dread that knock on the door,” Lone said. Lone is in Jammu right now but he insists that he has not runaway. “I had some work in Jammu and I will be back in a couple of days,” he said.

Even though only members of the PDP have been targeted so far, workers of other political parties are not feeling safe either.

Many National Conference and Congress workers have also left their homes and went into hiding, however their number is small.

Umar Jan, a senior Congress leader from Pulwama told Kashmir Life that the threat was real and he too is not staying at his home for now. “If they (the government) have not been able to protect their own workers how would they protect us?  That too when the state has been adamant on thinning the security cover of leaders from the opposition,” Jan said.

He said that many of his workers have also preferred to stay elsewhere.

A mid rung leader of the opposition National Conference from Pulwama maintains that most of the party workers are staying put at their homes. “May be some people have migrated on an individual level for feeling threatened. But overall I have not heard any one of us moving base,” the NC leader said.

A top police official from south Kashmir however feels that people are being made to look at the threat perception through a magnifying glass. “The situation is not that bad. Yes, killings have taken place in Pulwama and have created panic but it has not had an effect in other districts of the south Kashmir,” the official said.

He said that an atmosphere of fear was being ‘created’ under a design, “which could very well be political in nature,”

PDP’s Coordinator for south Kashmir, Mufti Sajjad, more or less agrees with the police official.

Sajjad said that the panic is not large scale within the party or on the ground. “No, the party has not provided any accommodation to the hiding workers. How many are we going to accommodate any way?” Sajjad asks.

He said that the political workers have facing such situations for well over 20 years now and this phase too is a temporary one.

“It will pass. Yes, there is some harassment done to the workers but then it has been happening all along,” Sajjad said.

Asked why the PDP workers were being targeted more than others, sajjad said that the ruling party workers are always under these kinds of circumstances in Kashmir.

“And now that Geelani Sahib has condemned the killings, I hope better sense will prevail,” he said.

Police, on the other hand, have been doing their bit to counter the threat. “We have already arrested some OGW’s who had aided militants in identifying the houses of the political workers attacked so far. Strings of other measures have also been taken, details of which I cannot share with you,” SP Pulwama said.

DIG South Kashmir, S P Pani, echoed SP Pulwama’s remarks and said that identification of people involved in these attacks is on.

For now, however, the unprotected ‘foot soldiers’ live in fear and in exile.

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