Lost Faith

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Ever since the conflict broke out in Kashmir valley, north Kashmir’s Palhalan village has been at the forefront of violence. Beneath a deceptive calm, the village is undergoing a dangerous political and religious polarization with its disillusioned inhabitants losing faith in a system that has repeatedly failed them, Sameer Yasir reports

The Family members of Ghulam Mohammad Yatoo at their residence in Palhalan- Pics: Bilal Bahadur.

On September 10, the calm in Palhalan was broken by panicked dogs barking agitatedly as the Muezzin called the faithful Muslims to attend the evening prayers. Ghulam Mohammad Yatoo, a 64-year-old tall, well-built, recently elected Sarpanch of Raipora village in Palhalan, had asked for a cup of traditional Kashmiri tea from his wife. “He liked it most. He would drink endless cups of Nun Chai and then leave for prayers,” says his wife.

Outside their newly built house, the barking dogs raised suspicion in his wife. Mysterious handwritten posters in Urdu had appeared across Palhalan recently, warning the Panchayat members to resign or face dire consequences. However, Yatoo was unfazed. After finishing his prayers at the mosque, he started walking towards his home when an unidentified gunman fired gunshots at him from a close range, killing him on the spot.

Two days before his assassination, Yatoo had written a letter in response to the posters which he had planned to read out at the Friday prayer congregation at Jamia mosque of Palhalan. The two-page letter was recovered from his pocket when his body was put on a funeral table for the last bath before his burial. The letter praises the struggle of Kashmiri people against Indian rule but it also reminds the killers of the need for the development of Palhalan, often called the ‘Kandahar’ of Kashmir.

Today, Yatoo’s son, Shahnawaz Ahmad carries the letter in his pocket. “Who he gives his life for the upliftment of the society is better than the others. I was elected by the people with conscious choice and mandate. I chose to fight election not to become a leader but to remove underdevelopment in my area. We can try to solve small problems. No one should think that by killing us, Kashmir problem would be solved. Our children have to get good education. We need better roads and infrastructure.  Development and political struggle has to go hand-in-hand,” Yatoo, an influential National Conference activist, has written in his letter. Minutes after Yatoo was killed, the police launched a manhunt to nab the assailants but no success was achieved.

Yatoo was killed after two Sarpanches in the area, including a woman, submitted their resignation before an Imam in a local mosque. “Using mosque as a platform to reach out to militants was often a trend in early years of militancy when people would often come on podium to ask for forgiveness. Now it was the only way out for Panchayat members to save their lives. This was the only way that they could reach out to the people and seek forgiveness for their ‘sins.’ The government ruled the village by day but everyone knew who ruled the Palhalan in the night,” says a resident, Tariq Ahmed.

Yatoo’s killings caused an impulsive reaction in north Kashmir. The very next day, three Sarpanches and 12 Panches resigned. So far, as many as 65 members of the village have resigned. Abdul Khaliq Bhat, a lean, tall man in his early forties, is a frightened man these days. He says he fears for his old parents and children. “What would happen to them if I am killed? We have become easy targets. We resigned because no one from the party leadership bothered to visit the victim’s family. Yatoo sahib was the only honest and upright man in the village. Everyone knows that he didn’t become a Sarpanch out of his own choice. So when they can kill him, they won’t spare us,” a panicked Khaliq told Kashmir Life. He has not left his house since Yatoo was killed.

palhalan (2)Palhalan turns into a graveyard after 7 pm and an eerie calm prevails in its streets. Like Khaliq, most local body members are aghast over the treatment meted out to them by the government. Many resigned members say the killing are a verdict on the security apparatus of the state. “That any militant can come at anytime and kills us for being just a small fish in the pond and make a larger political point is the ultimate realty of the situation,” says a Panch on condition of anonymity who recently submitted his resignation.

In Palhalan, the local politics is all about small issues like —

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