Risky Job

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The debate over Gogoi gets louder after his ‘human shield’ act fetched him an award. Saima Bhat looks at the other side of the unreported shield – the private transporters, some of whom were killed while on ‘duty’ enforced by the ground zero players

Fayaz, 52, a driver, fled his hometown in Tral, to live a ‘peaceful’ life in Srinagar, years before Burhan Wani became a teen icon. The reason for migration was regular ‘calls and messages’ by army from a nearby garisson. “I couldn’t bear it anymore. Fifteen years is a long time,” said Fayaz, who is in this profession for last 37 years.

When he lived in Tral, Fayaz was often told to stay available outside the garisson for ‘special duty’.“Those days were difficult. After 6 pm there would be dead silence on the roads. But we would call it a day at 3 pm because of fear,” recalls Fayaz.

Fayaz recalls how drivers used to hide their vehicles under layers of bedding to avoid ‘special assignments’. “But those who lived near the camp had no such luxury,” said Fayaz. “They (army) know about our families and relatives and contacts. So no driver would dare to go against them.”

One particular day in early 1990s, Fayaz recalls he was ordered to be available outside the camp at 6 pm. Fed up, Fayaz decided not to go.

Next morning, when Fayaz went to Tral taxi stand, a group of army men were already waiting for him. “They were from the same camp,” recalls Fayaz. “They snatched my vehicles documents and left without saying anything.”

A vehicle without its documents is good for nothing, said Fayaz. “Entire day I thought of ways to get my documents back. I was sad.”

Then Fazay sought a non-local contractor’s help who was working in the camp. “He accompanied me to the camp,” said Fayaz. But once he stepped inside the main gate of the camp, around two-dozen armymen, including the gate-keeper and the cook, pounced on him and started beating him. “They didn’t listen at all,” said Fayaz.

Finally, after four days of convincing Fayaz managed to get his documents back. The fifteen years Fayaz spent in Tral were most traumatic for him. “I must have been taken to around fifty encounter sites.”

One evening Fayaz was taken to an encounter site deep inside a jungle. “I was asked to stay put half-a-kilometer from the encounter site,” said Fayaz. “The encounter continued for more than 24 hours.”

Fayaz recall how he shivered in the December cold while waiting for soldires to return. “I stayed still for the whole time fearing I might become collateral. I didn’t even light a fire to warm myself.”

Apart from taking private taxis to encounter sites, army used to keep drivers like Fayaz on stand-by mode outside their camp frequently. “Every night at least three drivers were kept outside the camp in case they need to drive quick,” said Fayaz. “We were never paid anything for these jobs.”

When Fayaz couldn’t take it anymore, he sold his house and vehicle and shifted to Srinagar.

“Ek tou gaady do, uper sey maar bi khao (Despite risking our vehicles and life they beat us),” Zafar, 28, a driver from Pulwama, said.

Zafar, a Class 12 drop out, owned two taxis but sold both within a year and started working for someone else. “Few years back I was ferrying passengers when I was stopped by army outside a garisson in Pulwama,” recalls Zafar.

They ordered passengers to get down and took Zafar along with his vehicle. “They literally stormed inside the vehicle with a few climbing on the roof,” recalls Zafar. “Before I was ordered to drive, they took my phone.”

As he drove towards an unknown destination, Zafar began fearing for his life. “What if I am caught in an ambush?”

After fifteen minutes drive Zafar was asked to stop outside a village and ordered to stay put. “Five minutes later bullets started to fly in all directions. I ducked inside the vehicle wishing for a miracle. I wanted to call my family one last time, but they had taken my phone,” said Zafar.

As night fell Zafar started getting anxious thinking how his family might be desperate about his whereabouts. “I began praying for daybreak,” said Zafar. “I must have peed in my trousers.”

At daybreak Zafar heard army men hurling abuses and shouting from a distance. “I knew the encounter is over,” said Zafar. “I didn’t dare to ask them anything. Instead I straightway drove them back.”

Before the armymen got back into their camp, they gave Zafar two liters of diesel. “I must have consumed ten liters but I was happy that I was alive.”

Once home Zafar immediately decided to sell his vehicles and shift his base to Srinagar. “Now I work for a local contractor in Srinagar who provides vehicles to army for official purpose,” said Zafar.

Since 1989, there are at least 12 contractors registered with the army headquarters at Badami Bagh. “We provide vehicles to army for official or vacation purpose only,” said one of the registered contractors wishing anonymity.

After tenders are flouted, army conducts background check of all applicants, to make sure they have no militancy links. “No, our vehicles are never used for encounters,” said the contractor. “These contracts are purely for civil purpose.”

But Hassan, 52, a driver with State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC) since last twenty years, has entirely different experience to share. “All rules apply in cities only,” said Hassan. “In border areas, army can take any vehicle without giving prior information.”

However, Hassan believes that army prefers civilian vehicles in border areas as the other side doesn’t attack them. “They don’t attack civilian vehicles,” said Hassan.

In 1999, during Kargil war, Hassan, headed a convoy of 32 vehicles who ferried ammunition from Srinagar’s Tatoo Ground to army’s base camp in Kargil. “I recall how a driver and his conductor were killed in cross fire at Uri,” said Hassan, flashing his big eyes. “Another one was killed in Kargil.”

Hassan recalls how a number of oil tankers were attacked by Pakistani shells during the war.

Once Hassan’s fleet unloaded the ammunition at Kargil base camp, they started for valley immediately.

Apart from war, SRTC drivers are regularly put into life threatening situations, like in recent by-polls. “Around 15 drivers were injured in stone pelting incidents and their vehicles were also damaged,” said Hassan.

In April, 2017, on the eve of by-polls in Srinagar district, a driver was ferrying passengers in Tral.

“Same evening unidentified gunmen came to his residence and beat him up. He was forced to set his vehicle on fire himself,” says the neighbour of the driver who wishes not to be named.

Hassan says many drivers have developed number of stress related ailments.

Zafar, who now lives in Srinagar, visited his home in Pulwama a month back with his colleagues.  As they reached on the outskirts of town, they were stopped by army’s patrolling party.

“They got us down from our vehicles and beat us till we fainted,” said Zafar, who had to spend next three days in hospital. “They damaged the vehicle and even peeled off its tyres.”

Ghulam, 38, an army contractor from southern Kashmir, feels driver who work with him are always at risk. Quoting a government circular Ghulam says, ‘forces can take private vehicles forcibly in times of war’. However, Ghulam asks, “Is Kashmir really in a state of war?”

Ghulam, who comes from a family of transporters, feels, “Ikhwan era was worst.”

Speaking out of experience Ghulam notes that earlier army used to let private vehicles ply in between their convoys as it would act as shield against attacks. But now the trend has changed. “They don’t allow any traffic movement when their convoys pass.”

Till 2007-08, Ghulam says, “During army convoy movement, an army gypsy would drive in the wrong direction. The army man on the top of this vehicle would wave a stick at civilian vehicles, often breaking their windshields. This was done to harass civilians.”

It is the duty of Srinagar based Police Control Room (PCR) to arrange vehicles for forces called on special duty in Kashmir during elections and Yatra. Once these vehicles enter Kashmir valley the responsibility of safeguarding them falls on PCR Srinagar.

“One driver was killed during  by-polls in April. Another one was injured in Sempora, while a 52 seater bus was burnt down in Nishat,” said an official wishing anonymity. “A number of vehicles hired by PCR get damaged.”

However, the official says incidents of vehicles taken forcibly by army and other government forces has decreased over the years. “Yes, in 90’s it was a routine, but not now such incidents are rare.”

There are no official figures available for number of drivers killed after they were taken by the army forcibly. “I am sure not more than 20 people had died since 1989. And in most of the cases they died accidentally, like in ambushes,” the official said.

Fayaz, the old guard, feels Mufti Saayed’s last tenure was relatively peaceful for drivers, especially those working in the southern Kashmir. “I wish his daughter (Mehbooba) can just take a ride in one of these taxis as a commoner and see for herself what we go through.”

Funeral prayers of a driver killed on poll eve in 2017.

In militarized Kupwara the number of such incidents have gone down since the focus of militancy shifted to down south.

“I have heard about army taking drivers forcibly during 90s. But there has not been any incident in the recent past,” said President of Kupwara Sumo Drivers Association. “As most of the encounters take place at the border, there is no need for army to take drivers from here.”

On May 4, 2017, Nazir Ahmad Sheikh, a driver from Kachdoora village in Shopian was killed near Baskuchan area when militants attacked his vehicle carrying army men. “Nazir was forcibly taken by the army along with his vehicle,” said a close relative.

“He would often complaint that army used to harass him. They had taken his documents, which are still with Chowdhry Gund army camp,” said Nazir’s uncle.

Nazir, a sole bread earner of his family, was forcefully taken by army from this camp earlier on a number of occasions.

“He was kept along with his vehicle in the camp for nights,” said Suhaib, his orphan. “He would always curse his fate for being a driver. He would say it is better to beg than to be a driver in Kashmir.”

For Sumo drivers in southern Kashmir such incidents of forceful patrolling has become a routine, said a local driver. “They take us along for night patrolling. It is risky.”

In 2006, Mukhtar Ahmad Sheikh, then 19, was killed when militants fired on his vehicle in Litter village of Pulwama.

“He was stopped by army and after de-boarding passengers they took him along,” said Ajaz Ahmad Baba, President Sumo Drivers Association. “Militants saw vehicle full of army-men and fired at it.”

Around 600 Sumo vehicles ply from Shopian to different destinations in Kashmir. “We complained to police and civil administration on a number of occasions but nobody cares,” said Ajaz.

In February 2017, Rasheed, was stopped by the army near Balpora bridge in Shopian. After de-boarding the passengers they ordered Rasheed to drive. “But when I refused, they took my vehicle,” said Rasheed.

Next day Rasheed learned that militants attacked an army party near Chitragam village, who were travelling in a private taxi. “Three army men were killed in the firing,” said Rasheed. “I could have been the fourth one. Though my vehicle got completely damaged, still I feel lucky to be alive.”

Rasheed alleges he was not paid a single penny despite his vehicle damaged completely. “There is an unsaid rule in this part of Kashmir that one taxi must remain inside army camp. We cannot say no, else they use pressure tactics.”

(With inputs from Javid Naikoo from Shopian and Zafar Aafaq from Kupwara)

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