AVERTING DISASTER

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Was it a responsive district administration, influence of local political workers, or were the protests simply subdued. Whatever the reason, Ganderbal – that Omar Abdullah represents – distinguished itself as the only district in Kashmir where nobody was killed or jailed under PSA this summer. A Kashmir Life report.

Dilshad Khan had just joined as deputy commissioner of Ganderbal district when the summer unrest of 2010 started. The broken glass panes of her office, which was attacked many times by stone pelters, still await repairs.
Her subordinates say that sometimes the stone-pelting on the office was so severe that they had to take shelter in the rear rooms of the building. “It was a routine for a fortnight,” said an official.

Her Srinagar home is a 20-minutes drive from her office but Ms Khan could not move out of the district for three months at a stretch. “As schools were closed, I brought the children here rather than visiting them in Srinagar,” she said.

“It was too hectic, a round the clock job, you miss a phone call and it is beginning of the end,” she says. “Ganderbal being a VIP constituency, everybody was concerned… on day to day basis almost everybody who matters would talk and ask about the situation on ground and in such state of affairs nothing could be left to the chance.”
Senior civil and police officers in the district administration would be present whenever there was a protest demonstration anywhere across the district. “Almost on every corner where there was any apprehension of a gathering, we had a magistrate present throughout the crisis and the brief was to talk to the people directly rather than sending the soldier to engage them,” said Ms Khan.

She remembers a number of occasions when she along with Superintendent of Police Imtiyaz Hussain had a “providential escape”. In Kangan in one such situation, she said, a stone had hit a CRPF officer on the head and the situation was getting out of hand. A senior officer from the district reached the spot and almost jumped into the crowd. After firing in air, curfew was clamped in the belt and the people were restricted to their homes till it cooled a bit.

“We would work as a unit – the police and the civil administration. We would jointly move to spots with clear decision that we will not open fire till all other options are exhausted,” she said. People, she says, listen when they are approached. “I found no place while dealing with the unrest where the district administration did not get the cooperation from the commoners and it helped us and them,” she said.

There were killings in Bandipora and Srinagar. Seething in anger, entire Safapora was almost out on the streets. Thousands were on the road, remembers a middle rung officer who is not authorised to speak to media. “When we reached the spot, almost everything was ready, the CRPF was there in strength so were other forces. The situation had almost reached the tipping point,” he remembers. “As we moved a bit, the mobs attacked and the guns were about to open but somehow an officer requested CRPF to move off from the frontline. He took his two PSOs and started lathi-charging the mob personally. Then other cops started and somehow the mob started retreating. This helped diffuse a situation that otherwise was about to get fatal,” the official, who claimed to be witness of the incident said.

There were Safapora-like incidents in Manigam, Wusan and some other places. Pandach, that is located on the boundary of Srinagar, Saloora and Daderhama were on roads almost everyday. Kurhama village was a major crisis point. The officials allege that the protests in Kurhama have been stirred by the proposed central university, for which government has notified land owned by Rakhs and Farms but cultivated by locals.

“The joint strategy paid,” asserts Ms Khan, adding, “At times, it panicked people outside Ganderbal that there were no fatalities.” Kashmir lost 112 civilians, mostly youth, in police and CRPF firing and tear gas shelling or summary beatings since June 11. Hundreds are behind the bars across Kashmir. “When officers come out of their offices and talk to people it helps,” she reiterates.

Traditionally, civil administration does make efforts to ensure safety of the civilians. But it can never do that unless it has essential police back up. In Ganderbal it had that as well.

“We never ever permitted a communication gap with the people,” says SP Ganderbal, Imtiyaz Hussain. If it was not police it was the civil administration that was with the people and in case both of us missed (a contact) there were the local representatives who bridged the gap. “In Manigam I even went to the mosque on Friday and made a speech to offer my logic to what was locally being talked about over the situation,” he said.

Police, he said, took the brunt on itself and saved the people even in situations of grave provocation. He puts the number of policemen injured in the unrest at 157 and those of civilians at 11. These include two policemen who walk still on the crutches. “I believe God was always on our side,” he asserts. Hospital records, however, put all kind of turmoil injuries in the district at 115 including that of the police.

But the trick that Imtiyaz is reluctant to reveal is that he gave CRPF a secondary role by pushing police to the frontline. That, civil officers say, was crucial in managing the anger of the paramilitary men who would sometimes be restive against not using firearms. “We used pellet guns once and a riot control gun a few times,” says the SP, adding, “it all requires a bit of patience because these are not encounters with the militants.” As member of the Special Operations Group (SOG), Imitiyaz, a mechanical engineering graduate, has remained a militant fighter from the day he joined the police.

Maintaining sanity in the area was crucial during the crisis because he had to secure around 90-kms of road which takes Amarnath pilgrims to Baltal. There were certain efforts to attack the pilgrim buses but we managed a smooth yatra, police officials said.   

Killings apart, Ganderbal is the only district where not a single person has been booked under Public Safety Act, though many were arrested and many others are on police’s wanted list. So far 116 have been arrested in 40 FIRs and 115 bailed out. The police are currently holding one person who actually is not a local and there is likelihood of getting him booked under PSA. Bashir Ahmad Qureshi is a resident of Karnah, who lives at Wanabal Rawalpora Srinagar. He has been arrested for being the in-charge of Ganderbal District of Tehreek-e-Hurriayat-e-Kashmir, an organization that Syed Ali Geelani heads. Police talks about one of his speeches in Kangan and claims he draws Rs 5000 as monthly emoluments from the separatist party.

“Once we make the arrest, the families and the village leaders come and in most of the cases the local representatives also approach us,” said SP Imtiyaz. “We seek a bond of good behaviour and we set people free but we ensure they go through the mill of the law that make the system.”

This might be the public face of being clean. However, local residents are talking openly of the cold war between the police and the civil authorities in the district. Police, they say, had sent a number of cases (between five and nine) to DC for booking under PSA. The deputy commissioner rejected the cases on various grounds including the one that the accused did not deserve so much of punishment. In retaliation, the grapevine has it, police accused their civilian counterparts of trying to force them in getting a relative of a political opponent arrested and detained under PSA! Whatever the case, it is a reality that there is not a single soul detained under PSA on date.

But not everybody thinks the no-fatality and no-PSA is essentially the outcome of good administration. One has to understand the various factors that ensured no fatality.

“There are only three spots across the district which have a sizable population and of them Kangan and Safapora are important,” said a clerk who has served the place for a long time. “Major populations create major crises and we are the smallest even perhaps than Shopian.” A police man who was shifted out says the magnitude of violence is directly proportional to the use of force which should explain things.

Some people link the crises with the sentiment that they see missing in most of Kangan and most of Ganderbal. “There are patches that have influences of Jamaat whether in Saloora or in Safapora,” admitted an elderly villager. A lot of people in Kangan whose major source of income is the Amarnath Yatra were quite unwilling to play a spoilsport and that helped, officials say.

And then there are traditions. “The 2008 turmoil was linked to Ganderbal. It was an issue that existed in Ganderbal and it was created by a leader who represented this segment and in fact the first major protest took place in Ganderbal,” a senior official said, adding, “After the rest of Kashmir took over, Ganderbal slipped into the routine mode.” Police records suggest there was at least one person who was injured by a bullet in Nagbal belt.

Congress leader Sheikh Ishfaq, who fought 2008 assembly elections unsuccessfully, is one of the most active political workers in the belt. He says, the situation there was much better than any other district. “It was manageable that is why we did not pay the costs that other districts paid.” He is unwilling to credit chief minister Omar Abdullah for somehow influencing the administration to avoid loss of life. “For all these months, I was always around,” he said. “You must know that we did not permit anybody being arrested (to be booked) under PSA. And it helps in keeping the sanity alive.”

Then there are people who are unwilling to accept that no deaths mean nothing had happened there. “Come with me, I will show you 300 houses still without windows and glass panes,” said a youngster Abdul Rashid, who said he lives in Saloora. “They were broken by police and CRPF as they would invariably beat us first and then attack our homes and in certain cases they would barge into our house and beat us there.”

It is a myth, says Reyaz Khan, who wishes not to reveal his residence, that nobody was killed in Ganderbal. “What happened to the old man whose death is attributed to cardiac arrest,” he asks. “He collapsed after watching the CRPF beating the boys near his residence.” District administration admits the death but assert his family said he was a chronic heart patient and was actually driven to hospital by the paramilitary forces.

Youngsters are not willing to talk on record if there is mention of a lower rung police officer. “In Kurhama he beat even women and young girls,” one college going student said. “In Ganderbal Grages (a locality) he chased an injured and beat him in the sub district hospital and also broke the vehicle that plied the injured to the hospital.”

More recently, a High Court lawyer was allegedly thrashed by a police officer inside a police station in the district. Advocate Babar Jan Qadri, who had gone to collect reports of his detained client at police station Ganderbal, says, he was subjected to worst form of humiliation. “I was forced to take off clothes. The SHO hurled choicest abuses at me and even tried to strangulate me in the lock up,” he added.

The police officer refuted the charges. “We have registered a case against the lawyer,” he said.

Local employees say the civilian administration was perhaps the last tier of governance that would come to know of what the police was doing. They would declare curfew on their own, charge at mobs and then inform the DC. “Ganderbal is the only place in Kashmir where no peaceful protest was ever permitted,” a lower rung employee wishing not to be named said. They attribute the situation to two factors.

“Firstly, the police have a better network of information – a boy who threw a stone on the Friday preceding Eid was caught at home within minutes,” Another government employee said. “Secondly, the area being in sharp focus because of Amarnath yatra had security men almost dotting every inch of the open space for most of the summer.”

Interestingly, the police did interrupt the media if not influence it. A local cable initially ran an interview of a PDP leader in which chief minister was accused of being “an army general”. Within less than 24 hours, the channel’s team landed in police lock-up. A case was also registered against a Srinagar based newsgathering agency for attributing the death of an old man to the CRPF action. “Tell me one incident that took place here and you did not know,” responded a senior officer to the allegation.  

Does being the chief minister’s constituency help on the development front? When one listens to Ms Khan, there seems to be a lot of activity going on. It completed 301 works as it issued 10031 job cards and created 200 thousand man days of work by dovetailing MGNREGA with forests, irrigation and soil conservation. It awaits completion of four major bridges while a 200-bed hospital is ready for inauguration. A 40-bed maternity hospital is being centrally heated by the money that Omar Abdullah provided as a special case.

Running the district costs Rs 13 crore a year and it is implementing around Rs 50 crore plan but might not lift the entire Rs 16 crores loan component this year. By now, it contributed Rs 4.53 crores to public kitty that includes Rs 3.60 crores of power tariffs.

“It (being VIP area) does help,” says DC Khan. “There is lot of monitoring. We have local MLA as CM and another as forest minister and then (Ali M) Sagar sahib is head of the district development board.” Chief Minister does send his lieutenant Nasir Aslam Wani quite frequently. “It is very close to Srinagar so every minister comes here more often,” she said.

It is an open secret in Ganderbal that around 250 youth mostly the polling agents of NC in 2008 elections have been accommodated on class-IV jobs outside the district.

The political workers have their own grouses. “It is 20 years now that we have been hearing that work on the New Ganderbal Power Project will start,” said Shiekh Ishfaq.

“There is no movement on that front.” District officials say there is a bit of dispute by some shop-owners which is delaying it. “For years we have been seeking road

connectivity to twin meadows of Mohan Merg and Lal Merg. “These would offer us our own tourist destinations which will help because we have an assured traffic but nobody listens,” complains Ishfaq, whose party is part of the ruling coalition.

Small, as they say, is always beautiful. But it has its own problems. Take the case of the sources of sustenance. Ganderbal has a cocktail of small economies. The Lar belt, for instance, produces a lot of grapes. Move up to Kangan it has most of its income coming from walnuts. In higher reaches there are Gujjar herdsmen who rear sheep and cattle. For a huge stretch beyond the Kangan market it is the perennial yatra that keeps them busy for almost half of the year. Tulmulla, the abode of a Hindu shrine, is area’s main milk producer. Gutlibagh is the cherry belt and the Wakoora belt is known for its apple.

From rice to maize, all crops grow in the main plains. “We are primarily agrarian but the land holding is so small that nobody can survive solely on it, so exploring other options is always a priority,” says Daderhama resident Ghulam Nabi. The belt is blessed with a rivulet that not only produces power but also offers a lot of construction material. “By conservative estimates, we sell around 300 truckloads of sand and pebbles a day besides a 200 truckloads of boulders, mostly to Srinagar,” said Mohammad Ashraf, a construction materials trader. Officials estimate that it must be fetching around two million rupees in a day for most of the year to Ganderbal and most of the cash stays with locals. It is perhaps the most clean and better construction-grade material that does not entail much cost in getting it out of the stream.

Off late, certain belts bordering Srinagar have opted for commercial diary at micro level with the help of the loans from J&K Bank. “Every day around 40 thousand litres of milk are being supplied to Srinagar alone,” says DC Khan. District officials say they are working to implement all the schemes that would generate more income avenues.

But will the apparently hanky-dory status of Ganderbal help Omar politically? Ideally it should especially when the main opposition PDP is almost missing from the scene. “We see him (Qazi Afzal) when there is a death or a birth somewhere in the neighbourhood, otherwise he is in a shell,” said Abdul Rashid, a teacher. “And it seems that he lacks the support of his party as well.” Off late, there are reports that some of the individuals who were very active with the PDP have started switching sides but not necessarily joining the NC.

Ganderbal has been termed a ‘king’s constituency’ for decades. Since 1975 it has remained mostly with the Abdullah family. Sheikh Abdullah was elected to the assembly once and Dr Farooq Abdulah thrice. In 2002 polls, Omar lost the election, however, he managed a comeback in 2008 and became the chief minister.

But Omar’s party is suffering due to multi-controls. Government’s entire top level is taking interest in Ganderbal – Omar Abdullah, Nasir Aslam Wani, Ali Mohammad Sagar, and Dewinder Singh Rana. But it is the ground level division that is messing up the politics and the governance. It is Sheikh Ghulam Rasool versus Ghulam Ahmad Saloora. The situation got worse recently when Saloora, while addressing people at Dub Wakoora in presence of Ali Mohammad Sagar and the entire district administration, openly called for investigations into the expenditure of many millions that went into construction of a wall of the state land that is in possession of an NC leader.

Apart from publicly accusing the other side of disrupting the routine functioning of the administration, Saloora even said an NC leader has spent public money in laying tiles of his courtyard. And then there are many ringleaders who carry the letters of being the “real representatives” of the chief minister at ground zero but nobody takes them seriously.

With a mismanaged NC and an absent PDP, it is helping others to grow. And among them the former cop turned politician Shiekh Ishfaq is perhaps on a better footing in Ganderbal. As for Kangan, there has not been any major shift in the prevailing divisions: faith continues to help Mian family maintain consolidation of the Gujjar population as those living downhill are divided on political ideologies.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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