Blocked Gateway

After four killings on highway connecting Kashmir with Delhi, an eerie silence replaced noise of engines. Aakash Hassan revisits the tragedies that kept the highway shut for forty days at a stretch

As the news of Burhan Wani’s killing reached Ujruu hamlet in south Kashmir’s Qazigund, a small procession began walking towards Srinagar-Jammu highway, barely half-a-kilometer away. They shouted a few slogans and went home for the night.

The next morning, people from Qazigund and adjoining villages started marching towards Dooru town via Hiller Shahbad road.

“It was a huge procession. There were people everywhere shouting slogans,” recalls Shahid Habib, a resident of Hiller Shahbad, “I joined them too.”

As they reached Dooru town, a large posse of police and CRPF intercepted them, Habib recalls. “They had sealed the road. It led to clashes and forces resorted to teargas shelling. They also used pellet guns on protesters.”

Amid the chaos, a teargas shell hit Bilal Ahmad Shaan, 33, on his chest and he collapsed. He was rushed to the nearby hospital, where doctors failed to save him.

His death enraged protestors. A huge procession carried Shaan’s body to his village for burial. His funeral was offered on the deserted Srinagar-Jammu highway, near under construction Qazigund-Baramulla road tunnel.

Shaan, a father of one-year-old son, was a labourer by profession, who worked on Qazigund-Banihal road tunnel. “He had married just two years back,” said one of his friends.

After Shaan’s killing, almost every single day, villagers from all sides would take protest marches towards highway, which would result in clashes.

Within no time highway saw huge presence of army and CRPF, especially around Qazigund stretch. But it didn’t help to restore the highway as people in large numbers would march towards highway, resulting in clashes. “There used to be announcements from mosques calling people to assemble and block the highway,” said Habib.

The overwhelming situation on the highway kept the entire security grid on their toes, prompting them to explore ways to keep the road clear.

However, before the new action plan could have been put into place, another tragedy hit highway village Churat, around four kms from Qazigund.

On July 18, ten days after Burhan’s killing, this small highway village witnessed bloodbath when three civilians, including two women were killed by army men in “cold blood”.

An hour before the killings took place; loudspeakers in Churat village came to life, asking residents to march towards nearby Khargund village as it has been “raided by the army”.

The repeated message over loudspeakers told people that army is harassing locals in Khargund. “There was instant reaction as people began pouring out on roads,” recalls Zahid, a local resident, who refused to give his full name. “The protestors forced army to leave the spot.”

But as the first army party left, another one came in a short while. “The second army party picked some local boys who were walking along the road,” said Mohammad Ramzan. “A few women, who saw army men drag these boys, tried to free them.”

A few meters away at Mugdam Bagh, a small playground, around half-a-dozen boys, who were playing cricket, witnessed the tussle between army men and women. The boys, who were playing cricket, raised a few slogans and joined the women.

This made the army party leave the spot, and while it was leaving, another army vehicle, coming from opposite direction stopped near the boys. “They got down from their vehicle and started beating people,” said Irfan Ahmad, a local resident.

Then, recalls Ahmad, army men began throwing stones at nearby houses, breaking window panes. “This resulted in stone pelting by locals,” said Ahmad.

“Two army men pointed their AK47 rifles towards the crowd and started firing indiscriminately,” recalls Ahmad. “The firing stopped after an officer shouted at the army men ordering them to stop.”

But by then it was already late as one of the bullets had hit Saida Banu, in chest.

Showkat Ahmad Itoo, 24, who was standing near her, tried to help Banu, but got hit himself.  Itoo, an electrician, died the spot. Itoo’s brother Abass, who tried to lift his body was shot too. He was hit in the elbow. Three boys included cricketers Basit Ahmad, 13, and Junaid Ahmd, 14 and Ishfaq, were hit by bullets too.

Neelofar Jan, 40, who came running towards the spot looking for her son 13-year-old son Aamir, who had gone to play cricket, was hit by a bullet too. She died on the spot.

The killing of three civilians in Churat village added to the already tense atmosphere on the highway. The days that followed saw large processions take place on the highway, shutting it down for the record time in recent memory.

Last time, it was during Dargah Hazratbal siege in 90’s, that highway remained shut for 31 days at a stretch. This time it remained shut for forty days.

“Highway town Qazigund would always buzz with activity no matter what happened in rest of the valley,” said Shams-ud-Din, a local shopkeeper. “Our livelihood is depended on this highway. Its closure affected us a lot.”

Even during summer 2008 and 2010 agitation Qazigund rarely remained completely shut. “But this (2016) was completely different,” accepts Din. “During normal protests Qazigund used to be the last town to shut.”

Though life has resumed its normal routine since last few weeks, but the resentment among villagers around Qazigund is deep rooted. “It might look normal from outside, but once you look deep, you see how anger is brewing among people,” said Din.

After the Churat killings the major challenge for security grid was to open the highway, and connect Kashmir with India!

“Even army’s flag march didn’t help this time,” said a senior police officer posted in south Kashmir. “People has lost fear factor. Army is no longer a deterrent.”

From security grid’s point-of-view, opening of the highway was key to the “normalcy” in the valley. But the challenge was posed by the gateway (Qazigund) itself. “It took army around ten days to move their vehicles, that too in the dead of the night. Movement of traffic during day was impossible,” said the police officer. “Within days we pushed some trucks carrying essentials with the army convoy. It worked.”

Then in order to make movement of private vehicles possible on the highway, army began crack down on villagers and made a number of arrests. However, despite that, a number of vehicles were attacked by angry protestors. “We had to literally escort private vehicles till they were safely past Qazigund.”

But, Din and other locals believe, ‘it was fruit season that helped reduce the tensions on highway, as most of the south Kashmir depends on fruit economy’.

“The arrest and crackdown didn’t help police much to restore the highway,” feels Din. “It was the movement of fruit that ultimately helped in calming the tempers.”

Locals understood that by stopping the movement of apple laden vehicles on the highway, they will add to the loss. “We would have hit our own bellies,” said Rouf Ahmad, a local trader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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