Masters In Uniform

The allegations that the army had resorted to taking Kashmiris on forced labour (Begaar) during the last two decades has opened the historical wounds etched in their collective memory and psyche. Haroon Mirani reports.

In this 1895 photograph preserved and owned by the British Library, a Dogra soldier is seen keeping a watch while Kashmiri women work on Maharaja’s fields as forced labourers on Begar. The photograph taken in Srinagar periphery is believed to have been taken in Pampore.

On December 12 army officials at Kupwara assembled for an emergency meeting at Mawar camp. A serious matter was to be discussed and almost everybody who mattered in the army in this frontier region attended. The issue, if not handled carefully had the potential to severely dent the image of Indian army.

The meeting was prompted by MLA Langate Sheikh Abdul Rasheed’s, (popularly known as Engineer Rasheed), the complaint against the army in State Human Rights Commission (SHRC). Although the army had been getting numerous complaints regarding human rights violations, but this one was different. An elected official representative of a constituency was accusing the Indian army of forcing him and thousands of others into unpaid unwanted labour for 13 years. Rasheed in his complaint demanded compensation and a public apology from Prime Minister of India.

It was not known what the army officials decided, but enough feathers were ruffled. Langate’s association with forced labour has been the courtesy of the army. As residents relate, every day and night people would be summoned out of their homes by the army. “During days we had to construct bunkers, supply water, wash utensils and clothes, and do other works. And during the night we had to patrol the roads and detect explosives with our bare hands,” says Rasheed.

Almost every household has a story to tell and every second person has an injury to show that was inflicted during the forced labour era.

The army did not even spare women. “Our women folk were forced to carry bricks and help in construction activities inside the camp,” said Rasheed.

For more than a decade, residents had to endure the “slavery”. Nobody had the power to oppose it. People, even, had to carry ammunition for the army, without any safety precautions. “It was not like an ordinary slave but a human cannon fodder,” said Mohammed Akbar Wani of Mawar. “We had to sanitise the roads before army convoy would pass through a road.”

Some 41 villages had to provide four men every day and four every night for the forced unpaid labour (called Begaar in Kashmiri). Sometimes the count would shoot up to ten per day and night. “We had to look for mines in the grass, beneath the bridges, on roadsides, fields and so on,” said Wani. There was no escape from the Begaar. “The army used to visit during nights and mark our attendance and anybody found absent would get a sound beating and arrest.”

People had to report every suspicious movement to the army. With lanterns and sticks in hand, it was like doing a dog’s job for the army in summers and winters alike. At times the people had to stay under culverts and in sewers to guard the convoy path for any possible mine plants.

To be doubly sure of their safety, the army had their novel checks on them. Before allowing anyone to come closer the army would ask them to jump in air couple of times, to be sure they were not carrying any explosives.

Rasheed had a bitter experience during one of such acts. “I was in a very bad mood and at around 3 a.m. they were asking me to jump in air,” says Rasheed. “I refused, argued and as expected had to pay a heavy price for it.” Rasheed was arrested and tortured.

“The army would force four men every day to carry their ammunition, construct bunkers, accompany army for night patrolling and do other menial jobs. This continued for 13 years from 1990 to 2003,” said Rashid. “I, even being an engineer, was subjected to forced labor for 168 days.”

According to Rasheed, 6000 people were engaged in such labour during that period. All the carpenters, masons and other skilled labourers were added attraction for army to be used on forced labour. The toughest job after looking for explosives was carrying water to remote pickets and bunkers high in the mountains. “People would slip, fall down but the water had to be carried.”

Excuses were not accommodated. If anybody was ill or had to attend to some other work, he had to hire somebody else for his replacement. Government employees were also not spared. Mohammed Maqbool Bhat of Mawar Langate, is an employee in Agriculture department. “It was such a hard situation that I can’t describe,” says Bhat.


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