“When I was to attend my government duty, it was hard to find a labour willing to work in my place even at higher wages.” Even policemen were not spared.
A police constable from the area, who did not want to come on record told Kashmir Life that he hired a labourer in his place, “otherwise my family would have been beaten up”.
Forced labour, however, was not a Langate specific phenomenon in the turbulent years of Kashmir. It was prevalent in most of the Kashmir especially during militancy’s peak years. In the first week of September 1994, Kangan based soldiers picked up three Gujjar youth from Thanabadpathri hamlet and tasked them to take food supplies to Wukhalwan woods where the troops were posted. A few days later, two youth reported back but the third one, Mohammad Ramzan Dar did not. His body was later tracked naked near the foothills.
Forced labour coincided with the arrival of soldiers to suppress the militancy. Wherever they went to have a foothold, forced labour became a part of their presence. Take the case of Nadigam in Shopian. In April 1993 when a convoy landed in the village, the first thing they did was to assemble the locals and get the healthy ones out. They were taken to axe the trees they owned on a village slope. Later they helped the troops to erect the tents and manage the garrison. Intermittently, they would get support of the bus passengers who were ordered out while passing through the road.
Till recently, when these camps were closed, all the bus operators of the area had to park their vehicles outside the garrison to help soldiers meet the night transportation if a situation arose. All these services were extended not out of courtesy but out of the coercion and were never paid for, villagers say.
Destruction of public infrastructure was the hallmark of militancy especially during the amorphous years. After the counter-insurgent forces managed a foothold, army’s civic actions started and in certain cases some of this infrastructure was rebuilt. Most of the human resources that worked for all these projects – some of them as huge as rebuilding a bridge on Veshu near Kulgam, was forced labour. Interestingly, in certain cases the officials managed passage of bills from state kitty, which went to their own pockets.
Though in belts closer to the LoC, the practice gradually was converted into paying in kind, leading to the formalization of the process. In 2002-03, the army spent as much as Rs 86 crore which went up to Rs 109 crore in 2003-04 and most of around Rs 200 crores outlay for transportation in 2004-05 was spent on managing porters.
By then, however, many casualties had taken place. The worst was reported from a remote Doda village in January 2000. On January 21 (Friday) after a massive snowfall, soldiers from Sikh Light Infantry Regiment that had recently replaced 17-Rashtriya Rifles summoned villagers. They took away seven young men and forced them to clear the snow from the camp premises. As the freezing temperature started taking a toll on them, they asked for Kangri (earthen fire pot) which was refused. They were made to work for six hours at a stretch.
After doing what they were directed to, four of the angrier men were taken in and tortured. Three others waiting outside heard their cries and fled. As the villagers started searching the four, they found four bodies in the fields not far away from the garrison. As they went closer, they could see life in one and three others
Mohammed Amin, Abdul Majid and Abdul Gani – ice-cold and dead. They took the bodies and within a day left the village en mass. Though the police registered an FIR (FIR 4 of 2000) under section 302 RPC, it took the administration many days to persuade the villagers to get back to their homes.
The forced labour has not actually stopped. In April 2007, residents from Charle, Devar, and Khan Peto hamlets in Budgam accused troops of taking them from homes and fields for forced labour in the neighbouring camp. “As many as 12 youth are supposed to be in the camp for various works that includes digging bunkers or whatever,” a delegation from the villages told reporters in Srinagar. Prior to that, similar complaints were received and published from Bandipore where youth were forced to clear the snow from tracks leading up to the mountains.
Sometimes the labour was just for the sake of pleasure. In nineties, one army commander known more by his alias Badshah Khan, gained notoriety for his methods in Ganderbal on the Srinagar-Leh highway.