Commuters were stopped by Khan and ordered to carry firewood, stones, bricks and so on. “Once he stopped a bus at Nunar and ordered the passengers to carry a large heap of cowdung from the road, which he didn’t like,” recalls Abdul Rahman of Ganderbal, who humbly carried out the orders many a time.
“It was a pitiable situation as well dressed employees and students were carrying cow dung with their bare hands, under the supervision of baton wielding and abusive soliders,” said Rahman.
Understood much better as Begaar, forced labour is one of the most hated exploitations of Kashmir. The intense hate against Begaar can be understood by the fact that it has effected changes in lifestyle and culture over the years and a lot of literature is devoted to it. It has remained part of the folklore and a grim reminder of the exploitations that Kashmir has been forced to.
Te Veith Rouz Pakan, a series of radio dramas documented the forced labour. It was written jointly by Ali Mohammad Lone, Som Nath Zutshi, Akhter Mohi-ud-Din and Mohi-ud-Din Lone. The radio series was later converted into a two part film that was considered a major work on the subject done by any official media.
“Begaar has taken a proverbial form in our language. Kashmiri carries many proverbs, mostly derogatory, showing that Kashmiri psyche has not accommodated with it,” says Wajahat Iqbal a filmmaker.
The earliest mention of Begaar is found in Kashmir’s ancient history, the Rajatarangani, informing that the King Samakaravaram would force villagers to carry the supplies of his army in pre-Christ era. Even there is reference to the rule of Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen as well, otherwise respected for his vision and development. But most of the historians credit Mughal emperor Akbar for institutionalizing the Begaar. This iniquitous custom attained dangerous proportions and became the worst known practice in the highly exploitative Dogra monarchy. Many experts attribute the practice of ghar-damad (a son-in-law who lives with his in-laws) to this practice as the people would prefer ‘contributing’ son-in-law to the officials for Begaar if they sought the son’s service. Getting tasked for the perennial supplies to Gilgit Agency were the most dreadful as survival from the trip was possible for the most fortunate ones only.
“Gilgit,” writes W H Lawrance, who later became the settlement commissioner in the Dogra era, “is to the Kashmir a constant terror, and when it was rumoured that transport was wanted to convey the baggage of the troops going to or coming from Gilgit… I have seen whole villages bivouacking on the mountain when the agents for the collection for transport arrived in their Tehsil and I have seen inhuman punishments dealt out to the men who demurred to leaving their homes for two to three months with the prospect of death from cold or starvation.” Thousands of Kashmiris died on way to Gilgit and back. Criticism eventually led to its official abolishment in 1891. But history has its strange ways of helping people not to forget. A hundred years later, the practice still haunts Kashmir.
In Handwara, however, the forced labour ended only after entire population erupted in a huge protest against the custodial killing of Shabir Ahmad Pir in February 2003. “That was the height of forced labour and I took the lead of the demonstration,” said Rasheed. “Tang Aamad ba Jang Aamad and I thought let us settle it once for all.”
Thousands of people came out on roads and assembled at Shirhama demonstrating against the inhuman act. There was firing, baton charge but Rasheed didn’t relent and ultimately an agreement was reached between the two sides which ended the forced labour on February 3, 2003.
People heaved a sigh of relief. “It was like a rebirth for us,” remembers Wani. It was not only forced labour, it was everything what a force could do in the area. It was plunder of the local resources – transport, food, constructions and everything.
“The army used the area as if it was their own fiefdom,” says a local resident. “Army knew which patch of land grew the best fruits or vegetables. So they used to send us with the instruction that get us an Ambri apple cart or a bag of vegetables from a particular field,” said Abdul Gani Reshi, a local businessmen. “They consumed truckloads of apples and tonnes of vegetables and other crops,” said Reshi. “But who will question them.”
Local resources were plundered by using local manpower. Nobody could oppose it. The forests were the worst affected in this mayhem.