Reshi says, “The best deodars of these forests reached every part of India, wherever these officers lived.”
Residents say, the army used to engage people to cut down the trees en masse and make furniture and send it to their homes and relatives as a ‘present from Kashmir.’ “Everything was free for them and they could do whatever they wished,” said Rasheed. Locals say the forest plundering in the division is “beyond estimation”.
The farmers were forced to cut down their ripening crops along the roads as army feared that militants might hide explosives or may attack from the standing crops. “We have lost lakhs of rupees as army used to force us to cut down standing crops,” said a farmer.
Transporters too were severely affected as their cars, trucks, and passenger vehicles were engaged in forced use. “If we calculate, the army owes every vehicle owner a sum of rupees one lakh as fare,” said Javid Ahmad a local driver.
Rasheed adds, “Yes it is a truth. Even my own tipper used to be in their use for so much of a time.”
Scores were injured and couple of them died too during these acts of forced labour. Teacher Abdul Khaliq of Honga, Langate, in 2001, was asked by army to go up a mulberry tree and cut down some branches. “Army thought that in those branches militants could plant a mine, so they asked Khaliq to prune those branches,” said a friend of Abdul Khaliq. “Khaliq fell down from the tree and died.”
The death was described an accident. Another person was killed in cross LoC shelling when he was taken on forced labour by army at Khudi Mawar in Langate.
In another incident a lantern was smashed into the head of a forced labour Khazir Mohammed Bhat of Warpora. “He was deputed on sanitation duty and when they (army men) didn’t like his work they smashed a lantern into his head,” said another resident. He was hospitalised and received multiple stitches.
Forced labours were many times converted into human shields. “Whenever there was an encounter in the area, the army used to haul the people and use them as human shields,” said Rasheed. “Even I was used as the human shield in 2001 during an encounter at Mawar.”
According to Rasheed, four people were used as a human shield in that case. “We had a narrow escape as bullets flew over our heads just inches away,” said Rasheed. “We were in between the militants and troopers like a sitting duck, but thank God we survived.”
Many other were not so lucky.
Rasheed, now in a position of power, has taken it onto himself to make army accountable for their acts. He is at the forefront of demonstrations against any act of human rights violations by army. During his stint as MLA, he has filed six FIR’s against army regarding various cases.
Rasheed has plans to forcefully pursue the case of forced labour in State Human Rights Commission. “If nothing comes out of SHRC, I will take it to National Human Rights Commission and then to Assembly,” he informs.
Rasheed has filed 24 cases of forced labour against the army with the SHRC. “The officials at the SHRC asked me whether I have any evidence of forced labour I replied that I can bring in 6000 eyewitnesses if it demands,” said Rasheed.
He says he would pursue it in the High Court and Supreme Court, if the case makes no headway.
Besides, Rasheed wants Prime Minister of India to tender an “unconditional public apology” to people of Kashmir in general and people of Langate in particular for the “crimes of forced labour”.
“If PM says that Kashmir is part of India and Kashmiris are Indian, then why have they been treated as opponents,” says Rasheed. “No Gujarati, no Bihari, no Ladakhi or no Jammuite has been engaged in forced labour then why a Kashmiri?”
The army refused to comment on the allegations of Langale MLA. When contacted, Public Relations Officer (PRO) 15 Corps, J S Brar said, “No comments about it.” One further insistence he added. “We were just doing our duty.”