Centuries ago they migrated to escape bonded labour or persecution, their language is Kashmiri’s only other dialect and their hearts beat for their brethren in Kashmir. Ilham Hassan reports.
Residents of mountainous Doda district are virtually on crossroads. Administratively, they belong to Jammu division but majority of them boast their ethnic and cultural affinity to Valley of Kashmir. Each time, the shout of resolution of Kashmir gains pitch or proposals to fragment the state come under discussion, says veteran social worker Abdul Qayoom Zargar, the heartbeats of conscious Doda inhabitants increase abnormally.
“We are swinging between hope and despair. We have hugely invested in the movement for permanent resolution of Kashmir since partition. We can ill-afford to face another partition. This is the question of our existence,” he said.
On the face of it, Doda is gradually coming out of the shackles of poverty, aloofness and deprivation; thanks to the attention the area received after a local resident Ghulam Nabi Azad acquired decisive power in Jammu and Kashmir following the formation of coalition government in 2002.
Azad was the chairman of Coordination Committee that oversaw the functioning of the coalition and graduated to become the first non-Kashmiri chief minister of the state in November 2005. Even Azad’s political opponents admit that his tenure initiated and brought about revolutionary changes in the developmental profile of the forlorn area.
In the densely populated district headquarters, which people fondly call as Doda City, the majority of people are ethnic Kashmiri Muslims. They speak Kashmiri language in Bhaderwahi dialect and follow most of the Kashmiri traditions except Wazwan feast. “I don’t know why the chefs of Kashmir have not settled down in Doda. Perhaps they were not victims of feudal rulers,” says Zargar with a grin.
Locals say that Kashmiris have settled in Doda and its peripheries including Bhaderwah and Kishtwar in 17th and 18th centuries when Kashmir was ruled by Sikh and Dogra rulers. The Kashmiri families have largely migrated to the area to escape the wrath of the feudal rulers.
Tax overburdens and practice of bonded labour were among many reasons for their migration. “You can see affluent families living atop huge mountains. That was a method to escape the vigil of feudal rulers. The migrants have come from every area including Baramulla, Srinagar and Islamabad,” said noted writer-poet Mushtaq Faridi.
The locals rue that most of the Kashmiris were ignorant about basic facts about Doda region. “When we tell anybody in Srinagar that we belong to Doda, he immediately switches over to Urdu for conversation. This indicates the ignorance,” said journalist Istiyaq Dev. Another journalist Naseer Khora says that a top-ranking separatist leader disappointed a Doda delegation in Srinagar, few years ago, by inquiring whether they spoke Gojri and how much distance was between Poonch and Doda. “The leader had no inkling on topography and demography of the region,” he said.
But common Kashmiris’ ignorance is not misplaced. Doda is situated on a 60 kilometer deviation from Srinagar-Jammu National Highway at Batote, which is almost equidistant from Srinagar and Jammu. The mountain passes between Islamabad and Doda are traversed by a handful of local traders and nomads. There have been no concerted efforts to develop road-links between south Kashmir and Doda. “If a road is built to connect Doda and Islamabad, the region would automatically turn into an extension of Kashmir Valley,” said Dev recalling that then prime minister Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad had, in 1958, promised to built the road-link.
Congress legislator Naresh Gupta says that connecting Doda with Kashmir Valley was everyone’s dream. “We will strive hard to fulfill this dream. This is the era of connectivity and closeness,” he said.
Deputy Commissioner Farooq Ahmad Khan says there is a huge mountain range at Dessa, 44 kilometers from Doda that disconnects the region from Kapran area in Verinag pocket of south Kashmir. “A six-kilometer tunnel would connect the two regions.
It involves an investment of Rs 150 crore. The project is under active consideration as people in the region demand and require it earnestly,” he said. “The road between Kishtwar and Kokernag in Anantnag district via Simthan mountains is almost ready. It is operational during summers,” said Khan. Interestingly, the people in Doda district, cutting across party affiliations have demanded construction of Dessa-Kapran Road that would reduce distance between Doda and Srinagar by 80 kilometers.
The people know that civilization travels with road, and believe that Desa-Kapran road would boost their political aspirations. It would reconnect veterans like Mirza Ataullah Beigh with his roots in Kashmir. “My parents have migrated from Sarnal in Islamabad. Kashmir is in our flesh and blood. We can’t disconnect,” said the 80-year-old former office superintendent who never misses to read infrequently delivered Urdu newspapers published from Srinagar.
“Doda has always supported political aspirations of Kashmiri people and identified with them,” said Zargar. “People from Doda were deeply involved in plebiscite front struggle. We formed the front column of the agitations. The leaders would quote example of Doda volunteers to boost morale of the Valley people,” said Zargar adding that Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad was never allowed to appear in Doda during his nine-year tenure.
When militancy erupted in Jammu and Kashmir against the Indian rule, hundreds of Doda youths jumped in to become militants. “Our sacrifices are not less than those of Kashmiris,” said Faridi whose two sons have been killed during the turmoil. One of them was a militant.
The level of militancy has reduced over the years. A police officer said that there were around 30-50 militants hiding in the far-off mountains. Recently a deputy divisional commander of Hizbul Mujahideen was killed in an encounter and another was arrested from neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. “We have broken their (militants’) backbone. They cannot regroup or reorganize,” the officer said.
An overview of the area indicates that Doda has been hub of militant activities. Security camps located in every nook and cranny indicates to the quantum of deployment pressed in pursuit of insurgents. The area was often in news for killings and human rights abuses. Many killings are shrouded in mystery.
The government formed village Defence Committees to counter insurgents.
“The government armed the Hindu residents in the name of VDC’s. These wreaked havoc on the population and did everything from loot and plunder to rape and kidnapping,” Zargar alleged.
The area witnessed massacres of people in Barshala, Saroor and Chapnari, which are still shrouded in mystery. “We demand impartial probe of these massacres. We are sure that many skeletons would tumble out of cupboards if dispassionate probes are carried out,” Zargar said.
The militancy scenario has changed in the 4500 sq kilometre district. The last violent incident reported in the city was a grenade blast around a year ago. Officials admit that the security scenario has changed in the area as most of the militants have been neutralized. A recent security review encouraged the authorities to strip many a mainstream political leaders and workers of their bodyguards. Even the deputy chief minister’s rally during a Bharat Nirman Public Information Campaign was guarded by a skeletal security staff.
But, the people continue to exhibit their political affiliation with the Valley. During 2008 agitation against the controversial land transfer order favouring Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, Doda and its peripheries witnessed huge public resentment. Subsequently, in recent public uprising in Kashmir against spree of killings, attempts were made by the people to express solidarity with Kashmiris.
“There were shutdowns and protests but the authorities employed repressive measures to quell the uprising,” said noted physician Dr. Zafarullah. The police swooped on youngsters and arrested them. The Public Safety Act was slapped on two young men – Irshad Ahmad and Shabir Ahmad. The two are still under detention.
Mushtaq Faridi says that after 2008 agitation, sustained efforts have been made to create a fear psychosis among the majority community.
He said that Amaranth Sangarsh Samiti, a BJP-backed front that spearheaded anti-Kashmiri stir in Hindu-majority pockets of Jammu province established its units in every part of Doda. “We were already frightened by VDCs. The Sangarsh Samiti and partisan role of the security forces increased its intensity,” he said.
Deputy Commissioner denied that VDC’s are being used against Muslims. “There are some Muslim VDC’s also. And, VDCs are not a permanent feature. Once the security scenario changes, there will be no room for the VDCs. As far now I have not received a single complaint against VDCs since my joining in June 2010,” he said.
“We have always kept the flame of communal harmony aglow. We frustrated all designs by the vested interests to create communal wedge in the region,” said Legislator and National conference leader Khalid Najeeb Suharwardhy. Suharwadhy inherits support to his family in Doda town but his sway has diminished in peripheries resulting to his successive electoral defeat in 2002 and 2008 elections.
He has been replaced by millionaire Abdul Majid Wani, who joined Congress after winning 2002 elections and served as junior minister in Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s regime. Suharwardhy, a nominated member to Legislative Council also leads prayers in local Jamia Masjid. He has inherited politico-religious leadership from his father late Ataullah Suharwardhy who dared to challenge feudal rulers,
Common people in Doda favour interconnection with Kashmir and Jammu. “We are closer to Kashmir as well as Jammu. We would like the state to remain united and prosper. There is nothing bad in strengthening people-to-people contact,” said schoolteacher Ghulam Rasool.
The residents however shiver at the thought of bifurcation of the state or any solution to Kashmir issue that separates them from Kashmir. “We sense that there is a conspiracy to segregate Muslim majority areas of Jammu from Kashmir.
We will resent such moves and frustrate the ill designs,” said Dr. Zafarullah. He said that statements from Congress leaders like health minister Sham Lal Sharma, who favoured trifurcation of the state, have been made to test the waters. “They have a long-term plan. Unfortunately leaders in Kashmir do not understand their designs nor do they recognize the aspirations of Muslims in Jammu region,” he lamented.
In Bhaderwah, around 30-kilometers from Doda, and a separate constituency, presently represented by Congress leader Muhammad Sharief Niyaz, the aspirations and apprehensions are not different. The affluent town looks closer to Valley by its topography and is referred to as “mini-Kashmir”. People are by and large grateful to Ghulam Nabi Azad, who triggered developmental activity following his success in 2006 assembly bye-election from the constituency. Niaz had paved way for Azad to contest the polls.
“Our heart beats for Kashmir. We identify ourselves with Kashmir Valley, which shares our traditions, language and religion,” said A Khateeb, an office-bearer of Anjuman-e-Islamiya. Bhaderwah boasts a lot of top bureaucrats and politicians but most of them have settled down in Srinagar or Jammu.
Most of the habitations in Doda district have thrived at the banks of Chenab River, whose raised water levels due to Baghlihar Dam have proportionately raised their hopes for development. Doda and its catchment receive better electricity as compared to most areas in Kashmir Valley. The no-industry district is now waking up to exploit its mineral and forest wealth.
Locals admit that development has arrived very late in the forlorn region. During past six years, all blocks – Assar, Bhaderwah, Bhalesa, Thathri and Doda have been interconnected with roads.
The serpentine road connecting the district with Srinagar-Jammu National Highway was frightful for witnessing worst accidents in the state’s history. It has been replaced by a macadamized road instilling confidence in the people to travel with less risk. “Upto 2005, road connectivity was 5 percent in Doda. During past six years, it has developed to whopping 34 percent,” said the deputy commissioner.
The area came in focus after Ghulam Nabi Azad took over as J&K chief minister in November 2005. Azad’s ancestral village is located in Bhalesa pocket and he won 2006 mid-term poll with a thumping majority from Bhaderwah constituency.
With Azad’s influence in the coalition government intact, he is overlooking developmental activities despite his preoccupations as union minister, said a senior district officer. Interestingly, during past six years, Bhaderwah has found a place of pride on tourism circuit. Now boasting a Tourism Development Authority, Bhaderwah has developed tourism infrastructure.
People in Doda and Kishtwar have penchant for music and poetry. The area has produced some of the best Kashmiri poets, singers and writers. The chalands (folk songs) sung by late Ghulam Nabi Dolwal and his daughter Jahan Ara Janbaz are a craze among Kashmiri music lovers. “Every couplet sung in the mountains of Doda district is dedicated to Valley of Kashmir. We are longing for the reunion,” said Mushtaq Faridi in a choked voice.