Before the 50-hour long EDI siege would cost the security grid dearly, Pulwama was jumping to retain its No 1 rank among Kashmir’s districts. A major producer and a manufacturer, the district has won many academic laurels. Now caught in the conflict paradox, it is sending many body-bags with increasing frequency, reports Bilal Handoo
He rushed inside, panting, to alarm his daughter that soldiers were using women as human shields. A group of soldiers was coming toward the encounter site where the lone militant was declared dead five hours ago. They had also brought the slain militant’s mother and sister along—as human shields, dragged by their hairs. With each gunshot, the wails and shrieks were getting louder—so louder, that he told his daughter: just stay indoors.
Outside, a torrent of bullets was tearing gates, walls and windows; shattering windowpanes, boring kitchen utensils, sending inmates into shell-shocked state and numbing kids blue in fear. Out of nowhere then came a bullet piercing the air and hit the daughter near her left ear. She rolled down dead and flattened over her yard. But mourners in the face of firing took their time to come out and wail over the dead daughter.
At a stone’s throw from her unattended corpse, a son of a Class 4th employee playing cricket in nearby ground was running for his life. The villagers saw him holding two bats. He entered a narrow lane leading to a steel gate of a residence. Nearby was a water tanker. A volley of bullets hit it. It burst and let out gallons of water to flood the lane. The boy tumbled in water gush, but managed to threw open the gate. Trailing him, soldiers still shielded with terrified women bored the gate with barrage of bullets. Inside, the boy tried to climb a fence to run away, but he slipped down. Nearer came a soldier, who spotted the boy getting back on his knees and shot him on his head…
Three days later, almost entire Lelhaar village was out, loud and livid while recalling the “target firing” episode. They pointed toward the bullet-torn walls, gates, glasses, utensils… All of them were freaked out after witnessing a near death experience.
A minor boy talked out about how he nearly got a heart attack amid the deadly assault—“mai goyou heart!” (I almost had a heart attack!). He then ran away to take out the bats of the slain youth in his yard. By then a crowd of young girls had assembled nearby. Enraged over how soldiers treated female folks of the village, one of them said: “Now, if tomorrow boys would take up arms after witnessing army’s ill treatment toward their mothers and sisters, then, who will be responsible for that?”
In summer 2014, when Showkat alias Mirchi Seth of Pulwama’s Anglar village returned home from police custody without nails, no one had an idea that he would be involved in a fierce gunfight with forces in Hanjin Pulwama a few days later along with other two Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) militants. As he was calling bullet a bullet, his father, Qadir Kak, was summoned at the encounter site to convince his son to surrender.
In a megaphone, the distraught father raised a cry: “Son, please come out, and surrender. Who is there in my life, except you? Please, for God’s sake, come out…” But perhaps, said Showkat’s friends, the room for persuasion was lost in the custody itself. Later, the father retrieved his son’s body from the rubble.
Since 2010—the year when south Kashmir became militancy’s “new capital”, the rubble sites have thrown up above 40 corpses of new-age militants hailing from Pulwama. Apart from Naseer Pandith, the “crusader” and Ishaq, the “Newton”, when a college student, Ishfaq Baba from Pulwama’s Tahab fled home recently to join militant ranks, there were no prizes for guessing where he had headed.
For a boy who had cut a “humble and humane” image for himself, the only surprising thing for his peer group was that the militancy was perhaps the last resort to settle the matters. But then Baba had his own ideas, which his friends said, were triggered by the security highhandedness in his hometown…
In Lelhaar, the bereaved father sitting restlessly calm inside a makeshift tent was receiving a spell of suggestions: “Patience, brother, patience. God is there for you…” But it took Abdul Hameed Bhat a while to speak that in Shaista, his daughter, he has lost his best buddy.
“She was very close to me,” Bhat, who works in a cement company, said. “I lost my advisor.” Shaista was awaiting her PG results and was dreaming to educate the village kids.
Some distance away, in Ratnipora’s New Colony, two makeshift tents were packed with men and women mourners. The relentless wailing of women had turned the air mournful. Inside one of the tents, Mohammad Farooq Mir was mired in an unsettling mindset: what to do with the money he painstakingly saved all these years to fulfil his son’s wish to buy a Swift car. Days before the car could come, the son became a latest bullet victim.
It was his son, Mir Asif Farooq alias Danish who was shot dead in Lelhaar while running for his life from the cricket stadium. “He was pursuing B Tech from IUST and was a brilliant student,” said the father, unable to control his tears. “I had raised him for twenty years, but they snatched him from me in a jiffy.”
A cricket buff, Asif was supposed to play a routine Sunday match at his own ground. But at last moment, he and his team decided to play the match at Lelhaar ground after finding the home turf slippery. At dusk, his family got him back in a body bag.
But under the security shadow, is there an effort to push Pulwama alter the course it has retained for many years now? Is the new situation making it a new Sopore?
Land of legends like Habba Khatoon, Lal Ded and Mahjoor, Pulwama’s 331 villages are plainly agrarian thriving on milk, apple, paddy, saffron and now, on poultry, too. Milk is a major contributor of its GDP. On account of its high milk production, Pulwama is Kashmir’s Dudh Koul, the milky stream.
Tehsil Pulwama alone produces 100 thousand litres of milk daily—14000 litres produced by corporative, 75,000 litres by private companies and rest by families at local level. “In Pulwama,” said Mohammad Amin Ganai, Director J&K Milk Producers, “Jandwal village produces the highest milk.” The entire 185 families of Jandwal produce 1000 litres a day. Apart from feeding Srinagar, Pulwama’s milk supplies runs deep down to frontier Kupwara.
Also, apple, an important link of Pulwama to Azadpur Mandi, helps the district to stay ‘self-sufficient’. The district is the main manufacturing district after Srinagar as all the major industries operate from there.
But over the years, as dissent peaked in Pulwama, the ‘self-sufficient’ image of the district metamorphosed to a different form. Now, whenever gunfights end up making rubble of residences, the locals get together to reconstruct the razed residences. It began at Naina village where forces recently razed a residence where a militant was holed up. A day after, the villagers contributed to construct the house. By dusk, they had pooled around Rs 11 lakh for the affected family. “This tells you that people of Pulwama are bonded with cause and consequences,” said Mubashir, a local.
But maintaining this community camaraderie is not always easy—especially when the state reacts to contain the dissent by releasing pepper. Amid the reaction, the larger population often finds itself in a hostage situation, like a new father from Kakapora, Saleem.
“The pepper gas almost cost the life of my new-born son recently,” said Saleem, a driver. “Such assaults won’t help the state to wrestle control over Pulwama or its people. It is bound to whip up the rage.”
Recently the same rage almost brought the official operations to a grinding halt in Pulwama. By imposing a self-economic blockade, the town demanded creating a memorial inside Shaheed Park near its busiest square. It took almost a fortnight to get the town back to normal.
Behind the deep-seated sentiment in Pulwama, apparently becoming Kashmir’s new-age militant factory, the security grid believes is its topography. They argue that it is easy to neutralise militant from Kupwara or Sopore than from Pulwama.
“Blame it on the thick woods in the district, which provide safe-haven to militants,” said a top counterinsurgent, a close aide of Altaf Dar, the slain police sleuth. “In fact, Altaf was zeroing in on the militants active from Pulwama by availing the technology which would help track the militant movements inside woods. This is how Altaf was preparing to hunt the top militant Abu Huraira.” The deep pockets inside dense woods, said the officer, helps breeding home-grown militancy.
But not many though subscribe the home-grown militancy theory behind Pulwama’s ascend to anti-establishment dissent.
Being a centrally placed district, it acts as a transient spot for rebels to take refuge, many argued. Among those who think so is PDP’s youth president and Pulwama’s own, Wahid Parra.
“One can’t understand the place and its active politics through holistic approach,” said Parra. “You have to understand its history—as how this district was carved out and passed through different tumultuous phases.”
Pulwama took birth in 1979, the year when the south Kashmir’s Jama’at pockets were bled badly. Behind its creation were the larger state interests of maintenance of law and order, effective grip, closer supervision and balanced development. The district initially got five Tehsils –Shopian, Pulwama, Tral, Pampore and Awantipora. But in 2007, the district was bifurcated in two parts: district Shopian and district Pulwama.
Apart from facing territorial issues, Pulwama faced leadership crisis since its inception. The vintage Mufti’s old Congress guard tried to fill the blank. Among them was Abdul Rehman Parra, the former Congressman and grandpa of Waheed Parra. But the larger public figure kept eluding the district. Later when Mufti and his daughter Mehbooba floated PDP, it thrived in Pulwama by salvaging on Mufti’s old Congress lobby.
But all wooing failed when Pulwama polled dismal in both parliamentary and assembly elections in 2014. “Behind the poll apathy,” said Parra, “there was this strong sense of disconnect and disengagement in youth.” Though all the four assembly seats of Pulwama district—Rajpora, Tral, Pulwama and Pampore—were swept by PDP, but the overall poll percentage dipped.
And then began the noiseless youth engagement programs inside many backward villages of Pulwama. Parra was leading the group aimed at creating “space” and “dignity” for youth, which, he believes, NC always failed to provide.
But even after putting up so much of efforts, Parra feels, it is no cakewalk to manage Pulwama where young generation is deeply influenced by Burhan Wani, the 21-year-old Hizb commander from Tral’s Shareefabad.
“Since its inception, Pulwama could never produce any reckoning voice either from unionist or separatist camps,” said Mushtaq, a trader. By the fall of 2010, Pulwama had Burhan Wani, who shortly rose to become the poster boy of new-age militancy. And soon, Pulwama, the trader said, became receptive and rallied behind the young commander. Later, Burhan’s videos only acted as a catalyst.
Amid this literal ‘hero worship’, Parra admits, that integration of Pulwama youth into unionist camp is a big challenge.
What makes it even more challenging task for the state is the fact that around 65 percent young population of the district seem to understand practicality. They can’t be fooled as they react to the situation differently, said an elder, Abdul Rehman.
Recently when under 10-year-old kids turned up on the highway with stones in their hands, Rehman could only let out a deep sigh. “Those kids,” he said, “were too young to understand the method behind their madness. They were reacting to the particular security setup created around them. This is where it is getting very dangerous. Ask them to back off, and in the next instant, they would dismiss you as a ‘collaborator’. I believe we are staring at the whirling political storm.”
The elder reckons that the inaccessibility of the lawmakers is equally activating Pulwama’s ‘rebel nerve’.
Youth who campaigned for the lawmakers are now feeling let down, said a top officer in Pulwama’s DC office. “Youth are harbouring a sense of defeat,” he said. “And to come out of it, they either settle matters with stones or guns. Just because you are not engaging them, they are engaging state.” The officer even chided the state for trying to celebrate the selective youth of Pulwama and their success stories for sending out the signals of “change”.
The officer was cueing toward the state response after Pulwama threw up toppers in Class 10, 12 most recently. Almost entire state machinery turned up in toppers’ homes to congratulate and felicitate them. Breaking the tradition and political hiatus, the ex-education minister Naeem Akhtar even treaded “forbidden” Tral to congratulate the toppers, thus became the first unionist since nineties to venture into Tral.
“It wasn’t that Pulwama had suddenly excelled in academics,” said Shaheen Sadiq, a teacher from Tral. “It was already known that 5.70 lacs population of Pulwama had a literacy rate of above 65%. But the state sensed the opportunity and went ahead to celebrate the ‘change’ in an attempt to flip the rebel image of the district.”
But amid toppers, Pulwama continued throwing body bags, making experts down in Srinagar believe that the “change”, which state wanted to celebrate amid ‘rising fury’ is not an easy task to accomplish.
What perhaps is equally fuelling this fury is the approach adopted by counterinsurgent agencies. The townspeople calling themselves “peaceniks” argued that the “joint force” which often “acts on a tip-off and cordon the area” are mainly into number game.
“When was the last time a militant walked out alive from the encounter site?” asked Imtiyaz, a law graduate. “This won’t happen because every militant carries a price tag and killing is only natural course for the ‘joint force’.” Surrender carries no incentives, he stressed.
But as blood continue to drench Pulwama’s ‘killing fields’, the budding lawyer said, the modus operandi adopted by forces is bound to escalate the militancy. “It is like, first you push somebody’s brother or friend on extreme path and then you kill him, and then expect, there will be no fallouts.” In fact, this sensibility is also finding admirers in security apparatus.
A top counterinsurgent who is lately showing an olive branch to youth believes that even jailing the youth is becoming a crisis for the state. “In today’s time, even if you jail a pickpocket, he will come out a Jihadist,” the officer argued. Besides army’s “insensitive approach” by bragging over its “intelligence networks” in Press every now and then after killing a militant is also said to be a factor behind the “rising” anti-state temper in Pulwama.
“Such irresponsible statements,” argued a PDP leader, “only trigger rage and sense of retribution. You see, after killing this IUST student (Asif) lately in Pulwama, do they think his friends or college mates won’t react. Let me tell you, my own interaction with youth tells me that they aren’t going to swallow a bitter pill of insults in silence unlike their predecessors.”
Meanwhile in Lelhaar, the mourning was only getting intense. Although the father was putting up a calm face, behind him, Shaista’s mother was repeatedly pleading her slain daughter for one last reunion: “Myane khooni mehraane… Myani shaheed koori… Gamas kya kare…” It was then an elder woman’s voice resounded: “Control yourself, my daughter. Just look at me, I have seen five dead bodies coming from my home. Leave it to God. He will do the justice.”
Then, the father managed to mince some words: “I would call my two daughters as totey (parrot) and hier (sparrow). My daughter Fahmeeda was hier, while Shaista was my tote.”
It was then somebody cried from outside: “Hier kassey treavthan, Totey…”