Hailing from a political family, Panthers Party MLC Rafiq Shah made forays in politics early in his life. Known for being outspoken in the house of elders, he tells Bilal Handoo as why North Kashmir often simmers in dissidence and also spares some words about Keran situation.
Kashmir Life: Say something about your background?
Rafiq Shah: I am from historical Trehgam village of district Kupwara and belong to a political family. My father, Syed Sulaiman Shah Sahab is one of the oldest workers of Congress party. My grandfather, Syed Gulab Shah Sahab was member of Muslim Conference and worked alongside Chawdhary Ghulam Abbas. I have done post-graduation in Urdu and after that took admission in Law. When I was still pursuing Law, I became Jammu and Kashmir Member Legislative Council (MLC) in 2009 from Panthers Party.
KL: But you didn’t mention how and why you choose Panthers Party to start your political career?
RS: Yes, I was coming to that. I was studying in Class 10 when I met Panthers Party Supremo, Prof Bhim Singh in a public rally in Handwara. It was late Abdul Gani Lone, who introduced me to Singh Sahab there. I liked his nature and soon made up my mind to join his party. I contested my first election on Panther’s Party ticket in 1996 from Langate Constituency. After that, I contested parliament election twice. In 2008, I again contested assembly elections. I have held different postings in the party. I was district president and state secretary of the Party, besides its only MLC.
KL: Since you belong to North Kashmir where disturbances keep hogging headlines. Where do you think lies the epicenter of trouble there?
RS: See, most areas of North Kashmir are closer to Line of control (LoC). And ever since the valley got divided between India and Pakistan in 1947, the people there feel ignored and alienated. In fact, successive state governments neglected people from North. There are issues of unemployment, road-connectivity and electricity in the region. As an MLC, I think development should have happened at ground level. Apart from all these essential issues, one can’t turn a blind eye to the main issue: the Kashmir issue. The whole world has accepted it. So I think, as long as it is there, the ire from north won’t subside.
KL: But are LoC skirmishes on rise in north Kashmir?
RS: I won’t deny they aren’t. You see, Kashmir is divided between nuclear powers: India, Pakistan and China. So, every now and then, we get to hear about cease-firing violations, border infiltrations and encounters.
KL: And how does it impact on people living near LoC?
RS: Well, the impact is deplorable and is palpable since 1947. Scores of people from Gujjar community living near LoC got badly affected. Be it Poonch, Kupwara or Baramulla, trouble near LoC always takes its toll on people living there. When militancy erupted in the valley in 1989, people in north suffered a great deal. Frequent firing and heavy bombardments near LoC compelled many people to migrate from the region. You might remember during nineties, curfew would be imposed after 5pm in the evening there. This put people at great inconvenience, besides scores of people and livestock became collateral damage. But the ordeal for them is far from over. Indian troops termed people of the region as agents who facilitate militants to cross LoC, while, militants dubbed them hand in glove with government forces. I believe people became victims of counter perceptions that led to their identity crisis.
KL: As you said, people migrated from the region, where did they take refuge after migration?
RS: People migrated towards both sides of LoC. I along with my family migrated to Jammu in 1993 when militancy was at its peak. Most of my relatives also migrated to Jammu and with the passage of time became rooted there. You see, disturbances near LoC separated sons from their mothers. My family has personally bore the brunt of migration. In 1947, three brother of my grandfather migrated to Pakistan and couldn’t return till now. The wife and son of my granduncle remained on this side of divide, while he remained on the other side of it. He wasn’t allowed to come back. The line of division was drawn on our chests. All these things collectively simmer north.
KL: The recent Keran episode is still a mystery. Since you hail from North Kashmir, do you have any idea about the ground situation out there?
RS: There are many statements regarding the situation in Keran. But as somebody who lives nearby, let me tell you half area of village Shalbatti is already under the occupation of Pakistan since 1947. There is no factuality in reports that the village has been occupied by Pakistan troops in recent times. When arms movement started in the valley in 1989, heavy firing compelled some 35 to 50 households of Shalbatti to migrate to Pakistan controlled Kashmir. Their property is still here. Shallbatti is divided between India and Pakistan.
KL: But you aren’t making the picture of Keran clear?
RS: Right now, people are migrating from Keran to safer parts of North Kashmir. From Jhumagarh and Keran, people fled to Kupwara. People from North often find themselves at the receiving end. To safeguard national interest is fine, but that should not always come at the cost of our lives.
KL: Army says it has foiled major infiltration bid of militants in the area…
RS: See, army is right party to comment on that. But in my personal capacity, I would say that instead of getting involved in maintaining law and order problems, running goodwill programs and volunteering for developmental programs, army should focus to maintain strict vigil on LoC. You see, as long as infiltration won’t occur from LoC, bomb blasts won’t occur in Srinagar and elsewhere. You know, wire in LoC is 10 feet wide. Some reports even suggest that electric current is running through these guarding wires. The question is how militants are still sneaking inside the Valley in spite of such preventive measures in place. There should be a thorough inquiry into these matters.
KL: Many reports suggest that the situation in Keran is a matter of concern. Is it really that serious?
RS: Right now, army is not allowing us to visit the area. Army general is saying that situation is under the control…
KL: No, tell me what is your assessment of the situation in Keran right now?
RS: My sources are saying that people are migrating from the area. I can’t say whether Pakistan has occupied some land near LoC or not.
KL: One last question, are militants still sneaking inside the Valley from LoC?
RS: Let me tell you, LoC is heavily guarded area which is intercepted by wires with live current. It is humanly impossible for anybody to cross that barrier. If at all, some sneaking is still happening, then those who are guarding it must be held accountable for this. Let me also tell you, Kashmiris youth don’t cross LoC anymore. As per movement of militants into this part of Kashmir is concerned, then it is border security forces who are right party to answer it.