Hussain Danish takes us around Srinagar to feel what life has been like in areas where some of security forces’ bunkers were removed recently. Residents in bunkerless areas are feeling big relief, but can others look forward to a similar change or de-securitization would be a pipe dream?
It is a little past ten in the night, pitch dark around, but the newly constructed shopping complex, Block 13, at Hawal near Islamia College is however buzzing under shopping lights.
Apparently unmindful of the night hour, Shahid Farooq is busy attending to customers at his Cream Bells ice-cream parlour on the ground floor. Adjacent is the Food Town, a consumer goods store, where his brother, Zahid Farooq, is looking after a few shoppers.
Close by, donning a pheran, old Zoone is talking to her son Muhammad Jabar, who is still expecting customers at his four-by-eight feet grocery store.
For a city without any noticeable night life, where working had for more than twenty years been possible only between 8am and 8pm, it is a significant change. The neighbourhood square used to be one of the (in)famous passage ways in the city before it became the shoppers stop for housewives, a hangout for the young and a market for Zoone to do some business.
A memorial for seventy-two civilians were killed in 1990 just a few yards away from the shopping complex that has replaced a demolished bunker is hard to miss for a discerning eye. The memorial has all the victims’ names inscribed on it. Paramilitary soldiers opened fire on the funeral procession of Maulvi Muhammad Farooq in May 1990 at the very spot.
Till about recently, the forces were deployed in the bunker that existed around the corner where the shopping complex now stands. For decades, the setting sun used to be like an alarm for people to hurry home and for men in uniform to come out on the blocked road, searching every private vehicle passing by. The fear associated with the bunker lived till it became one of the 16 strategically chosen ones removed from within the city in phase one of strategic redeployment of government forces.
Sprouting of sand-bagged bunkers was the first response to eruption of armed militancy in Kashmir. In the beginning, setting up of bunkers was a major problem. Usually, the paramilitary BSF, and at places like Batamaloo where it was the army, would cordon off a locality and start setting up bunkers, temporary dwelling units and observation posts for security men to operate from.
Bunkers, built with sand bags and tin roofing, were first emphatic signs of reclaiming the territory from armed militants. These units would become eyes and ears of the counter-insurgency grid and would help closing the exit routes for rebels as and when required. Usually these check-points are demarcated with coils concertina razor-wire and nets spread over them to prevent damage from grenades that militants would tossed towards them. Automatic rifle barrels and Small Machine guns protruded towards the people outside from small gun sills the bunkers have on all sides. This reality is ubiquitous across Kashmir. In certain cases soldiers manning these bunkers would record the happenings around using cameras and telescopes as well.
Later, some of these bunkers were only camouflaged with sand bags from outside when concrete structures using brick and cement replaced the actual bunkers from inside. Primarily driven by the fear of the explosive rockets that at earlier stages would often be fired their way by militants, a permanency started to appear about their existence. Some bunkers looking shabby from outside were actually multi-storeyed premises that would house sizeable groups of soldiers at a time. Even kitchens were set up inside many of them.
At a number of places within and outside Srinagar, the bunkers also were a major hurdle in vehicular movement and on many routes – one whole side of a road would remain in permanent disuse. (It is like that even today near Ikhwan hotel because the security men close one side of the main road during nights.) The only exception on record dates back to 2007 in which the Srinagar deputy commissioner physically removed a newly set up concrete bunker fearing a larger crisis for movement of traffic.
Bunkers were the instant targets of the militants. From frequent grenades and rockets sent flying their way, bunkers remained regardless of the costs to their inhabitants. As militants were targeting the bunkers, the people living or working around these installations would most often become potential targets in the retaliation from soldiers inside them. In January 2010, when militants attacked the bunker in Lal Chowk and later took refuge in a near-by hotel, the central business square remained closed for more than week demanding removal of the bunker. Though shop keepers and other businesses operating from there were assured the bunker would be removed within three months, 18 months have passed but the bunker stays as good an existence as the debris of Palladium cinema and the reasons for its condition.
Given the interventions bunkers would have around the immediate locality surrounding it, these became the sign posts of resentment and hate. Some of the worst incidents actually came about because of the bunkers.
On April 10, 1993 when locals set afire a just-abandoned bunker near Lal Chowk, it triggered a crisis. In the conflagration that was allegedly initiated by the Border Guards as many as 59 houses, 190 shops, 53 go-downs, and two office complexes were burnt down besides more than a dozen civilians charred to death. Lal Chowk was smouldering for four days.
At the peak of the political unrest in 2008 and 2010, a number of bunkers were attacked across Kashmir. Some were dismantled or set on fire by irate crowds of protesters.
During Ghulam Nabi Azad led government when attacks on bunkers had ebbed and militancy had waned, the government publicly said the bunkers present a war-ravaged look of Srinagar, de-motivates the tourist and hurts the feel-good factor. So a decision was taken to remodel the bunkers.
So in the first phase, most of the bunkers from airport to Shalimar were ‘re-modeled’. While some of them got well varnished beautiful wooden hut-like exteriors, many were converted from sandbagged structures to concrete and ‘pleasant’ looking ones. During the first phase three lakh rupees at the rate of 20,000 per unit were spent to beautify bunkers. All these bunkers had steel casing from inside that the wood shrouded from outside view. It did trigger a debate with some of the separatists saying the move was aimed at “camouflaging” the situation, something that government had already said.
A senior police officer went on record saying: “We don’t want to make tourists think of Kashmir as a battlefield,” adding, “The new bunkers are not only good looking but very safe as well.” A senor CRPF officer who executed the project said the re-modeled bunkers merge well with the background and people cannot find the “dirty looking bunkers” anymore.
It was only after the 2010 agitation that policy makers in the state and the central governments started thinking of some “concessions”. The one that topped the idea list was removing some of the bunkers from Srinagar city.
In the first week of October, the CRPF removed 16 bunkers from across Srinagar. This marked the beginning of the implementation of some CBMs which were projected as an “eight point package” announced by home minister P Chidambaram. The decision was the outcome of the Unified Headquarters meeting that chief minister Omar Abdullah chaired. Next day the newspapers front-paged a photograph showing a huge crowd in Magharmal Bagh watching the CRPF removing the bunker that was there for over 20 years. Some of the bunkers “removed” were not operational because they had been dismantled by protesters in Hazrtabal and Soura areas during the summer unrest.
Removal of just 16, out of the estimated 400 that exist in Srinagar, triggered a controversy with army claiming a shootout in November at Qamarwari happened because some bunkers were removed. “The decision to cut-down the number of troops and removal of bunkers may have impressed militants and their supportive Pakistan agencies but what will happen to the common man of Kashmir? Militant attacks, moving of administration to Jammu has made everyone apprehensive,” an army spokesman said. It triggered a larger issue between the government and the army that eventually died down with army backtracking under central government pressure. A junior officer who had issued the statement from Udhampur was allegedly shifted out.
Some more bunkers were demolished in December and in February 2011, 12 more bunkers were removed taking the total number to 39, mostly in the old city. Though most of the bunkers are still in place, it has started making a difference.
“A few months ago, we could not even think of keeping the shop open till 11 PM. In presence of the bunker, the fear was too much for anyone to come out of the house in the dark,” says Shahid. “Today I fearlessly stay at the shop for so long. And I receive maximum customers in the late hours. There is no fear.”
Shahid was born in the house-turned- shopping-complex and continues to reside with his family in its upper storey. Zoone too has spent most part of her married life watching the “fearsome bunker” unmoved at the corner.
“I remember when the bunker was here, the forces used to spread razor- wire on the sides of the road after the dark. The bunker was spread on both sides of the road and there were times when no one was even allowed to move from here. It was a very fearsome sight,” said Zoone with her wrinkled face exhibiting what she has witnessed. “We used to close our shop at seven in the evening, but now there is no fear even if we work till midnight. We have customers pouring in till very late in the night.”
Like Shahid and Zoone, many residents across Srinagar city are sensing a degree of relief with the removal of bunkers, after having lived under their shadow for two decades. In fact a complete generation was born and brought up under the shadow of the sand-bagged bunkers lining the cityscape.
On both sides of Jhelum the temporary structures of mud demarcated with stones or coils of concertina wire stood at every nook and corner, carefully watching over every movement. The nets spread over them were strategically placed to bounce back any hand grenade or explosive tossed towards bunkers.
Today the major squares in the Valley are looking more spacious than ever in absence of the bunkers. Civilian movement has become uninterrupted in areas where bunkers have vanished.
Over the years, the presence of bunkers in the city has resulted in causalities. For instance, in July 2006, Inayatullah Bhat, 30, a handicapped musician was shot dead by CRPF men—they were deployed in the camp in the neighbourhood—outside his shop at Munawarabad Srinagar. The spot was later renamed as ‘Shaheed Inayat’ Chowk.
The bunkers have kept reminding people of the violence they have witnessed around them and the scars left behind.
“I remember around one and half years ago, at around 6: 30 PM unidentified persons hurled a grenade at the bunker from this side of the road. I was having three customers at my shop. It exploded a little short of the bunker,” recollects Me’raj-ud-din of Khar Mohalla, who runs a provision store at Shampora near police station Nowhatta.
“Within minutes, a large contingent of the forces arrived here. It felt as if an entire brigade had been rushed to this spot. They (soldiers) cordoned off the area and cornered me. Then they started enquiring from me about the person who had hurled grenade. Luckily I was let go.”
Me’raj’s shop is at a stone-throw from the three-way road junction where the triplet of bunkers constructed in close proximity with Valley’s largest graveyard Malakhah stood until recently.
Since the removal of bunkers the emptied space at the square is looking rejuvenated. The landscape suddenly looks pleasantly familiar with old landmarks visible again.
An armored CRPF vehicle is standing a little distance away with a man in uniform on guard near its door.
Me’raj has been doing business here for more than two decades, internalizing the fear among the people that appears going away now.
“No one could dare venture near the bunker even during daytime. The very presence of the bunker was terrifying,” he says. “And to add to it, every evening three armored vehicles used to be deployed here for protection of the bunkers.”
“But the scenario has changed,” he narrates. “I myself shut my shop after 11pm. And I have customers coming in even after that.”
Pointing towards a CRPF vehicle across the road, he says: “Just this vehicle remains here till 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Then we do not even see any policeman on the road.”
A little distance away at Khanyar, the newly exposed police picket has replaced the bunker as landmark in the middle of the road. The youth of the area do not even remember having seen it even before the bunker was removed.
“I never knew that there was picket over here,” says adolescent Irfan Ahmad Sofi, attending to his father’s room-turned-provisional store in the ground floor of their house.
“Ever since I was born, I have only seen the bunker there. It has been there longer than my age.”
Every evening, residents say, the forces used to block one side of the road with concertina wire, directing the traffic movement strictly to one side of the road. The blockade used to be removed only in the morning.
“I remember one morning a student dared to slip pass the wire. The CRPF men stopped him and as a punishment he was forced to circle around the bunker three times,” says a bearded elderly citizen, Farooq Khan (name changed).
The bunker existed a few meters away from the shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani (RA). It had become a hurdle for those offering evening Namaz at the shrine, residents say.
“Those days there used to militant attacks almost every evening. Every time the bunker was made the target. Out of fear, those having to pass it on way to their home preferred to take the alternative route,” Farooq says. “We have our shops open till late in the evening now. People can move around with ease and above all there is little fear. Khanyar looks rejuvenated since the removal of the bunker.”
The locals have placed a temporary divider on the road to prevent accidents. The picket has been left unattended while across the road the space that was under the bunker has become a de facto bus-stop.
For years kashmiris have stayed away from the squares housing bunkers. Stepping inside the wire fence was a strict no and could turn lethal in case of an attack. Or, it meant a question on the identity that could only be established with some documentary evidence.
“Some six months ago no one could dare come this close to this corner because there was bunker here, a big one with net spread all over it. The CRPF men inside felt offended whenever someone step closer to the bunker. And consequently, they would ask the offender’s identity,” says Khalil Ahmad of Magarmal bagh where a bunker was constructed at the entrance of a Pandit house.
“I myself have been asked to show the identity card many times. But thankfully this is no more a no-go-zone,” he says.
The bunkers, according to the social activists, have become a disturbing part of people’s lives tending to normalize the abnormal. But the associated fear has decreased now with some of them gone.
“Seeing the bunker at the same spot for more than two decades had made the bunkers a part of people’s daily lives. Many a time the CRPF men (deployed in the bunkers) would ask our children to purchase them their daily-use goods like cigarette etc.,” says Zarief Ahmaf Zarief, a poet cum social activist.
“Naturally, the fear associated with the bunkers had declined in past eight years or so,” he says.
Zarief, however, terms the situation as a fever in which removal of bunkers is just a relaxed degree. He says the need is also to remove bunkers from rural areas also.
The removal of bunkers was suggested by the interlocutors appointed by the centre in the aftermath of 2010 unrest. The suggestion came during their initial visits to Kashmir after realizing the indignity experienced by the people in presence of bunkers.
“A common Kashmiri feels disgraced and hurt when any security man calls him or her thrice a day for frisking out on the street. This practice needs to be done away with,” they suggested in one of their initial visits to Kashmir.
The move has also seen appreciation from the separatist quarters who believed the bunkers were giving a sense of military occupation to the people.
“It is a welcome step but there is a need to remove more bunkers from Srinagar and other towns,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was quoted as saying by a news agency.
“The step should not be a symbolic one. The change should be visible on the ground and a step towards demilitarisation of the region,” he had said.
The officials say the decision was taken “strategically” for giving s sense of relief to the people.
“Over the years there has been a significant decline in militancy. Also given the unrest in past three years, there was a need to give a sense of relief to the people. So the state government took the decision strategically in consultation with the CRPF officials,” a senior CRPF official says, on the condition of anonymity.
The city is not completely devoid of bunkers though. At many places like old Chanapora they stand in the form of camps, covering major portion of the road space.
“But the process to remove the bunkers is still on. And more bunkers may be removed in the near future,” claims the official.
Psychiatrists agree that the removal of bunkers can bring psychological relief to the people.
“The society had become used to the presence of bunkers. Removing some will make people feel relieved because psychologically they will sense that something has been done,” says Dr Arshad Hussain who for many years has been helping patients of post traumatic stress disorder at government psychiatric disease hospital Srinagar.