Smouldering Shopian

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The smallest district in J&K but one of the most prosperous ones, Shopian has gone twice into mass mournings this year. After the six boys, two of them militants, were lowered into their graves for eternity, Muhammad Younis spent time in seeking an answer to the riddle: why are apple hills afire?

It was a coincidence as if scripted to “suit” a crisis. On March 5, the day when people in Shopian were busy laying six young men, killed in previous evening shootout at Pahnoo, into the graves, came a news break from Delhi. The J&K government informed the Supreme Court that they have not mentioned the name of Major Aditya Kumar in the case of January 27, firing in Ganavpora, in which three civilians were mowed down.

“We know the logical conclusion now,” the people said when asked about the fate of the latest shooting incident, which included four more civilians, taking the toll up to seven in the current year. The sarcasm was aimed at none other the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who had insisted, that come what may, the (Gunovpora) case would be taken to logical conclusion. The state police had boasted about identifying the unit and the officer involved. But when the “identified” Major’s father, also a soldier, went to the Supreme Court to stay proceedings on the FIR against the army, including his son, the government denied having named him. On social media, however, nobody could put a curtain on the FIR copy which went viral with the Major’s name marked.

 “We have seen the worst phases of Indian democracy in Kashmir. We know how things are hushed up here,” said Muhammad Shafi Khan, a learned man, who lives in Pinjura. Shafi was one of the members of the Action Committee which came into being to investigate the Asiya-Nelofer case of 2009 in Shopian.

Within a radius of a few kilometres from Gunovpora, done with the burial, people gathered in the courtyard of a magnificent two-story building of Khaleel Wagay in Pinjura. Suhail, one of the four civilians killed at Pahnoo, was his son.

Coincidently, this shootout also involved the 44-Rashtriya Rifles, the particular army battalion that was charged for Gunovpora killings. The army here claimed the said persons were Over Ground Workers (OGW), as in the incident one militant was also killed. The families, however, refuted the allegations of their wards being OGWs.

Suhail’s uncle, Gulzar Ahmad, describing how his nephew had reached the spot, said, at 2 pm the previous day, Suhail had chauffeured his mother in his Swift car JK04D-7253 to Pahli Pora, 3 km away, where the daughter of the family is married. He was supposed to bring her back at 6 pm. And during the intervening time, he dropped home the labourers, hired for pruning their apple orchard. So it took him time, and he couldn’t make to his mother well on time.

“We called him at 7.24 pm to know the reasons why hadn’t he gone to pick up his mother, and he said that he had dropped almost all the labourers home, but one, Nawaz Ahmad Wagay, and within 10 minutes, after dropping him at his home in Trenz, he would come back to his sister’s place to pick his mother,” Gulzar said.

On February 29, Suhail’s elder brother had accompanied their father, Khaleel Ahmad, to Dehli for treatment. This left Suhail in-charge of everything at home. Khaleel owns many orchards and a little more than a dozen people find employment in his orchards. The family sells more than 5000 boxes of apple, a season.

After hanging up the phone, barely five minutes after, a volley of bullets were heard in the area. “Afraid about Suhail’s safety, we again tried to call him at 7.31pm, but his phone was switched off,” Gulzar added. Then, through the internet we got to know about his killing and “it broke our back.” In the car, apart from Suhail and Nawaz, the dead body of Shahid Khan of Malik Gund, a neighbouring village, was also found. “Suhail might have given him a lift.”

It was on Monday morning that body of Gowhar Ahmad Lone of  Moolu, an M-P Ed student, was recovered, 200 metres away from the WagonR, he had been driving. “There were marks of bullet shots scattered across the body of the vehicle but no marks of blood were found in the car and one arm of Gowhar was completely broken,” said one of the relatives of Gowhar. Gowhar was “alone in the car”, and was coming home from Pinjura as he had called his family a little before he was killed at Pahnoo.

Until the time Suhail was killed, Gulzar said, the family was delinked from all parties, political or separatists. “But now whatever has happened with us, we will remember the same for upcoming hundred years,” Gulzar said. “This oppression, let me say, is only solidifying the edifice of our struggle for justice.” He said they know their son was only a civilian, and the family neither expect nor want justice from the government.

Counting more than a dozen “suspended” cases in Shopian, including the recent Ganovpora killings, Gulzar stopped at Asiya-Nelofer twin-rape case of 2009 to point out how the particular case, like the rest, never saw a fair investigation, and was hushed up finally.

“It was that case which became the bedrock of whatever the region has come to,” Gulzar said. “The denial of justice in the case forced the youth to pick up the guns.”

“Shopian hasn’t forgotten that case really,” admits Shafi Khan. “People are dismayed with the state of justice. The CBI, to whom the case was given, wrecked the whole up. Mehbooba who had come to the town then to seek justice for the victims has never filliped the page over after becoming Chief Minister and is silent now. Perhaps we ourselves were not also serious about the issue.” All these things, Khan believes, rebound from time to time, and this is the reason behind the situation in Shopian.

At present, there are about 41 local militants active in the small district. An insider in local police revealed that after Gunovpora killings, a little less than half a dozen new recruits have joined rebels. “It is all about the area that comes under our jurisdiction. I don’t know what the situation with the rest of the district is,” divulged the insider.

In town’s Sheikh Mohala, where Shabir Ahmad Kulay, a lawyer and National Conference (NC) leader, lives, the feeling was of loss and revenge. He claimed he was bracing for fighting a legal battle of Gunovpora in the Supreme Court. “By now, it was between the centre and state governments,” Kulay said. “The state government has already backed off by saying that they haven’t included the name of Major in the FIR… but we won’t let it go as such,” Kulay claimed of having the FIR copy mentioning Major Aditya as accused.

“Earlier, during our tenure, there was the option for people, at least, to file a case, and the police could conduct an investigation; and at a later stage, the army could save its soldiers against any prosecution. But now, the Supreme Court of India has basically said the police should not conduct even investigations,” Kulay said indignantly. “It is only because of the incumbent coalition that everything escapes from accountability.”

Drawing comparison between NC and PDP, he said his government always took the responsibility of whatever happened during their tenure. “Omar Abdullah even sobbed out in the assembly his helplessness in answering the father of a youth killed by forces during our tenure…  but didn’t you hear Mehbooba Mufti once saying that the kids don’t go near an army camp to get toffees… If this isn’t arrogance of power, then what is it?”

But why the youth opt for the gun?

Kulay said people in his region are politically conscious and inexorable. “The time has come to such a level that everyone wants to become a militant here. I tell you if the weapon is available, the youth won’t look back in joining militancy.

“During the bad times of our tenure in 2009-10, it’s a record when there was a  recruitment of SPO’s, not a single person applied for the same that shows the commitment of the people towards the ongoing struggle.”

The significance of Shopian in Kashmir is not determined by its size. Right now, it is one of the smallest districts in India. Its location has contributed to its importance. For centuries, before 1947, it has remained the gateway to Kashmir because it is the first Kashmir town on Mughal Road. Witness to many battles for power and succession in history, Shopian would know things much before even Srinagar, the City of Kashmir would have a whiff of it.

Women participating in the funeral of slain youth.

The place has also played host to various social and religious movements in history. Some of the co-founders of Jamaat-e-Islami in J&K, like Ghulam Mohammad Ahrar, Hakeem Ghulam Nabi and Molvi Mohammad Amin, belonged to Shopian. “In fact, the first Ijtimah (congregation) of Jammat in Kashmir took place at Shopian in 1941 at a place known as Badami Bagh,” said Shafi Khan. “This has contributed to the early political awakening in the region.”

Adding to the credit, the spread of Ahl-i Hadith movement in Kashmir also goes to Shopian. Maulana Anwar Shah Shopiani was one of its pioneers, who later become its president for several years, besides, being Imam of the Central Jamia Ahl-i Hadith Masjid in Srinagar.

Off late, the Shopian region has evolved into a prosperous belt as its better economy has helped improve it financially. Seen as Kashmir’s main ‘apple hills’, it produces almost two lakh tons of apple. The wide disbursal of the apple orchards has given a sort of fair balance in growth and social mobility and the education.

Muhammad Amin Peer, who heads Shopian’s Fruit and Vegetable Mundi, said, “In 2016, when the situation was quite tense, we suffered massive economic losses as we couldn’t send our fruit outside, but the whole area always abided to the call of the shutdown. In 2017, the mundi remained open for the whole year, and the trade was better.”

Better incomes have given Shopian a definite status in prosperity. It is one the few areas in Kashmir which is exhibiting a mass appetite for credit indicate better economic activities. The credit to deposit ratio is 113.64 percent, the highest in J&K, which means the banks have to mobilise more money from other districts to manage its credit appetite. Interestingly it the second lowest NPA districts in Kashmir having only Rs 980 crore advances of which only Rs 18.73 crore is stressed which make a percentage of 1.91 percent. The current NPA percentage across the state is 5.86.

But it is the conflict that is eating the vitals of the place. In Pinjura, on either bank of the local canal, there are two Fruit Research Centre to help growers in pre and post-harvest. “But now, it is like they are defunct; because both are occupied by the armed forces and people are afraid to go there,” said Amin. “It simply pisses off the people and the anger is growing.”

In the periphery of Shopian, there was a huge walnut processing unit at Chowdhary Gund. It was undone in the initial days of militancy, as that of Bihibagh. Now the spaces of the two walnut processing units are home to two major garrisons in the belt.

Face to face with crisis women participating in the funeral prayers of slain youth.

At New Colony Meemandar, a Shopian satellite, the house of Muhammad Yousuf Bhat, the incumbent PDP MLA and a lawyer, is in a dilapidated condition. It has been subject to attacks by angry youth for many times now. In fact, a grenade was also lobbed over it during 2016 protests.

“When there is a disproportionate use of force against civilians, things would turn bad for sure,” Bhat said on phone from Jammu, where he is currently stationed. “No circumstances can justify these civilian killings. Until the basic sentiments of the people are addressed here, till then the problem would remain there in one or the other form.” Pertinently the district witnessed relaying of at least half a dozen garrisons since the 2016 unrest.

Expressing ignorance about his government volte-face of not having named Major Aditya in Ganovpora case, Bhat said he hasn’t changed his stance. “Then and now again, I demand the army men named in the FIR, in connection with the killing of the youth be arrested immediately and inquiry should be taken to its logical conclusion,” Bhat said. “With the backing of AFSFA, you can’t save the culprits.”

Admitting that he has not been able to deliver anything in his constituency during his tenure, Bhat said the situation has turned so volatile in his region that he couldn’t even interact with his voters.

But this crisis exists at all levels. “I’m doing my duty, I don’t know what is happening in Shopian,” a police officer, who refused a meeting during the day, told on the phone, later. Tried to be reminded of his position in the district, the officer got riled up and hung the phone.

All in all, the situation in Shopian has created a vacuum. While Bhat is operating from Jammu and might be remotely connected to some of his workers, Kulay’s house is barbed all over. At Suhail’s home, his family believes they live a life of a compromise. “Normal is when our son would have returned after doing his work,” Gulzar said. They do not know that the police have also lodged FIR in Pahnoo case in which all the slain are accused of murder. Seemingly, the FIR is an official conclusion of the story. There is nobody who survived the shootout to tell the story. A strange coincidence again?

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