Snatched Livelihood

Almost ten years after the army laid a siege around a cluster of villages in Drugmulla and occupied their paddy fields, the villagers are waiting to be compensated. Some of the affected families are at the brink of starvation with their land, their source of livelihood now a transit convoy camp for the army. Mudasir Majeed reports.

With a gaunt face and sunken eyes, this frail old man hobbles with the aid of crutches. Mohammed Subhanwani, 71, of Drugmulla village in Kupwara district has been living a life of misery and financial ruin since the day his land was grabbed by army in a nocturnal operation in 2002.

Physically challenged and dispossessed, Subhan now barely manages to feed his family. His only source of livelihood,a piece of paddy land is a part of a transit camp for convoys and a helipad in Drugmulla-Fakirpora Army Cantonment constructed in 2002.

“I have a large family. For some time it was possible to manage the daily expenditure because of my elder daughter, but last year we married her off. Since then we have been grappling with destitution,” says Subhan.

“My daughter would do tailoring and earn a few rupees to keep the family going. But after her marriage we are starving. For days sometimes we have nothing to eat except bread,”he says.

Abdul Rashid, a local resident,recalled the incident that plunged many families into extreme poverty since their land was forcibly taken away by the army.“It was January 2002 when the army from Drugmulla cantonment laid a nighttime cordon and closed off all routes leading to and out of Fakirpora (Drugmulla-Kupwara).

No one was allowed to nudge out. After a strict cordon for three consecutive days, with troops checking the movement of people, we were allowed to move out. It was a completely different scene. The 64-kanals paddy field which belonged to people of three villages had been turned to a fortress.”

“We protested, when we found our land fenced off, but we were beaten by the police. We didn’t want to give our land but everyone had the apprehension before its takeover that army would grab it forcibly as they had already approached us asking they wanted it but we had denied, ” recounts Rashid.

He says the people here don’t have any other source to sustain their families. “The land was the only thing they had. The harvest it yielded would feed them. Moreover, they would sell surplus to shopkeepers to be able to send their children to school.”

“But now there are many families who don’t even get one-time meal properly. Many had to stop educating their children, ” Rashid says.

To  Subhan, the sun would rise while he would be watering his land and dusk would come and he would still be there making sure that every inch of his farm is properly watered.

“Before my land was occupied by army, I would spend most of nights there during paddy season, irrigating the whole farm. Most of the time there would be no reason behind my daily visits. But still it gave me a feeling of tranquility and satisfaction. To a farmer there is no bigger wealth or a refreshing feeling than his farm,” says Subhan.

“But where shall I go now? What will happen to my family? My children are too young. I am becoming weak day by day with my deteriorating health. I have to marry off my other daughter and also bring up two young children. If I die what will happen to them? Had the land been in our possession, I would have no worries,”says Subhan in a mournful tone.

Other families whose land was forcibly taken away for the army transit camp are now similar stories of distress.

Mala Begum, a 55-year-old widow too walks with the help of crutches like Subhan. She has been living in a perforated shack alone for the past many years. Mala has no children. Her husband Ghulam Mohammed died a year after the family land was taken over by the army.

“We did not have much land. It was only 3-kanals. But for us, it was enough. It would yield ricethat would keep us going for a whole year. They dispossessed us of it and pushed us on the verge of starvation. Had my neighbors not been kind to me I would have died of starvation,“Says Mala.

“My husband died of brain-hemorrhage caused extreme stress due to snatching away of our land by army. Now, my neighbors raise some money and give it to me. That is how I survive. Had my land not been under army, I wouldn’t have been a burden on my neighbors.”

The villagers had resisted the takeover of their land tooth and nail, but to no avail. The police according to the villagers had swung into action, sided with the army and cane charged the protesting villagers for raising a voice against the army.

The 64-kanals of land that was once apaddy fieldis a flat concrete ground now.In place of their green paddy, the villagers now see prefab structures, watch towers, steel walls and concertina razor wire and bulky iron gates with what the locals call ‘astonishing graffiti’ on them…JawaanAurAwaam, Amanhai Muqaam, The year of no human rights violation, and ‘The year of Kashmiri Awaam.

Javid Ahmad, another resident, says, “It shocks me whenever I read these messages. What do they want to convey? Why are they fooling people by calling themselves the saviors of Kashmiri Awaam? Why this humanity drama? People die here of starvation and thearmy is the reason. They snatched our land. Many people here had to stop sending their children to school, left with just two options – send them (children) to schools or feed them.”

“If the army seriously wants to be the messiah for us, then let them vacate our land or pay the amount as per the current market rate. Let the army prove the loud messages of aman (peace), it has been circulating,” saysJavid.
The villagers have approached every concerned civilian authority for relief. They complain that no has been willing to help them because it involves the army.

“Since 2002, we have seen three chief ministers coming to power. All of them, whether Mufti Syed, Azad or Omar Abdullah, assured us that we would be compensated, but nothing happened,”says Abdul Rashid Mir, a member of the Land Victims’ Committee, a body of the affected villagers following the case for the last nine years.

Despite periodic assurances from the state government nothing seems to have been done for the affected families. “We are told every time that the issue has been settled and there is a small dispute now which too would be cleared soon but no progress is seen. We are fed the same age-old sugar coated pills every time,”complains Rashid.

He denounces the state government saying, “the government played anunforgiving role at the time when army forced our stay inside the houses. It (the government)helped them (the army) to grabour land comfortably.”

According to current market rates, the villagers say each kanal of land here costs a million rupees. They say the victim families should at least be compensated accordingly.

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