The New Outcasts?

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Dramatic turns and twists at ground zero have squeezed the space for middle-rung workers of unionist political parties, forcing police to set up a vast protection detail. Shams Irfan meets political workers living lonely lives as migrants at government cost to understand the dis-empowerment enforced by renewed militancy in an otherwise privileged lot

Ruling PDP workers during 2014 assembly elections. After the situation changed, they are facing it difficult to manage themselves.

On a February evening in 2018, Shiraz, 33, a middle rung political worker of ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), waited impatiently in his car near Sangam Bridge, the safest spot he could find in entire south-Kashmir.

A resident of Zainpora belt in Shopian, Shiraz has not visited his home for last five months. He lives in a government-provided hotel room in Srinagar.

After two hours wait near the bridge, Shiraz’s face lit with excitement as he saw his father, and brother, drive cautiously towards him. From a distance Shiraz could see that they were not alone; there was a lady in bridal dress sitting in the back. She was Shiraz’s bride. And it was Shiraz’s wedding day.

“I couldn’t visit my bride’s home on my wedding day. Now you can imagine the threat we live in,” said Shiraz, trying hard not to sound dramatic.

Given the situation in Shopian, and the anger against the political class, especially for ruling PDP, Shiraz’s in-laws had requested him not to come personally to get his bride. He can send his father instead, they suggested.

“I couldn’t even get my bride myself. It was my father who got her for me,” said Shiraz. “I was waiting for her, some 40 km away. What kind of life is this?”

Shiraz still recalls how he raced towards Srinagar once his father handed him his bride. “I was visibly frightened. All the way to Srinagar I kept looking over my shoulders,” recalls Shiraz, who joined PDP a few months before 2014 assembly elections. “We are the new outcasts in Kashmir,” said Shiraz.

After Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016, over eight hundred political workers and politicians have migrated from different parts of Kashmir to “safe houses” in Srinagar.

“This was by far the biggest migration of political workers in Kashmir’s troubled history,” said Sheikh Mohiddin Shabnum, Chairman, Jammu and Kashmir Political Migrants Front (JKPMF).

Shabnum, a resident of Kadipora in Islamabad, started his political career with National Conference (NC), as its district president in late 1980s. “Then political workers enjoyed power and respect like politicians,” recalls Shabnum.

In peace time, the leadership maintains a concertina wire distance with the gross root workers, and it turmoil, they simply forget them. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur.

However, in 1989, after militancy erupted in Kashmir valley, local politicians, especially from ruling NC, packed their bags and fled to Jammu. Though some of them returned after 1996 polls, most of them still live there. There are 2,168 Muslims families living in Jammu and all of them have a political background. They live there since the 1990s.

“They were given government accommodation and security there,” said Shabnum.

Back in Kashmir, as the writ of government got replaced by guns; political workers like Shabnum became a soft target for both the sides. “My house was attacked by grenades twice,” recalls Shabnum. “I was also kidnapped too.”

Then in 1992, after playing hide-and-seek with death threats and militant bullets, Shabnum finally migrated to Srinagar.

But Shabnum was not alone. It was kind of mass migration as political workers from Kupwara, Bandipora, Sopore, Shopian, Kulgam, Islamabad, Tral and Pulwama came to Srinagar, looking for a safe place to stay.

“Just like today, there were hit lists of political workers in every area then,” said Shabnum.

Once in Srinagar, Shabnum and other political beings were accommodated in ten hotels in Rajbagh, Dalgate, Jawahar Nagar and Kursoo areas. “Currently there are around 900 registered political migrants with us,” said Shabnum.

Each registered migrant political workers, which includes people from even Srinagar, are entitled to the monthly assistance of Rs 10,000, plus 7 kgs of rice, 2 kgs floor, and 1 kg sugar.

Earlier, the political protected workers were managed by the state’s Estates Department. “It was changed in last PDP government when the responsibility was given to the security wing of the police,” a middle rung Estates Department official said. “They hire hotels, decided about the threat perception and feed the protected persons. As far as our job is concerned, we take care of the employees and the top political leaders.”

According to a senior police official, security cover to politicians or political workers is provided only after proper assessment of threat perception is done, in a high-level security review meeting.

These fashion statements are election time developments

This meeting, which is held usually twice a year, is attended by senior police officers, people from CID and CIK, zonal officers from Jammu and Srinagar. “It is during this meeting that every single request for security cover is reviewed,” said the officer. “In that meeting, earlier cases are also reviewed. They even de-categorize people who no longer are under any threat.”

Since 2016, most of the request for security has come from “super-sensitive areas like Shopian, Kulgam, and Pulwama” said the official. But not all who seek security are actually threatened by militants; there are a few who are wanted in their areas for various offences, including fraud.

There are cases in which these “powerful” people go for second marriages. In order to protect themselves from the first wives and their families, they take the militant threat route and start life afresh in Srinagar!

“A number of political workers hiding in Srinagar have amassed lakhs by promising jobs in their areas but failed to actually deliver,” said Nisar, a political worker from Islamabad, who lives in one such accommodation in Srinagar. “Then there are those who abandon or switch-over from one party to another at the last minute, irking someone in power. They cannot go back to their homes, so they seek protection in Srinagar.”

These political turn-coats are often seen as traitors within the political circles, thus making them vulnerable. “Then there are former Ikhwanis, who are under protection,” said Nisar. “Or informers who have worked with army and police and are now threatened.”

An interesting case was reported in 2002 when K Rajindra Kumar was the Kashmir Police Chief. There were a series of burglaries: on July 4, 2002, JK Bank’s old city Bohri Kadal branch was robbed of Rs 6,61,227 and on November 5, 2002, the UCO Bank suffered a loss of Rs 19,60,000. “We have arrested three persons and both the robberies are settled”, Kumar told reporters.

Holding the members of Ikhwan cult responsible for the twin robberies, Kumar said they had members of mainstream political parties involved as associates. “ (After committing the burglary) they would chant pro-freedom slogans to put the cases in the account of militants and mislead the police,” he said.

Of a total of 20 burglars arrested, police said, two of them were Farooq Ahmad Mir and Manzoor Ahmad Parray – who were among the kingpins. Both of them had contested the assembly elections on the mandate of BJP and Panthers Party. Mir is the vice president of PP and Parray a senior activist of BJP. Both of them contested polls from two different south Kashmir segments and lost. Some of the gang members were working for the BSF.

Since they were protected persons, they would put up in highly secured Sunshine Hotel where many Ikhwani became part of the gang. They would plan things from the police-secured hotel under the nose of the cops. By the time police arrested them, they had managed to loot over five million rupees from various banks, police admitted.

But the population of Ikhwanis in Srinagar was always miniscule, as compared to the migrant political workers, who seek protection in the summer capital.

One Wrong Move

However, Shabnum, who unsuccessfully fought 2014 assembly elections on a PDP ticket from Islamabad constituency, considers the current situation more dangerous than the 1990s. “Since 2016, I cannot visit my home even during the night,” said Shabnum. “See what happened to Patel Sahab. He was killed in broad daylight.”

Ghulam Nabi Patel

Ghulam Nabi Mir, 58, better known as Patel for his affiliations and similarity with Congress’ Ahmad Patel, was a PDP worker, who was killed on April 25, 2018, when he had gone to visit his family in Pulwama. Patel was living in Government Housing Colony, Pulwama since he first contested assembly elections in 2002 on a Congress ticket.

Patel, who survived a number of bids on his life during the 1990s, enjoyed Y category security cover with 4 PSOs, driver, and a government car. “Despite all this, he couldn’t visit his home freely,” said his son Sartaj Ahmad Mir.

After Patel’s daylight killing by suspected militants in Rajpora village, which left his two PSO injured, political workers who have no security cover, feel vulnerable.

“But things have actually changed much before,” said Asif, a political worker from Kulgam who is associated with NC since 2002 elections. “Things changed very quickly after Burhan’s killing,” accepts Asif, who lives in a government-provided hotel room in Srinagar for the last two years. “There are pellet victims in every Mohallah of south Kashmir. How can a politician or a political worker create his space?”

Asif believes people are angry because both politicians and political workers abandoned them when bullets and pellets rained in 2016. “People now see us as traitors,” said Asif, trying hard not to sound afraid. “They are angry.”

The same anger was on display after militants killed former PDP Sarpanch Mohammad Ramzan Sheikh, 50, a resident of Humhuna village in Shopian, on October 17, 2017.

Interestingly, Showkat Ahmad Kumar, one of the militants who had come to kill Sheikh, accidentally shot himself during a scuffle with Sheikh’s family and died.

The next day after Showkat, a resident of nearby Trenz village was buried; thousands of people who attended his funeral marched towards PDP man’s house and set it on fire.

“People walked 4 km on foot from Showkat’s village to burn Shiekh’s house,” said Amir, a block-level PDP worker from Shopian. “You can now imagine the quantum of anger people have against us.”

By the time police rescued Sheikh’s family, his house, and the adjoining cow-shed was reduced to ashes. “After Sheikh’s killing situation was very tense in Shopian among our workers,” said Ajaz Mir, a PDP lawmaker from Wachi constituency. “But now I think things are slightly better.”

High Stakes

In the wake of 2014 Lok Sabha and state assembly elections, a number of youngsters joined politics, thinking it will help them build their profiles, as individuals, and as future leaders.

“I quit a lucrative job in Bangalore to join BJP in Kashmir,” said Khalid, who fought 2014 assembly elections from a south Kashmir constituency.

The idea behind Khalid’s switchover was to help create a bridge between BJP and Kashmiris. “But it didn’t happen. I not only ended up losing elections, but I have risked my life now,” said Khalid, with a hint of helplessness in his voice.

Born into a non-political but well-educated family from Islamabad district, Khalid’s father had warned him of consequences before he joined BJP. “But back then things were entirely different. Everything seemed in favour of mainstream politics in Kashmir,” recalls Khalid with a hint of nostalgia. “Plus, there was hardly any public support to militancy. They were cornered, literally.”

In 2014-15, Khalid recalls how he used to move in his constituency at will, mostly without any security, and meet people at their homes. But after Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016, Khalid couldn’t visit his house for six months.

“I was left homeless all of a sudden. Visiting home meant risking my life,” said Khalid.

Khalid, who has spent most of his growing years outside Kashmir, struggles to understand the phenomenon behind Burhan Wani’s popularity. “How can single person’s killing set Kashmir back to 1990s fear?”

Khalid, who spends most of his time in Srinagar, under police protection, is worried about his family back home.

“I have put my entire family at risk by joining BJP,” said Khalid. “But I am sure things will change back to normal.”

Khalid partly blames regional parties for creating an atmosphere of fear in south-Kashmir, so that parties like BJP and Congress concede ground. “It could be part of politics too,” said Khalid. “Else, if militants wish they can kill hundreds of political workers in a day.”

Besides, Khalid feels the current anger among people against politicians and political workers is manufactured and targeted. “How can PDP and NC workers move at will in the south while BJP workers can’t?”

Security threat

But Javaid Qadri, who fought 2014 state assembly elections from Shopian consistency on BJP ticket, is an optimist that situation will soon bounce back to normal.

An independent Sarpanch, Qadri joined BJP just eight days before the nominations were filed for 2014 assembly elections. “My house was attacked five times so far. But unlike local lawmakers, I didn’t leave. I am staying here to help people who voted for me.”

Qadri, a resident of Keller village, takes the absence of politicians and political workers from Shopian as a blessing in disguise. “I am one of the few remaining mainstream voices in this area now,” he said.

Unlike Qadri, who enjoys police protection and moves out of his fortress-like house only when necessary, a ground level BJP worker like Shabir lives in constant fear of death.

=Almost a week after army’s Gadwal unit barged into Ganowpora village in Shopian and killed three civilians, Shabir, who lives in a nearby village, left home to visit Srinagar early morning.

As Shabir reached near village square, a young boy, who was barely in his teens, walked up to Shabir, pointed his index finger at him and said: thuie chuew gaddar (You are traitors).

Then with same expressions on his face, the young boy quickly added: “We will soon drive you out one-by-one InshAllah.”

Shabir, who now spends most of his time in Srinagar, was later told that the boy’s close friend was injured by bullets during Ganawpora firing. “When you sit in Srinagar, everything looks normal. But come and live our lives for a day, and you will know what we face,” said Shabir.

Shabir, who used to run a small business in main-town Shopian before joining BJP, now relies on “pocket-money” from senior party officer-bearers to meet his expenses. “Even if I quit, I will not be spared as everyone knows I belong to BJP,” said Shabir.

Social Boycott

One night in January 2018, after staying in a government-provided hotel room in Srinagar for over four months, Umer, a local PDP worker, finally decided to visit his home in Pulwama. At 10 pm, as Umer crossed Kakpora, his legs started to shake out of fear. “I could barely keep my hands steady on the steering wheel of my car,” recalls Umer.

His heartbeat was loud enough to dim the sound of his second-hand car’s engine noise. “There was not even a single soul visible,” recalls Umer.

As Umer reached Pulwama town and took right towards his village, he recalled Manzoor Ahmad Baba, a Jaish-e-Mohammad militant from nearby Drabgam village, who died in an attack at CRPF camp Lethpora on December 31, 2017.

Within hours of Manzoor’s funeral, which was held seven times to accommodate everyone, Umer’s father and younger brother were roughed up by a group of boys near their home. “They told them this area belongs to Sameer Tiger,” recalls Umer. “If you want to live here, tell your son to quit PDP.”

Since 2016, Umer’s family was living in virtual fear, and isolated from the rest of the village, like an outcast. “Nobody talks to us like the way they used to before Burhan’s killing,” said Umer. “We are no longer invited to marriages even.”

Umer recalls pre-Burhan Wani’s killing days with a hint of nostalgia, when the same villagers used to line outside his house every morning, for his intervention in social and political matters. “I was the point’s man of our local lawmaker,” said Umer. “But now even the lawmaker couldn’t visit his house.”

Like Umer, the lawmaker representing his constituency too has shifted his base to his official residence in Srinagar, where he remains surrounded by his bodyguards and a few loyalists. “He has nothing to do. He cannot visit his area, nor does anyone visit him anymore,” said Umer, who spends his days with the lawmaker when in Srinagar.

But despite living a secure life in Srinagar, Umer misses his village, his friends, his relatives and his family.

That night, when the longing for home peaked, Umer jumped into his car and raced towards his home in Pulwama. “Two days I spent at home, I barely moved out. Then on the third day, I left at dawn,” said Umer. “What kind of life is this? Why are they after our lives now? What have we done? Aren’t we Kashmiris too?”

Northern Mystery

On August 27, 2017, after the headless body of Muzaffar Ahamd Parray, alias Muzze Natta, was retrieved from Jhelum River near Paribal, the entire Hajin town went into shock and mourning. As the entire market in Hajin was closed in protest, nobody knew why Muzaffar was killed.

Since then a number of mysterious killings shook Hajin, including that of Muzaffar’s brother-in-law Naseer Ahmad Sheikh, who was abducted and then killed by unknown gunmen. “These killings pushed entire Sonawari belt back to 1990s,” said Mukhtar, a former PDP worker, who quit politics after the rise of local militants, Aabid and Nasruallah. “Nobody dares to talk politics in this area anymore. Almost all political workers now live in Srinagar.”

At the peak of Ikhwan’s reign of terror in Sonawari belt, Mukhtar joined NC to save himself from counter-insurgent Kuka Parray’s wrath. In 1999, when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, launched PDP, with a promise that he will end Special Task Force (STF) and Ikhwan terror, Mukhtar made a quick switch-over. “I thought our miseries will end now, but I was wrong,” said Mukhtar.

With Ikhwan losing its teeth after the killing of its top commanders including Kuka Parray, the entire Sonawari belt started to bounce back to normalcy. “After Kuka Parray’s killing, we lived quite lives till 2016,” said Mukhtar.

But in the aftermath of Burhan’s killing Hajin saw a record number of protests and stone-pelting incidents, something they had not done since Ikhwan era. “All of a sudden political workers fell quite in this area,” said Mukhtar, who now runs a shop in the main market.

Even former Ikhwanis like Irshad and Kuka Parray’s son Imtiyaz Parray, who joined Congress, couldn’t move freely in Hajin now. “Their rule is over. This area is now dominated by militants, especially from Lashkar-e-Toiba,” said Mukhtar.

Around 15 km away in Sopore town, Altaf, block-level Congress worker since 2013, who helped a local candidate contest state assembly elections in 2014, hardly leaves his house now. Born into a small orchardist family in a village adjacent to Sopore town, Altaf now regrets his decision of joining Congress. “I have put my entire family in danger. I cannot even visit my orchards without feeling scared,” said Altaf.

Whenever there is an encounter in the area, Altaf and his family, including his father, mother, two unmarried sisters and his younger brother, stay indoors, or stay at their relative’s house in another village. “How can we trust anyone? There are even fake militants on the loose in south Kashmir nowadays,” said Altaf, quoting a viral video clip where Hizb commander Sameer Tiger is seen beating two fake militants. Tiger was killed along with his childhood friend Aquib Khan in an encounter in Drabgam, his native village on April 30, 2018. “You never know which agency will kill you to serve its interests,” said Altaf. “Just like Panchs and Sarpanchs, now political workers are soft targets.”   

(Some names in the story have been changed on request to protect the identity.)

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