In Shopian, a contest is on between militants and security forces to control the streets

Sanna Irshad Mattoo

At the Shopian District and Sessions Court in late August, the turmoil resulting from the Indian government’s latest decision on Kashmir was evident. On 5 August, the union government read down Article 370 of the Constitution, taking away the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir. Shortly before the move, the government had imposed a communication blackout in the Valley along with Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which prevents the assembly of five or more people in public. As a result, the lawyers I met at the court had a dearth of information and were struggling to make sense of the situation. The little they knew was not good news. One of the first things most of them asked me was: “How are the circumstances elsewhere in Kashmir?”

Fear has been palpable in Shopian even before the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status. Starting on 1 August, the union government had sent an unprecedented number of troops to the Valley, in anticipation of a backlash. A day before Article 370 was read down, Basit Ahmad Wani, a lawyer, said he heard that someone threw a stone at a vehicle of the Indian army on the road connecting the Hillaw and Imam Sahib villages in Shopian. Army personnel “deboarded the vehicle, and started beating up people and thrashing nearby civilian vehicles, windowpanes of shops and houses,” he said.

After the imposition of the communications blackout, newspapers did not circulate in Shopian until 28 August, Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer, told me. But newspapers in the Valley, which were mostly relying on government press releases and wire services based in Delhi, could hardly cover any area apart from the Srinagar city. Without access to reportage from Kashmir’s rural districts, which form the bulk of the Valley’s landscape, the lawyers exchanged notes of the cases of detention and torture in the areas they came from. Abdul Hamid Dar, a senior lawyer from the Heff-Shermal village, told me that the Indian army had tortured his cousin and broadcasted his shrieks on a loudspeaker “for all to hear.”

“We live in an area where even breathing is restricted,” Dar said. The sentiment resonated with all the lawyers I spoke to in the court as well as other locals in the district. It stemmed from an open tussle between the militants and the security forces in Shopian, apart from the fear of arbitrary detentions. While there has not been a violent clash between the two in Shopian since 5 August—a common occurrence earlier—the militants have been issuing writs and exhorting people to follow their orders in a more public manner. To retain the control of the streets, the security forces seem to be responding to these writs by threatening the citizens.

There is a mix of anxiety and defiance in Shopian. Shahid, a lawyer, said that “people have largely remained indoors,” before adding that some have also “shut their businesses.” Even after the union government relaxed the curfew to encourage people to return to public spaces, to substantiate its claim of normalcy, people refused to return to market places, schools and offices. Rasikh Ahmad, a stamp vendor at the court, said, “People are angry now and they will continue to protest this decision.”

It seemed that the militants were emboldened by this anger and sought to tap into the increased disdain for the union government. Within a week after 5 August, posters signed by people who said they were from militant organisations started appearing in over a dozen villages in Shopian. These posters detailed the dos and don’ts for citizens during the shutdown. They asked people to open their shops and business establishments only after 6 pm every day. “This irked the government’s security forces who do not want the militant’s dikats to be followed by people,” Rasikh said. He added that the posters asked people to organise protests against the “illegal occupation” of Kashmir by India.

The security forces retaliated. Soon after 15 August, “they threatened people of dire consequences if they open their shops after 6 pm,” Rasikh said. Iqbal and Shahid told me the security forces started removing the posters from public places and beat up anyone who they suspected was associated with the posters.

The locals I spoke to said that militants were making more public appearances in some villages in Shopian. “They urged people to keep the resistance going and encouraged people to play taranas”—referring to political songs—“on mosque loudspeakers,” Mohammad Saleem, a resident of the Shermal village, said. According to Saleem, three local militants appeared outside a local mosque on the evening of 10 August. “They were lead by Naveed Babu, who is the Shopian District Commander of Hizbul Mujahideen. He exhorted people to support the movement and open their shops at certain appointed hours, but not during day time,” Saleem said.

More recently, on 5 September, another set of three-paged posters appeared in many prominent areas of Shopian warning people to not flout the orders given through the previous posters. Iqbal said, “DC office main bhi lagaye the poster”—These posters had appeared on the office of the District Commissioner of Shopian also. “The posters even had names of people who had opened their shops or establishments during the daytime asking them to abide by the shutdown and open their shops only at appointed hours,” he added. “Shopkeepers, petrol pumps and even fruit growers were asked to shun their day time activities.”

Shopian’s fruit industry is also affected. The Shopian Fruit Mandi, which is the second largest fruit market in the Valley after the Sopore Fruit Mandi, has remained shut since 5 August. The apple-harvesting season began in mid-August. The apples are ready to be plucked from the orchards, but the unavailability of labourers and transport has left the fruit growers apprehensive. The government has announced that it will directly purchase apples from the growers. But the militants, through posters and announcements in gatherings, have demanded that people delay harvesting the apples. “Militants also know that political sentiments or a diktat cannot make a ripe apple stay on a tree indefinitely,” Iqbal, whose family owns an apple orchard, said.

Apart from political considerations, the fruit growers have economic and logistical concerns. Even if the crop is harvested, the fruit growers will have no power to negotiate the prices, Saleem, whose family is also a part of the fruit-growing industry, said. “Earlier fruit growers would send their crop to different mandis—in and outside Kashmir, rates would vary and growers had negotiating power,” Saleem said. “But this year it won’t be the case as growers will be forced to sell to just one mandi or even the government,” he added. Shakoor Ahmad, a fruit grower and a commissioned agent at the Shopian Fruit Mandi, said that they also do not know exactly what price to negotiate for as “we don’t know the prices at which crop is sold in other mandis. We won’t even know if our apple produce has reached the mandi and what price are they selling it at.”

Shakoor said that the apple-harvesting season in Shopian runs till December. “So, we still have time to harvest our crop and conduct business. We will wait,” he said. Many of the fruit growers also do not want to sell their produce, Shakoor added, as the “government will show that normalcy has returned to Valley which is far from the truth.”

In the first two weeks of September, locals of the Shopian town told me that militants stopped private vehicles at certain checkpoints and frisked people. Despite the public appearances and writs—and Shopian’s history of clashes between the security forces and militants—not a single militant has been killed in Shopian since 5 August. In early September, Bipin Rawat, the chief of Indian army, said in an interview to the Hindustan Times, “We are not going after the terrorists because we don’t want a gunfight to vitiate the atmosphere.” On 21 August, the Indian army, the Jammu and Kashmir police and the Central Reserve Police Force killed a militant in Kashmir’s Baramulla district in a joint operation.

Residents of Shopian told me that the communications blackout has made it easier for the militants to operate without the fear of being traced through mobile phones. Iqbal said, “People are following their writs. But it cannot be said if that is out of conviction or fear. They are operating without fear of getting killed.”

The immediate worry for most people I spoke to, however, was the high number of people that had been detained in Shopian. According to the lawyers, after 5 August at least fifty young men were detained in the 12 villages between Turkwangan and Heff-Shermal itself. They narrated various instances where no cause was given for the arrest and cases of torture in custody.

Shahid, the lawyer, told me that in Shermal, a village next to the Shopian town, around thirteen boys were picked up soon after 5 August. “They have neither been remanded nor charged. They were kept in illegal detention till recently before they were released.” He said that in Pinjura, the village he lives in, around eight to ten people were arrested on the intervening night of 25 August and 26 August. “They have not been released since,” he said.

The sequence of events for these arrests seems to be different from the usual, a few lawyers told me. They said that in most cases in Shopian, the Indian army first arrests people and then hands them over to the police. Iqbal said, “The reason army is making detentions is because they are more effective during night raids, when they lay a cordon around a house and arrest individuals. Police usually will face resistance from locals, therefore, army is more effective in detaining people,” he added.

In some cases, the process of applying for bail is also driven by fear. Showkat Ahmad, a chemistry teacher, and Rasikh told me that five young men were detained in Turkawangan, the area they lived in. Showkat said, “While one is with the army, the rest are with police.” Rasikh said that the detainees are either nineteen or twenty years old, barring one, who is a minor. Their families had chosen to not apply for bail.

Referring to cases like this, Iqbal said, “They fear they will be charged if bail application is filed or worse—booked under the PSA.” The Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978 or the PSA, is a law which allows an individual to be taken into preventive custody for two years without any charges or a trial. According to media reports, at least four thousand people, including mainstream politicians and pro-independence leaders, have been arrested in the Valley. A number of them have been booked under the PSA, though no official count has emerged. Iqbal said that there have been times when the local superintendent of police informed the arrested person that they intend to release him, and once the family got that assurance, they filed for bail.

In Maldera, which falls in Turkwangan, locals said that security forces conducted a sweep in their village during a night in mid-August and detained some boys, without giving a cause for the action. “Two of the boys were severely beaten and are still nursing their injuries,” Showkat said. I went to the ramshackle home of one of the boys, where his aged grandparents greet visitors with an anxious look on their faces. They have been scared to leave their home since the detention.

There were similar cases of detentions in Heff Shermal, a village I was advised to not visit as it is considered extremely dangerous, due to frequent encounters. Dar, who is from Heff Shermal, said, “Four youth have been booked under PSA in our area.” He named three of them along with the names of their fathers. “All three of them are young graduates,” Dar said.

Dar recounted how his cousin Bashir Ahmad Dar, a plumber, was tortured. A day before Eid—there were no Eid prayers in the 11 mosques of Heff Shermal—the Indian army picked up Bashir, whose brother had become a militant, and severely beat him up. “Bashir was taken to the Chilipora Army camp twice and was severely beaten with canes both times. After the second detention and torture, he was taken to the hospital in an unconscious state. The beating has left him unable to walk,” Dar said. “The only reason he was tortured was to reveal the whereabouts of his militant brother and ask him to surrender,” he added.

Bashir shrieks were broadcasted on a loudspeaker in his village, Dar said. He added that on one of the days following the abrogation of Article 370, security forces barged into his home and started dismantling household items. “They mixed all of our food grains with kerosene. We incurred a loss of nearly one lakh rupees,” he said.

The Indian army and the Jammu and Kashmir police did not respond to emails seeking their comments on Bashir’s case as well as other cases of detentions. The story will be updated if and when they respond.

The locals spoke to me with a sense of hopelessness. “When even big political leaders have been arrested, what could have common people done,” Rasikh said. The situation in Shopian is only giving rise to more hatred and anger among youth towards India, Rasikh said. “People are determined that there will be continuous protests till the Kashmir conflict is resolved,” he added.