The Valley of Despair

Sameer Arshad Khatlani

November 16, 2008

Lok Sabha member and National Conference (NC)’s nominee from North Kashmir’s Pattan assembly constituency, Abdul Rashid Shaheen, 63, has seen better days in politics. As he sat in his living room to address his half-a-dozen supporters, he became nostalgic about NC’s heyday when the iconic founder of his party, Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah, held sway over the Kashmiris.

“The 2008 elections are a far cry from what we used to have during the Shiekh’s time. Those days gatherings in the rallies stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see,” he said. “It is not the right time to hold elections, the situation has completely changed after the Amarnath land row and the economic blockade.”

Shaheen was referring to protests in Kashmir over the government’s move to allot forestland for a Hindu shrine in South Kashmir Himalayas despite environmental concerns and in violation of the region’s special status. The protests forced the government to rescind the allotment, triggering a counter-agitation in Jammu, where Hindu groups forced an economic blockade in protest.

Shaheen said an election boycott sentiment has swept the Valley and that the things are so bad that political parties are not even holding rallies. A walk around the town is enough to understand Shaheen’s anxiety. Pattan town does not even have a single poster, banner or flag of any political party on display.

Shaheen’s assessment found a sharp echo on a bus en route to Sopore town from Srinagar even as people seemed reluctant to talk about the elections. “We do not want elections as they are no alternative to azadi (freedom). Our struggle for freedom is peaceful and Gandhian in approach,” said Tariq Ahmed Parra, a young farmer. “For us, the bigger issue is to see the back of repressive Army and restoration of our dignity and honour.” But Parra is quick to add that this does not mean that he wants Pakistan to take over. “We will also keep them at an arm’s length.”

Pattan’s apathy towards elections is symptomatic of how dramatically the situation changed after the land row and subsequent blockade. The dispute over forest land near the cave shrine sharply polarised Jammu and the Valley on communal lines and at least 60 people died after the row snowballed into some of the biggest pro-independence demonstrations in the Valley in two decades.

The mood in Pattan is a sharp contrast to the spring of 2006 when people in their hordes turned up to vote in a bye-election to the state assembly. The election, with an unprecedented turn out of about 70%, was dubbed as a watershed and an indication of vanquishing separatist sentiment. Former chief minister Farooq Abdullah’s brother, Mustafa Kamal, defeated influential religious leader, Maulvi Ifthikar Ansari, in the bye-poll.

Prominent separatist leader Sajjad Lone believes that elections in the aftermath of the blockade are a non-issue. “The blockade left a deep psychological imprint on Kashmiris and the subsequent agitation in the Valley re-ignited irreversible separatist sentiment,” he says. “The threat of starvation and disruption of economic activities is now deeply embedded in the Kashmiri psyche.”

Sajjad, the author of a vision document on the resolution of Kashmir dispute ‘Achievable Nationhood’, said the situation is such that voting constitutes a stigma. “I am not saying it. It is there for all to see how the so-called campaigning is lackluster. The force that the state is using against people espousing a boycott is perhaps the biggest indicator of the mood,” he says. “If these anti-election people are not a threat why are they being arrested and barred from campaigning.”


Columnist Prem Shankar Jha, who has in the past been involved in the back-channel talks with the separatists, believes that there will be no or less Kashmiri turnout and that “should set alarm bells ringing for the Centre”. Jha said if there is no Kashmiri participation in government formation then it will be an open invitation to “the Jihadis”. “If the government is formed after a 12% turnout, then the moderates among separatists will lose control over the angry, violent anti-India youth who will become facilitators for Jihadis,” he says. He says there are an estimated 35,000 Baitulla Mashud Taliban fighters in Pakistan and that they would not mind sparing 10,000 “Jihadis” for Kashmir. “This is a disaster in the making.”

But the life goes on as Shaheen puts it saying the mainstream politicians have to get on with the business. “We have to make adjustments in the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in.” He said he is trying to mobilise people on the bijli, [electricity] pani [water], sadak [roads] and rozgar [livelihood] issues. “We do not claim that elections will resolve the Kashmir issue. Kashmir is a disputed territory as half of the state is under Pakistan’s occupation.”

In North Kashmir’s Rafiabad constituency, which goes to the polls on December 7, there are also no visible signs of an imminent election. There are no banners, no posters and not even party flags. “The mood is not in favour of elections, the Amarnath agitation has turned the clock back. National Conference and the PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] candidates are not even campaigning,” said Congress leader and the party’s candidate from Rafiabad, Abdul Gani Vakil. “Even I have not been able to hold public rallies and am just relying on door-to-door campaigning.” Vakil, who was a minister in the last government, said he has been seeking votes on the Congress government’s performance and its commitment to the resolution of the problem. “I am promising people that we will try and settle the issue by involving the [separatist amalgam the] Hurriyat [Conference] and Pakistan.

Amid the rumblings of annoyance with the polls, lies an Island of calm, Gundi Boon village in Bandipora district’s Sonawari area. The village, a throwback to medieval times, has no semblance of even basic human necessities. The village has no source of safe drinking water and electricity. “Elections are our only hope. National Conference MLA Mohammad Akbar Lone has done nothing for us and we will vote for a change,” said an unemployed youth, Javed Ahmed Shah, as he listened to Awami League candidate and slain anti-insurgent leader Kuka Parrey’s son, Imtiyaz Ahmed Parrey. “Why do we need freedom; we are Indians and happy with it.”

Going by the boycott wave, Imtiyaz Parrey has managed a decent gather. Amid chanting and singing, he promises the change and draws instant applause. “We should respect elders like Lone but it is time for him to go and the youth like me to change your destiny,” he said to his highly-enthused audience, majority of them women, who sing, “we would not even have our breakfast, the first thing we will do on the polling day is to vote.”

(First published in The Times of India)

In the valley of despair, women look for a high

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

August 23, 2009

The force of a midnight knock jolted Nazia Akhter (35) out of deep sleep on a chilly winter night in 1999. Before she could gather her wits, four masked gunmen had bundled her husband, Nazir Ahmed, into a car and taken him away. Ahmed was badly battered in captivity and seven days later when he was released, the family’s nightmare seemed to be over. But that was not to be. Armed forces picked Ahmed up to know his captors’ whereabouts. For next 10 days, Ahmed was thrashed so badly that he lost his memory. Nazia cried her eyes out through the 17-day ordeal and continued to weep buckets after the family faced penury, as Ahmed could no longer look after his once-thriving business. Over the months, Nazia became insomniac and restless. Somebody gave her a Diazepam tablet to relax. The family’s condition worsened so much so that the depressed mother of two started popping 15 tablets a day to relax. She was hooked on the sedative. This was when she was brought to a de-addiction centre in Srinagar.

Doctors say Nazia is not alone. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri women, who developed psychiatric disorders, fear psychosis, depression, stress-related disorders and suicidal tendencies during the two-decade-long turmoil, have taken to drugs (anti-depressants, painkillers and tranquillizers) which are easily available over the counter in absence of curbs in turmoil-hit Valley. Most are addicted to drugs ranging from medicinal opiates (opium-based drugs), cannabis and even heroin and cocaine.

Dr Mushtaq Margoob, a psychiatrist and author of the book Menace of Drug Abuse in Kashmir says an alarming 1.5 per cent women in Kashmir are addicted to opiates alone, which is the highest in the world. “Thousands of women are also addicted to contraband like heroin,’’ he says. He says four per cent of the women patients he sees daily are addicted to drugs to overcome depression. “The worst part is that it is a double-edged sword: They become addicts and the depression also lingers on.’’

Margoob has also come across patients using cocaine, costing an addict about Rs 2,000-2,500 per day. “Studies reveal that in comparison to 9.5 per cent use of opiate-based preparations during 1980 in Kashmir, it had increased to 73.1 per cent during 2002 and is worse now.’’

Women, as the worst victims of conflict, are more prone to its direct and indirect effects of death, destruction and unemployment. This pushes them into the trap of negative coping and drug abuse. “Women get hooked on drugs particularly opiates because such substances are easily available and used to relieve the symptoms,’’ says Margoob.

Dr Ghulam Nabi Wani, who has been running the de-addiction centre for 10 years, notes that almost every family has lost a member or somebody has been arrested or beaten up at some stage in last 20 years. “There is a pattern to drug abuse among women. Generally, women who have lost dear ones or have seen violent deaths become insomniac and in order to relax and sleep, they over the years became addicted to sedatives,’’ he says.

Poor implementation of licensing laws for sale of psychotropic drugs in the state compound the problem. Non-judicious use of drugs like Alprazolam, says Margoob, aggravates abuse potential of commonly used addictive drugs for anxiety and depression. “An assessment of the prescribing practice in anxiety disorder in Kashmir reveals a very disturbing trend that majority of such patients could possibly have been helped through counselling and psychotherapy rather than drugs,’’ says Margoob.

Another disturbing trend that has emerged is that elderly women, especially in rural areas, induce younger ones into smoking (hooka) to cope up with the bereavement. “With the easy availability of cannabis, these women often get hooked to them,’’ Margoob says.

The non-implementation of the Drug Act is also aggravating the problem. “If theAct is implemented, the addiction would come down by 50 per cent since the major reason for abuse is the easy availability of over the counter drugs like tranquillizers,’’ says Wani.

In fact, J&K has no drug policy since independence. “We will come up with one soon to check the menace of over the counter sale of psychotropic drugs,’’ said health minister Sham Lal Sharma. In a drug policy’s absence, anybody can buy medicine without a prescription.

A police officer said during the peak of militancy, they hardly had time to clamp down on drug trafficking and poppy cultivation. South Kashmir had become notorious for poppy cultivating till 2007 when police started a drive against it. Police have also engaged local clergy to support the campaign.

(First published in The Times of India)

Tardy procedures, mistrust & suffocating bureaucracy beset major India-Pakistan Kashmir CBM

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

November 2, 2008

Salamabad, otherwise a nondescript ethic pahari minority dominated village near the Line of Control (LoC), suddenly came alive on October 21, as villagers gathered to celebrate the historic opening of trade links across divided Kashmir for the first time in six decades.

The mood was festive as a crowd lined up on both sides of the LoC, clapping and celebrating the chipping away of yet another part of the  “iron curtain” between the divided Kashmir. On the other side children dressed in their brightest sang songs of an emotional reunion on the beats of drums and musical instruments.

Euphoria notwithstanding, the route, however, largely remains symbolic as limited trade would be allowed across the de facto border; only four trucks will be allowed each side once a week.

Skeptics say the opening of trade was nothing more than “a joke”. They point out that similar euphoria was created around the launch of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service in 2005. But three-and-a-half years on, the service, described as “mother of all CBMs”, has miserably failed to meet expectations. Thanks to the tardy procedure, mistrust and suffocating bureaucracy, only 9,000 passengers have traveled between the two sides of Kashmir on the “peace bus” even as regional passport office Srinagar alone received 14,600 applications from Indian nationals.

Naseema Begum, who watched the flagging off ceremony on TV at her Srinagar home, says she could not help but think it was a cruel joke. Naseema says she has given up hopes of meeting her family in Muzaffarabad after she was denied a permit recently. “They sat on my application for more than three years and finally rejected it on flimsy grounds,” Naseema says. She says it’s easier to travel on a visa to Pakistan and asks, “What was the need of staging a drama that the travel on the bus will be hassle free for the divided families with no requirement of  visa and passport?” “It’s like rubbing salt into our wounds.”

Srinagar businessman Mohammad Shafi echoes the skepticism. “The opening of trade routes is historic, but we have our doubts looking at the fate of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, which has been reduced to a mere symbolic practice,” he says.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised divided families’ expectations when he told Lok Sabha on April 20, 2005: “We started the service despite terrorist threats and a suicide attack. The courage and determination of our people give us confidence for its continued operation with even greater frequency in the future. I am convinced the service has tapped a latent reservoir of public support for greater people-to-people contact, especially among people living on either side of the LoC.”

The then foreign secretary Shyam Saran went a step further and described the bus service as a “humanitarian measure without prejudice and a win-win situation for all”.

“Hollow proved the lofty promises,” says Muzaffarabad-resident Nadeem Hashmi, whose application for a permit was also rejected recently. “Assurances of hassle-free travel across the LoC raised hopes of divided families. I have never met half of my family, which stays in Indian administered Kashmir. My father had migrated from Karnah in north Kashmir and settled in Muzaffarabad in 1947,” he says. “Ever contacts with our kin on the other side have been few and far between.”

Even the lucky ones like Noor Mohammad (name changed) of Karna, who managed to get a permit to see his kin in PoK, are bitter. “After a long wait, I finally managed to go to Muzaffarabad. But the suffocating bureaucracy and rampant corruption left me bitter,” he says. Noor alleges that while he was returning from PoK he was charged Rs 4,000 as “customs duty” even as he wasn’t carrying anything that warranted it.

Residents of Karna also point out that crossing points across the LoC set up to facilitate contacts between the divided families are “subjected to whims of local authorities on either side”.

“There is no accountability and the authorities demand bribes for letting people meet each other,” a local resident alleges. He says crossing points are opened on alternate Thursdays. “But no crossings were allowed on consecutive weeks last month. Once Pakistanis said they won’t allow crossing because of Eid holiday and then on our side Army refused crossings saying they were celebrating Dussera,” he says. “What is the point of having such arrangement when you cannot even meet your kin on Eid?”

Getting a permit to travel on the peace bus is complex and time-consuming. Once permission is sought, the issuance of a permit is subject to clearance from the secret services of India and Pakistan. And officials resort to the usual blame game. “POK authorities are responsible for the delay. They take a long time in clearing the applications, at times even more than six months,” a regional passport office official said. “We take at the most two.”

Intelligence agencies say they are choosy in recommending permits as many PoK residents refuse to go back. About a dozen of them have stayed back after approaching High Court. “We find it difficult to repatriate POK visitors as many of them go underground after failing to get permit extension to stay beyond 28 days,” a source said.

Intelligence agencies have also forcibly sent back around a dozen Pakistani citizens in last three years.

Visitors are allowed to stay beyond 15 days in case of some emergency but the permit rules make extension beyond 28 days impossible.

Aasim Awan who managed to get a permit to travel across LoC after a three-year wait says divided families deserve more than just symbolic gestures. “The bus service has been an abject failure,” he says. He says if the government is sincere, the least it could do for the divided families is to open telephone lines.  “Telephone is the basic service. We can only receive phone calls from PoK. Our government has banned telecommunication links across LoC,” he notes.  “So how can trade take place when people can’t talk on the phone?”

 Cautious optimism, however, prevails in Salamabad as local residents believe cross-LoC trade promises good days for the area, scene of the devastating October 2005 earthquake. Salamabad trader Mohammad Ibrahim said, “The region was always backward but earthquake made things worse. But the opening of the trade is a new ray of hope for us. The roads are being repaired and the development is visible.”

Courtesy: The Times of India

2008 Jammu and Kashmir election: All-India Gujjar power drives campaigns

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

November 24, 2008

KANGAN (KASHMIR): For Gujjar businessman from Delhi, 40-year-old Ashok Khatana, Kangan is particularly chilly this time due to early snowfall. But his devotion for the area’s most-respected Gujjar Sufi family and its scion Mian Altaf, National Conference nominee from Kangan, helps him fight the cold as he tirelessly campaigns to ensure Altaf’s win for the fourth consecutive time.

“I have been campaigning for Mian sahib since 1996. For Gujjars, kinship transcends communal barriers,” says Khatana as he sets up the public address system for Altaf’s rally at Wangat, about 60 km from Srinagar.

Altaf, confident about his fourth straight victory, says he has known Khatana since 1989 when they met in Delhi on the sidelines of a Gujjar Congress. “Since then, Gujjar Vikas Mach (GVM) has been sending men and material for my campaign,” says Altaf. “They send vehicles and other support systems.”

Khatana, a GVM functionary, says the social and political marginalisation of Gujjars is what keeps them together. “At a time when the nation is dangerously divided, communal amity among Gujjars is a lesson for all,” says Khatana adding that Muslim, Hindu and Sikh Gujjars have a long history of kinship. “Even during Partition, Hindu Gujjars protected their Muslim brothers and helped them stay back in Punjab.”

Altaf’s father and Padma Bhushan recipient Mian Bashir Ahmed is the spiritual leader of Muslim Gujjars of Jammu & Kashmir and credited with working for Gujjar uplift across India. “He is our sardar and a towering national leader for Gujjars,” says Khatana, a devout Hindu.

Gujjars in clusters across 11 states have collaborated for a long time. J&K Gujjars threw their weight behind the community’s demand for ST status in Rajasthan and organised dharnas and bandhs.

Says Jammu-based Gujjar scholar, Javied Rahi, “J&K Gujjars owe their ST status to their brothers across the country. We got the status in 1991 after Gujjar MPs and MLAs lobbied and mounted a delegation to the then PM Chandra Shekhar.”

When Muslim Gujjars came under attack in Jammu during the Amarnath land row, the country’s Gujjar leaders released a join statement seeking their protection, says Rahi.

Such is the camaraderie between Gujjars, Rahi points out, that in the last assembly elections in 2002, Congress candidate from Haveli-Poonch, Yashpal Sharma, roped in some Rajasthani Gujjars for campaigning and saw himself through. “They managed to convince local community that they should vote for Sharma in absence of a Muslim Gujjar,” he says.

Courtesy: The Times of India