In death and defiance: How Kulgam changed

As the prized guerrilla met his end at Kokernag last summer, Kulgam mourned massively. The Intensity of rage in the province presently under the stringent military watch not only redefined its image, but made it an island of anti-establishment ire in the seething south.

For many decades, Bugam was the launch-pad of comrades—the Marxists—in Kashmir.

But the 2016 summer was to flip it, completely. As a front-line fuming village in Kulgam province, Bugam’s contours of politics changed after dissent rallies—denouncing Delhi’s Kashmir dealings and glorifying Burhan Wani’s “martyrdom”—became any other existential activity.

Many days after the initial backlash, the village organised a vehicle rally with a huge turnout of participants. Being a largely populated village, protests from this village got immediate cognizance and other smaller villages condensed around Bugam.

Then in a decisive action, the village started Ittehad-E-Millat Conferences, which became a feature of the rural resistance in 2016.

Fayaz Ahmed Rather is the figure attributed with the “ideological revolution” in Bugam. He started the Dawat-e-Islami Centre in the village in 2004 and involved most of the youth. With the result, the Marxists were pushed to the margins in Bugam.

Perhaps, zero voter turnout in 2014 elections vindicated their stand.

I asked Fayaz about the famed Ittehad-E-Millat Conferences. He recalled the vehicle rally he had organised. Before the rally was to flag off, he invited clerics of all schools of thought to address the crowd. “They had to oblige and they did,” said Fayaz, booked and released under the Public Safety Act (PSA) for leading the funeral prayers of the slain Lashkar e Taiba chief Abu Qasim.

“The unity on display was a result of the dedication with which we worked since 2004.”

The vehicle rally received a massive turnout of vehicles but was eventually confronted in the rocky terrain of Adijan near Damhal Hanjipora. The number of injured ran in hundreds. Around 50-60 bikes were torched.

Medicos who accompanied the rally started treating the injured on the roads. “It was a war-like hysteria, like that of Syria that we see on the televisions,” a local press reporter told me. After that, Ittehad-E-Millat Conferences became a rage and around 200 such conferences were held in the entire period, spreading even to other parts of the Valley, too.

On the day Bugam organised a full-fledged Ittehad-E-Millat Conference, Indian armed personnel attempted to stop it and resorted to tear gas shelling and ransacking the stage. But the youth stayed defiant, and held the conference anyway.

On that day two youth were hit by pellets in their eyes, one of them blinded in one eye.

Locals told me about the youth roaming around with goggles, “they are all pellet-ridden.”

Over 100 youth have been injured all these months in Bugam. The local Baitul Maal, a community fund, played a role in helping their recovery.

Bugam would also come to the rescue of other smaller villages around it, apart from developing a system of ‘security and vigil’ in its own backyard, where young boys would stay up all night to prevent the forces from making night raids into the houses.

Around September last year, when people began to get involved in harvesting, forces showed up to ransack the houses.

One such house was that of Mashkoor Ahmed, where I stopped to chat. I could notice broken windowpanes, a cracked refrigerator, a burnt bike and a messed up alcove. “Money and jewelery were also looted,” he said. He along with others has covered windows with polythene or plywood to save them from further damage.

About a kilometer away from the volatile twin towns of Khudwani-Qaimoh is Rampur, a village of not more than 100 households. The village is famous for its pro-resistance stance.

The village has had around 18 militant “martyrs” till date—among them, around 10 belong to the family of Ghulam Hassan Sheikh. Almost all of them are relatives of each other, courtesy the settlement of many families that sprouted to form the present day Rampur.

I arrived in the village to be greeted by a bunch of youth on vigil at the entrance of the village. After a quick brief about the village, they accompanied me to the local cemetery, filled with their “trophies” — “martyrs”. They have no distinct epitaphs because the number is high by the standard of a small village where every person is a “rebel” and every dead a “martyr”.

I witnessed the houses with broken windowpanes along the way, reminding one of the assaults in recent months.

As soon as Commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter on July 8, 2016, some youth rushed to Kokernag. “We heard that one of the local active militants was also martyred, so we sent some of the youth to the encounter site,” said one of the youth. It was just a rumour though. Some of them left for Tral and others witnessed the death of Zubair Khanday in nearby Qaimoh on July 8 evening.

In mid-September, forces entered the village during night hours after “rendering” the electric transformer useless by firing bullets at it. “After the village was plunged into darkness, youth stepped out to fight them off and clashed with them intensely,” another youth in a bright blue shirt told me.

However the sheer number of forces outnumbered local youth. “They went on a ransacking spree and destroyed whatever came in their way. They particularly attacked the house of local Hurriyat leader Muhammad Ramzan. Upon finding him missing from home, they instead picked up his son.”

Subsequently, the youth became the patrolmen of the streets. If the army came, they would raise an alarm, drawing out every person, every man and every woman on the roads. Amid protracted period of defiance, the villagers even abandoned their seasonal orchard trade, lest they would “betray the movement.

Some 7 km from the main town Kulgam, Muhammadpora village is known for housing no signature sectarian or other differences. A single-spacious grand mosque is the common praying space, while a single Auqaf Committee takes care of the village chores.

Given its dense population, the village has had a searing influence on its neighbourhood. Right from July 8 evening when Burhan Wani was killed, anthems started playing in the mosques. Candle marches were held frequently. Rounds of the adjacent villages would be held usually.

As became a norm in the region, youth stood guard throughout the nights, blocking all four roads at the village outskirts, other than the main village square. On the sound of an emergency in the mosque, every person would appear on the road.

On August 14, forces came in armored vehicles and finding the road blocked, resorted to firing in the air and shelling in frustration, following which they had to travel via an alternative route.

A charity trust was also established to help the local needy and injured people. It also made donations to ‘martyrs’ families.

The local hospital’s role has also been vital. People injured in the clashes with the forces would be shifted to Muhammadpora as it was also convenient because no army camp exists in the route. Locals had parked their vehicles in the hospital premises so as to drop the injured home.

The hospital received around 100 patients on August 7, when a vehicle rally from Bugam was confronted at Damhal. Locals volunteers helped in shifting the patients and ensuring post hospital care in their homes.

But the defiance had tremendous costs.

On Sep 1, when Indian armed forces turned up at Tazipora Mohalla in the village, everyone including the female folks were “beaten” after they showed their thumbs as a mark of protest. “Youth were left seething after forces undid their zips and flashed private organs towards protestors which also included women,” a villager told me. Around the same time, talks of setting up an army camp in the village were doing rounds. In Kulgam parts now, those camps are a certainty now.

However, in Kashmir’s seething summer of 2016, Damhal Hanjipora, traditionally a pacifist belt, surprised many.

After 116 days of continued agitation and shutdown, I arrived at Damhal to a scene of half-open shops and slight movement of private traffic. I met Manzoor Ahmed, a 40-something man sitting inside his shutter half-open shop. I enquired about the slight glimpse of “normalcy” in the town to which he responds with one word — “Majboori“.

I began with the day one; the day hell broke loose in the town, as the whole valley rose up in rebellion, Damhal was no different. Protestors, local and of adjoining areas, converged in the main square but were intercepted by the police nearby.

“The trigger was provided by police when they took some youth from the crowd, to which the latter responded fiercely. Police ringed up the army who arrived instantaneously. They started firing from a distance as soon as they reached the site and started moving close,” Ahmad said.

In the clashes that ensued, the army responded with indiscriminate fire and killed Yasmina Rehman, 24-year-old girl, whose brother happens to be an armyman. She was protesting her sibling’s arrest along with other women. “Soon after her killing, an infuriated crowd torched the police station and the adjacent court building,” Ahmad said. Many weapons were also stolen as police failed to contain the protests. All of this happened so fast and quick, Ahmad said.

A few hours later, another youth, Rashid Kumar of neighbouring Yadikhah was shot dead when he was accompanying his mother to the hospital. That was a clear targeted killing, a villager told me, “aiming at avenging the day’s happenings.”

For the next few months, Damhal was under the army and SOG troops. They arrested youth in large numbers and ransacked property worth unquantifiable amount, Ahmad continued. They threatened locals and other villages of dire consequences if the weapons were not returned.

Amid all this, rumours had it that some NC workers were behind the flames in pacifist Damhal.

“Well,” said Ahmad, “who could refute the political links in such incidents.” In an otherwise NC bastion, it was PDP that had emerged the winner from Damhal in 2014 assembly elections, much to the chagrin of Sakina Itoo and her supporters.

But once tempers cooled down, the security ‘witch-hunt’ began. Like many others, in his village, Ahmad also courted arrest but was released. He confessed of having multiple parchas against him. “One parcha was slapped on me for holding the microphone for Asiya Andrabi,” he said.

No different scenes were in sight at Redwani last summer, when I walked into the village of around 550 families. On the demarcating line between Kulgam and Islamabad, and close to the volatile areas of Khudwani Qaimoh, the village is known for its fierce anti-India bile, forcing even the army to shift their camp from there in 2015.

A villager told me that Redwani was on the ‘radar’ after a massive turnout was seen on 14th August 2016 when Pakistan Independence Day was celebrated there. Even militants appeared, offering a salute to the ‘green’ flag hoisting and addressed the cheering and chanting crowd.

“Such activities irked the army and we remained under watch. We knew they would come after us. And they did. It was like Doomsday for us,” Manzoor Ahmad, a villager, referring to Sep 1, 2016 episode, when the army tied the lock of a medical store with their vehicle and pulled it – shattering it, and scattering all of its items.

I met Owais, an 8th grader of Army School in Islamabad, who told me how fearful he was about his possible arrest once he would be back to his school. “I was harassed already because I belong to Redwani,” he told me. But on the morning of Sep 1, this schoolboy saw his village going up in flames. “Cowsheds were burning. Paddy was lit up. Even shops had the same fate,” he said.

One of those shops belonged to a widow, Saleema. Her daughter would run a shop, but now, “Soari haz zoalukh. Kehin thowukh ne. Lakkchi kuori haz tcham. (They burnt everything and left nothing. I have two daughters to take care of)” Even the worshipers weren’t spared.

On the same day, in Hawoora Mishpora, a village located 1km from Redwani, saw a 9-year-old girl Saiqa suffering from cardiac arrest amid the same assault. She later passed away in October. But the chilling accounts don’t end.

I bumped into local CSF personnel Abbas posted in Bihar. He mulled over his resignation notwithstanding inhumane oppression meted out to his brethren back home.

“My brother-in-law was arrested and flesh from his thigh was roasted and eaten by army men in front of him,” Abbas told me. “They inserted needles into the wound and only after infection did the doctors come to know about it.” His brother-in-law has since joined the militant ranks and Abbas believes there is no way out.

Later that summer, I accompanied an Indian Human Rights Group to Redwani. Some annoyed youth did not receive them well, shouting, “goadd tchew maaran, patte tchew yiwan Human Rights laegith. (First you kill us, and then you come in the garb of human rights)”

I was about to leave the village when an elderly lady stopped me. Abbas said that her son, Javed Ahmed Wagay, was shot in the abdomen two years ago. He now sits handicapped at home. She wanted me to ask my bosses to help her. I assured her help in a spur of the moment. She might be living with a false hope. And I am, somewhere, feeling guilty unless something can be done for her.

Infact, a large number of people who alerted me about their “atrocities” mistook me as some saviour.

I was not.

I was one among them.


[All names have been changed.]

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