In Depth

From graveyard dirt to spotless Coca Cola bottles: The evolution of burglary in Kashmir

Police just sent notorious city drug-peddler Nabbe Kal’le behind bars, but his ‘high and loose’ band is continuously on the radar for never-ending housebreak cases in Kashmir. But drugs apart, the rising burglary cases in the valley show a clear departure from the once oil-and-dirt driven loot strategy. Now, even thievery is tech-savvy. 

It was a quiet Sunday morning for the residents of downtown Srinagar. 

Grumpy fathers waited in line for the daily Kaander Tsot (oven-fresh bread), smacking their lips over the aftertaste of tea and cigarettes while bickering loudly amidst themselves over their respective political views. 

The kandur’s (baker’s) cadres repetitively beat the dough and formed familiar impressions, while he supervised the tandoor (oven) camped between the cracks of the floor and deftly swung each roasted tsot toward the side.

Life was going on as usual…

“Hey, did you hear? There’s been a burglary in the neighborhood!”

In a split second, the kandur’s face snapped towards the source of information.

A second later, however, out of a force of habit, his alert hands resumed scooping up the crisp and steamy tsots before they would get charred. Curious to hear the details, he trained his attentive ears toward the crowd.

“What? Seriously?” Abdullah, a local cooling his heels inside the baker’s shop bellowed, his eyes ready to pop out of his sockets. “Whose unfortunate house was it?”

“Master saeb’s,” a man known to everyone as ‘Haji saeb’, having performed the Islamic holy pilgrimage (Hajj) only last year, said, seated at the first spot beside Abdullah. He shook his head mournfully and adjusted his legs. “I heard they took Rs 2 lakh in cash and wrecked the whole kitchen.”

The crowd muttered among themselves and clicked their tongues, while invoking curses upon the burglars. 

Surely, a middle-class community like theirs felt the pain of every rupee taken.

“What rotten luck!” a middle-aged man exclaimed, as he stretched his hand out to receive the stipulated amount of tsots from the kandur. He lightly threw the money beside the latter’s feet and stood up straight. “To think that such a day would come even in our neighborhood…”

“I feel bad for Master saeb…,” one of the cadres stated while his hands continued to carry out their task. “He doesn’t even earn that much; and he’s a good person. Something like this shouldn’t have happened to him.”

“It was bound to come eventually,” Haji saeb said, passing a few tsots to others waiting around. “Our neighborhood wasn’t safe to begin with. The police in our locality don’t do anything.”

“Did they find out who did it?” the kandur quietly asked, subtly shifting the nature of the discussion before it plunged into what it always did—blaming the administration.

Haji saeb shrugged. “Master saeb didn’t want to register an FIR. The police said it looked like the work of ordinary thieves who steal everyday essentials and then sell it to buy drugs.”

Another murmur of disgust hummed through the crowd.

“The new generation has it bad,” Abdullah said, with a twinge of frustration. “All they want are mobiles, drugs, cars and laptops. I believe this WiFi has become their wife!”

Several people chuckled at his wordplay, yet dejectedly nodded their heads in agreement.

A mile away, in his mother’s house—just a hop, skip and jump away from his own—that sported reflective windows and lavish oak doors, Master saeb smiled amicably at his new guests. Their eyes gleamed hungrily for authentic information and first-person based experience as they muttered their condolences and shook their heads.

He sighed internally as he passed the ceramic cups filled with tea to each and readied himself for rounds of intensive cross-questioning.

“I haven’t slept properly all night,” he said, rubbing his eyes — a habit he had acquired while tutoring troublesome middle-schoolers of the community.

The maternal head of the house sat beside him, sporting a sour look on her face as she studied her neatly trimmed nails. A passer-by would believe it to be directed toward the house’s unwelcome guests, but Master saeb knew better.

“She’s upset because of the way they’ve ransacked the house,” he continued, and smiled secretly at her subtle habit of expressing her emotions.

“It’s inhumane,” one of the guests, who was also a distant relative stated, clicking her tongue. “How could they cut the windows in such a manner?”

Master saeb’s mother, Hoor Baji’s eyes narrowed, as she pursed her lips and studied her neatly-trimmed nails. “To think that they even stole his newly sewn clothes…,” she said. “He hadn’t even touched them after bringing them from the tailor!”

Another guest, a next-door neighbor leaned forward toward his mother. “You don’t think someone had a hand in this?” he whispered conspiratorially.

The room grew quiet with a cautious air. Master saeb kept his eyes downcast.

Baji’s eyes flashed with anger and she whipped her face toward the neighbor. “What else can I think? How can thieves break every window in my son’s house, take money, gold, clothes and even utensils? What kind of thief pays so much attention to breaking things?”

“I think someone who’s jealous of your son has done this,” the distant relative claimed as she widened her eyes in horror and covered her mouth halfway with her hand. “I’ve heard so many people talking about how Master saeb doesn’t earn that much, yet he still has such a good house. You can’t trust too many around you, Baji!”

Master saeb pushed the plate of biscuits towards her and smiled firmly. “There’s no point thinking about all of this. The police said it was the handiwork of thieves, who were looking for easy money to buy drugs. I think we should believe them.”

The neighbor scoffed at his words. “Believe them? Do they even know what’s happening around their neighborhood? I doubt they even think it’s the work of thieves,” he said as a matter-of-factly, biting self-righteously into a chocolate-flavored biscuit.

*

“It’s the work of unorganized thieves,” a police official monotonously confirms as I pose this question inside the community’s station. A light spring breeze gently ruffles the hair of a police constable standing outside the door. “By looking at the state of the house, the manner in which they broke in and the nature of the items stolen, my personal observation would be that these thieves just wanted quick cash.”

The constable sits on the plastic chair positioned near the door and places his rifle on his lap. He sneezes and scratches his nose, resuming his tedious task of watching the entrance of the gate.

The rifle remains limp and unbothered by the recent tumultuous weather gripping the Valley.

“An organized burglary, however, is a different matter altogether,” the official continues. I snap my attention back to the conversation. “A case in point would be when a burglary happened in Zonimar area of Old Srinagar. The culprits had wiped everything clean and left no traces or fingerprints altogether. When I arrived there, I saw a half-drunken bottle of Coca Cola they had left in the middle of the room.

“We ran the bottle for fingerprints, but to no avail,” he concludes. “Now that’s a perfect organized burglary scenario. They’ve certain sets of tools to cleanly carry out the job without leaving any trace or clue. The one that happened at Master saeb’s doesn’t even compare to the Zonimar one.”

My thoughts gather in a whirlwind of amazement and apprehension as I swallow his experiences. The official glances at me knowingly.

“When talking about organized burglaries,” he continues, “places like Naraain Bagh, Dub and Saedpora mark usual occurrences. The perpetrators have only been apprehended twice.”

Organized burglars operate while following a certain set of rules, the official, while scratching the nape of his neck, says. “For instance, those in Naraain Bagh have two such rules: No burglary on Thursday and on a night with clear moonlight.”

My mouth twitches as I suppress a smile.

Others operate in a different manner altogether, the police official explains while drawing a visual map of their plan through words. “They’ll find a good goldsmith in the city and show him real gold. They’ll fix a price and ask for an advance. Once they receive the advance in payment, they’ll arrange to ship gold-plated jewelry to the goldsmith the next day while disappearing from the area themselves.”

Such burglars stake out near their targets and plan for months, before finding a calculated opportunity to strike and meticulously acquire the desired items.

“They don’t aim for everyday objects like gas stoves, utensils, even new clothes,” he says. “Their target is usually someone who has amassed wealth and property and has much more to lose than the average person.” 

It indeed appears much more complicated than a simple assumption of ill-intention toward the target.

Unorganized burglary, on the other hand, is usually a consequence of drug intake, the official states, holding up a finger. It’s mostly sloppy, poorly coordinated and can be resolved within two to three hours. “And this reminds me about an interesting case that happened in the recent past,” the official reminisces.

“A pregnant lady applied for the position of a maid at one of the houses in the downtown area. The first day, she located where the gold and jewelry were kept and in the next, brought a man along with her after convincing the inhabitants of the household to hire him.”

After preparing breakfast for the inhabitants and confirming their joint presence in a single room, the man waited inside the kitchen while the lady stole all the jewelry and cash within fifteen minutes. “Then they split the goods and left the house. The lady climbed and jumped over a high wall overlooking the main road beside the house, which resulted in her baby’s miscarriage.”

The police discovered about her pregnancy through the blood drops that had secreted in the grass beside the wall when she had miscarried, the official explains. On the main road, while questioning passersby and shopkeepers, the police had learnt that she had booked an auto-rickshaw.

“We contacted the driver who informed us that he had dropped her at Jahangir Chowk. Over there, we learned that she had booked a full cab to Rawalpora,” he continues. “The sumo cab driver told us the exact destination where he dropped her, which was near a house. The inhabitant of the house, a man, informed us that she had been taken to SMHS hospital due to her rapidly deteriorating condition. The lady was apprehended after we reached the hospital.”

The thief was caught within two hours of the complaint.

Unorganized crime usually occurs in hospitals—in the form of pick-pocketry—or areas of residence populated by business class citizens. Since most business-class families leave their houses unattended for weeks or even months, especially during the winter, they become an easy target to steal from.

“During our police-public interactions, we consistently implore them to keep a watchman or any inhabitant in the house or to store their valuables in a bank if they’re to be away for long periods of time,” the police official states. “Whenever a burglary happens in our neighborhood, it’s a source of worry and stress for us.”

Apart from drug addicts, the official lists beggars and non-locals as usual perpetrators traced by the police. A portion of those involved in unorganized burglary also include those who derive their wages on a day-to-day basis, he says. “The prevailing conflict in the region has increased the likelihood of sporadic economic poverty. And when all the avenues for the common man fail to operate, social evils like these start to originate.”

Woman sitting on footpath with her new born and looking for donation, Photo by Yasir Kazmi, Karachi, Pakistan.

Take the example of drug addicts, for instance, he says, as the police constable’s chair scraps dully outside. “Whenever we would catch anyone within our area, we would try to offer the addict counselling or refer him/her to a drug de-addiction center. 

“Shockingly, the addict’s parents would advise against it, stating that it could later become a source of shame and resentment for them in the society. For them, their self-respect was more important than their son/daughter’s mental health,” he states.

I sheepishly smile in response, embarrassed at his observation.

“On orders of the District Police Office, the drug addicts now apprehended are traced back to their peddlers and their property seized. This ensures a lesser functioning of such corrupted systems,” he concludes, nodding at the finality of the conversation.

While processing and churning out useful information shared in a span of few hours, I step out to welcome breeze, briefly glancing at the seated constable. He gazes at me, for a few seconds as I pass him by, turning his head back to resume staring at the gate’s entrance.

The aura surrounding the station is alert and quiet—unlike the life outside its walls. Horns of luxurious and average cars toot in a tone-deaf rhythm alongside sporadic zooms of public buses. The main gate shuts croakily behind me.

The noise in the city drowns out much of a person’s thought, but none of the growing trepidation toward the now-looming threat of burglary.

*

In 1965, while he and a few others landed in Central Jail for a month, Zareef Ahmed Zareef, a Kashmiri poet conversed with a few thieves who were serving their time alongside him. “It was during those days that I found out how they had operated in the city,” he says over the phone, setting the tone for a delightful trip to the past.

A century ago, much like today, burglars in Kashmir would come out at night to steal things, the humour-loaded poet begins, painting a vague picture of ninja-like silhouettes. “They would prefer not to break the locks of shops in the market since a watchman, like a security guard, would be hired in every community to overlook the supplies.” 

Once in a while, burglars would enter and steal items through the front of the shop by either breaking the lock or the phaalaw of the shop, he says. “Nowadays, you’ve steel shutters, but during that time, the shop would be closed by lining up wooden blocks against each other like a chain, which was called ‘phaalaw’.”

Usually, the burglars would tear down the back wall of the shop or even of a house, and steal the items. The stolen items would then be sold to a maelkhor—broker—who would later sell them in the market to gain profit.

Shawls, jewelry, kitchen utensils were few of the items that would be frequently stolen and then sold off to the maelkhor, who, Zareef says, would not be under the radar of the police or the average population as they would be considered to be simple traders.

“The names of all the burglars active during those times would be registered in the police station. They would be numbered and graded according to the kind of theft they committed,” Zareef says, his words conjuring a makeshift register in my mind. “The one numbered as ‘No. 10’ meant that he would’ve been caught by the police ten times. He would’ve completed serving time for ten committed acts of thievery.”

These “No.10 thieves” would’ve to spend every night in jail in exchange for their crimes, Zareef continues. “In Kashmiri, one would call it ruondh dyun, which means keeping an eye. The photos of these thieves would be displayed in all the police stations in the city.”

At that time, the city contained only four police stations. The central station at that time was the one in Zaina Kadal, considered to be Kashmir’s first police station.

During those days, the police officers would take rounds in their respective areas during midnight hours (rowndwael), while loudly proclaiming, “Khabardaar….hoshyaar! Jaago bhai jaago! (Beware, be conscious! Stay vigilant!)” 

This was done to stir any groggy citizen awake from their sleep and to frighten thieves who would be on the prowl to steal.

Moreover, during an event of attempted and/or committed theft, police officers of that area would bring in veteran thieves to identify the perpetrator through his methods of thievery.

Diving into the ancient burglar’s revered methods, poet Zareef’s trip down memory lane takes a humorous turn.

“During the summer season, around midnight, the burglars of Kashmir would massage themselves with oil all over their body and leave their hiding places wearing nothing but boxers (kieth). This would aid them in slipping from the police or the public’s grasp if they were to be caught red-handed in the act,” he skillfully narrates, stating that this was called ‘teel maethith sun din’.

During winters, burglars would wear tight-fitting clothes for a similar purpose of fleeing unscathed.

“It’s believed that the burglars of those times would visit graveyards and scoop a handful of dirt to sprinkle into the places or rooms they wanted to steal from. The inhabitants of the places or rooms would then fall into a deep sleep, owing to the graveyard dirt,” he says.

Burglars would also visit shrines like Dastgeer Sahib and Makhdoom Sahib to pray for the success of their theft and to submit offerings, niyaaz, in the saint’s name.

“As is obvious, burglars would operate in groups of two or three,” Zareef says. “One particular group of burglars would target factory workers from the village. The workers would stop by the local mosque to rest while en route to their hometown. The burglars would then enter the mosque and proclaim themselves to be saints obliged to provide offerings made by their master. The offerings, in fact, would contain the leaves of poppy plants (band) mixed with non-vegetarian food.

“The thieves would then distribute the food according to the workers’ age and tolerance. To a kid, a small portion of the food infused with poppy was enough to knock him out. An adult would be given ample amounts. After providing the food, they would leave and then visit the mosque an hour later to find the victims unconscious.”

In a YouTube video, titled ‘Robin Hoods of Kashmir’, the poet explains a different breed of thieves who were active mainly from 1910 to 1922, referencing a tourist’s diary entry penned in 1925 while speeding to Gulmarg in a public vehicle.

Zareef primarily focuses on three such thieves who belonged to different religious and ethnic communities, respectively, known to be Usman Chasht from Safakadal, Madhav Bisht from Mattan and Laayak Singh from Kathi Darwaaza.

He states how these three were the ‘Robin Hoods’ of Kashmir who existed in real life and committed acts of kindness by stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor, much like their famous fictional counterpart. He details their encounters with the public with a twinge of humor and satire, weaving a delightful tale by realizing fact through supposed fiction.

“During that time,” he says, “those who fathered a lot of daughters would grow sad and hopeless due to their circumstances, and many would even die. Their daughters, to earn a living, would light lamps at night in their respective households and spin wheels. These thieves, on happenstance, would come upon such houses. They would then place rice bags, newspapers filled with tea leaves, shawls, gold, silver and other essentials in the family’s respective gardens to help these fatherless women fare with ease.”

The character of such thieves is only prominent in famous fictional protagonists like Robin Hood. “However,” Zareef says, “what I’ve shared with you now is the reality that existed in Kashmir just over a century ago.”

But in contrast, the burglars of today are scientific and educated, he states. “They’re aware of the various ways through which they can be easily caught, and thus are more meticulous and thoroughly informed.” 

For instance, he says, if you go to a bus and someone steals your money and gets caught, a man in the same bus will come forward, slap the thief two or three times and exit the bus with the thief in tow. “It should occur to you at that time that both of them are working together,” Zareef cautions. 

“You’ll find some snatching the phone of your hands while they’re on a bike and them accelerating out of sight. The thievery of today is much more advanced than the thievery of a century ago,” he observes as his words bring the ancient tales of yore to a close.

*

The sun whimpers mercifully behind the gray clouds. The community’s daily buzz has stopped churning words like ‘thief’, ‘unfortunate’, and ‘fate’ for a while now. Moreover, talks of hiring a watchman and pursuing a full-fledged investigation on mutually despised neighbors have steadily died down.

Currently, politics dominates the discussion, followed by the assembly elections and raids on the region’s religious and political personalities. Abdullah continues to click his tongue over his son’s undying obsession with WiFi while the kandur zealously works on providing tsots and tsachvarus.

“I can’t get one thing, though,” Hoor Baji says in the kitchen, as she fixes tea for another round of guests that are impatiently waiting in the next room. Master saeb glances at her briefly, his hands rummaging around the closet for a fresh pack of chocolate-flavored biscuits.

“What’s that?” Master saeb asks, absent-mindedly, as he empties a pack on a ceramic plate. Both pairs of hands deftly assemble the cups and saucers in a systematic, and suffocating fashion.

“There’re six houses that have a direct view of your kitchen,” she says, her voice lowering and her eyes brimming with questions. “How could no one, not even one house, hear all that noise?”

Her son picks up the tray and mentally checks the assortment of goodies for the guests.

“Maybe the thieves threw graveyard dirt into our rooms,” he mutters jokingly, cracking a small smile and turning towards the door.

“How did you know?” she asks.

He stops in his tracks and looks at her. “What?”

She blinks, her eyes wide. “The servant found dirt in the room where we had slept that night. He asked me what we were doing.” Her face contorts into confusion. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t think it was important. How did you know?”

His hands shake as realization dawns on him.

“I didn’t…” he says, his fingers itching to rub his eyes and his voice trailing off into shock and denial. “I didn’t know…”

 

Like this story? Producing quality journalism costs. Make a Donation & help keep our work going.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top