‘Will my children grow up homeless?’: Conflict in Kashmir is eating away its homes

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FPK Photo/Mukhtar Zahoor.

While Sadiq’s residence is rubble, Ashiq’s sank in Dal lake, and Arif’s lays scattered in a forest. These people of land, water and forest are divided in terms of geographical locations, but their grief unites them in their helplessness at the hands of strife in Kashmir.

No sooner did a battery of exultant counterinsurgents retreat from Shopian’s three-day-long military operational zone, two school boys walked up to a smouldering site. With teary eyes, they looked at smoked walls, gutted terraces, crumbled kitchens, wrecked gardens, and burnt belongings. In the warfare waste, lay their cindering portraits, paintings, pens, papers.

The smoke billowing rubble was their residence where they were laughing, studying, sharing their life moments before driven out in a belligerent moment.

In a pensive state, a young boy in his early teens cleared the charred pile with his bare hands, in an attempt to unearth his buried books.

“A part of me has forever gone now,” a tearful teenager said. “While four-walls in the name of home will be there sooner or later, the home won’t be same again. They’ve devoured more than a structure. Nothing can compensate this loss. Nothing.”

In the routine firefights in the volatile valley, the lockdown-battered and the campus-craving students are now increasingly losing their lifetime study materials and countless memorable moments.

While the state justifies house blasting as an unavoidable combat upshot, these discord-bitten students only end up as the silent sufferers.

But what happened at Shopian’s Rawalpora area lately was just another example of the annihilated addresses of Kashmir.

Six houses were gutted in a fire in Shopian after a gunfight. [FPK Photo/Mukhtar Zahoor]

On December 9, 2020, when Sadiq Lone’s house was blown up in a military op, he remained oblivious about it inside a government accommodation.

After contesting DDC (District Development Councils) elections, held for the first time in Jammu and Kashmir by the BJP-led government, Lone was sent to one of the guarded hotels in Srinagar for security reasons.

“When my father participated in DDC elections, our neighbours turned hostile, and now that we are homeless, nobody extends a helping hand,” said Sadiq’s eldest daughter, Jozey.

Three militants were said to have taken refuge at Sadiq’s house, and to harbour a militant is against the law of the land. All three of them were later identified as Kashmiri residents.

At the time of explosive operation, the four siblings including Jozey had left their house empty-handed, while their mother was away at a relative’s to attend a wedding ceremony.

Six houses were gutted in a fire in Shopian after a gunfight. [FPK Photo/Mukhtar Zahoor]

“When I heard the gunshots for the first time, I could only anticipate that someone has come to kill my father since he had taken part in elections,” the distraught daughter recalled. “I curtly gathered my younger siblings in one corner of the house. I was fretful, but had to put up a brave face for the sake of my scared siblings.”

At her home, Jozey’s sister, Bilkis had a little space of her own where she would stitch clothes of her customers to help her family get through the financial restrictions. Her father said he “only wished for a better life for his children, what else could have been the reason” when asked about his purpose of having participated in the elections.

His youngest son, Zamir Sadiq received gunshot wounds in the fire-exchange phase of the military op, and is since being treated for various health related problems. The boy had just turned 18 when caught in the line of fire.

Sadiq’s homeplace Pulwama, a southern district in Kashmir, has emerged as an explosive precinct fraught with frequent fireworks.

According to Srinagar-based rights advocacy body, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), ‘at least 87 encounters took place between Indian armed forces and the militants following CASOs (Cardon and Search Operation) in the year 2019. During CASOs, vandalism and destruction of civilian properties was reported through-out the year’.

A Gujjar man sitting in the backdrop of his demolished hut. [Photo: Muzammil Bashir]

Far away from Pulwama’s uptight landscape, the southern hilly pockets of Pahalgam, a mesmerizing tourist destination, is resounding with another homelessness howl.

In those frozen heights, the nomadic tribal community of Gujjars and Bakerwals has spent the harsh winter season in a state of worry and grief.

In second week of November 2020, Mohammad Abdullah Gorsee and his family met an encounter when his Kotha, a temporary hutment of this nomadic tribe and also their summer home, got bulldozed at the hands of government officials, including that of the forest department, without any prior notice.

“The irony is that we’ve been asked to submit the residential proof by the same officials after and not before the initiation of the demolition process in our area,” said Mohammad Arif Gorsee, son of Abdullah Gorsee.

After stripping the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status on August 5, 2019, the central laws were extended to the new union territory, including Forest Rights Act, 2006.

The Act guarantees the forest dwellers their right to reside at a place, recorded officially as forest area, including various other rights, like using forest produce, and grazing their cattle over a defined area. However, this law is yet to see the light of the day in J&K.

Many people of this community have been served with eviction notices in the month of October last year under which they were asked to ‘evict from the unauthorized occupied land, and to remove the encroachment within 5 days’.

“Our ancestors have resided here at this place, it’s a story of more than 8 decades, and not of days or months that they have termed our stay at this place as illegal,” Arif says.

Some of the fear of the people in hills has transcended down to the plains. On October 27, 2020, the central government issued an order according to which, ‘…the government may on the written request of an Army officer not below the rank of Corp commander, declare an area as strategic area within a local area…’ against which many experts and human rights activists have sharply reacted.

“Land ownership has historically been a key to emancipation in Kashmir,” argued Mohammad Junaid, a Kashmiri anthropologist, based in US.

“With the changes since 2019, especially the abrogation of 35A as well as these new orders about ‘strategic areas’ make people of Kashmir vulnerable to dispossession, eviction and in general to disempowerment.”

Being able to have rights over one’s own piece of land was a result of a long popular struggle against feudalism and big estates, Junaid continued. “But we’re now seeing a potential return of big estates which will be held by Indian corporates in the name of ‘development’ and by Indian military in the name of ‘security’.”

Of those served with the eviction notices, many have resided in the Kashmir forests since the time India was yet to gain its independence from the British rule.

The British at that time carved the houseboats in Kashmir’s Dal lake into their elegant design, and since 1947 when India gained its independence, their number in the Dal lake has reduced from 3500 to less than a thousand at present.

Since the beginning, these houseboats have served tourists in Kashmir, and consequently have had an impact on its economy. But the owners of the houseboats can neither repair them, nor go for a reconstruction amidst a ban imposed by the government, the first of which was imposed in 1980s.

“The government even built a dockyard which has a sole purpose of repairing or reconstructing a houseboat, but the dockyard never served its purpose except that one or two houseboats were constructed on an influential basis,” said Tariq Ahmad Patloo, a houseboat owner.

Despite some of these ailing houseboats sinking under the weight of snow this past winter, government seems to have no rehabilitation policy in store for the community. “They’ve left us to wither away in this lake which kept our homes afloat for decades now,” Patloo lamented.

All the houseboats in the Dal and Nigeen lake bear licenses issued to them by the Department of Tourism. Amid apathy, the owners say they’re ready to surrender them.

“I’m ready to submit my license if I’m given a piece of land where I can build a safe space even out of tin, and not any bricks, for my children to stay,” said Ashiq Ahmad, whose houseboat, New Shimla, sank on January 6, 2021, with the season’s first heavy snowfall in Srinagar.

Ashiq had to make quick arrangements and shift his family including his two minor children to a rented room amidst the heavy snowfall. He is due to pay his rent of Rs. 5000 for this month.

“I’m not sure if I’ll be able to convince my landlord for the delay in the payment of rent,” the houseboat owner said. “It’s the most difficult phase of my life.”

Ashiq and his brother would earlier host tourists in their houseboat, but as tourism took a steep fall in the valley, they shunned the practice due to financial restrictions.

The tourists were dramatically ordered to vacate the valley, at a short notice in July 2019, days before the abrogation of J&K’s special status that year. This came with a complete communication shutdown including that of internet, broadband services, landlines, and a civil curfew for months together.

When the global pandemic broke out in March 2020, the people in Kashmir had just stepped out of their homes after a long shutdown. It was only after more than a year that the high-speed internet connectivity was restored in Kashmir. It has been the longest internet shutdown experienced in any democratic nation so far.

As per the central government, the removal of Article 370 was to bring in an atmosphere of peace and development in the valley.

However, the data goes against the claims. According to report published by The Hindu, J&K witnessed less than 50,000 tourist arrivals between the months of August and December of 2019.

As per the same report, a loss of Rs 17,878.18 crores was suffered in 10 Kashmir districts, according to Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and industry, an oldest trade body in Kashmir.

Amid all this, Sadiq’s daughter, Jozey said the house they lost to the military op was their only property. Her father is once again worried about the future of his children, so is Ashiq, “Will my children grow up homeless?”

The same anxiety has gripped Arif, “I fret thinking over what is next to come,” as the deadline for Forest Rights Act, to be implemented in J&K, has been set for March 31.

At Shopian’s scorched earth, the two boys could only cry their hearts out over their charred dreams. Soon as the counterinsurgents returned “on a tipoff”, they ran back to their neighbours’ home for a temporary shelter. They took turns to window watch the sheer sight of homelessness, with a sense of helplessness.


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