Guns ‘n’ apples

Posted on: October 20, 2014

Kashmir’s militants who’ve given up the gun have a new passion — business.Sonia Sarkar tracks their forays into the world of money

The apple trees in his 100-bigha orchard are in full bloom, and Abdul Qadeer Dar is gently plucking the fruits. The good ones are going to be carefully packed in wooden boxes and sold across the country.

“My clients have lot of respect for me,” he says. “It’s hard earned, and I cannot lose it by compromising on the quality of the fruit,” Dar says.

From ammos to apples, Dar’s journey has been a dramatic one. Dar took to the gun 25 years ago when he was 18. He was among 60,000 young Kashmiri men who walked to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan for armed training.

But many years and jail stints later, the former commander of north Kashmir of the militant organisation Al Jahad has found a new passion. In 2000, he went back to tending his ancestral land.

Over the last few years, he has bought more land and grown more trees. The fruits in the Baramullah orchard are now being sold outside Kashmir. Dar doesn’t wield the gun any more — instead he brandishes sprays for his apple trees.

The cry for freedom may still ring out from the Valley, but militancy has over the years been subdued in Kashmir, where elected governments have been in power for 18 years. For many of the men who had dedicated their youth to the militant movement for independence, life has taken new turns. They have given up the gun, and picked up the threads of their lives.

“I will not get back my youth. I have started from zero to give myself a normal life,” says Dar, who also runs Voice of Victims, an NGO that works for the rights of former militants.

Dar, 43, focused on horticulture because it was the only sector of the economy that ran successfully even when militancy was at its peak. Now Dar’s annual turnover from apples is about Rs 15 lakh.

Some, like Dar, deal with horticulture. Others are in real estate and businesses such as electrical goods and handicrafts. Sajjad Gul, a former senior commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, deals with electrical goods in Srinagar’s Maisuma Bazar.

Gul, 42, was barely 16 when he joined the militants in 1988. In 2010, when he was released following a year in jail after being arrested for the ninth time, Gul decided to give up militancy and start his business.

  • New innings: Sheikh Imtiyaz Ahmed with his son; (top) Abdul Qadeer Dar. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar

“I realised that life had become a vicious cycle of killings and jail. I decided to get out of it and start a new one which would carry no scars of the past,” Gul says.

He took financial help from his brothers and started his shop with an investment of Rs 15 lakh. “Fortunately, I earned a profit of Rs 1 lakh in the first month itself. I told myself, I can do it,” Gul says. He lives in a four-storey house in Pantha Chowk on the outskirts of Srinagar, with wife Shaheeda, son, Sharif, 9, and daughter Zanam, 5.

But while many militants of the late Eighties and Nineties are looking at ways of redoing their lives, they complain that little help has come from the government. In 2010, the state government launched a rehabilitation package for militants but it was aimed at helping surrendered militants who had returned from Pakistan.

“The government did not provide us with any loans at subsidised rates to help us start a business,” says Mohammed Ayyub, a former commander of Al Jahad. The 43-year-old Srinagar resident now runs a real estate business.

The fact that Kashmir has been largely peaceful in the last three years has given a boost to the construction sector. “Wherever there is destruction, there will also be construction,” says Ayyub. “So this is the best business to be in now,” he adds.

Moving into business after years of unrest was not easy for the men, many of whom had dropped out of schools and colleges to fight for independence. Sheikh Imtiyaz Ahmed, 46, didn’t know what to do when he was released from jail in 1995. Ahmed, whose family members mostly held government jobs, knew that his record meant he couldn’t join the government. So the former district commander of al-Umar Mujahideen started an aluminium fabrication business in 1997.

“I took a bank loan of Rs 2 lakh and mortgaged my father’s house,” he says. Ahmed says his business has now an annual turnover of around Rs 25 lakh.

Till two years ago, separatist leader Shabir Shah, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, held a 25 per cent share in a hotel in Pahalgam, which he says he has subsequently got rid of.

Shah states that he invests money in various local projects, and the contractors share their profit with him in return. “This is my regular source of income,” he says.

Running their own businesses is not easy for the former militants, who allege that they are often harassed by government agencies. “I want to purchase material from Delhi but the police follow me everywhere I go. I get humiliated in front of my clients,” Ahmed says.

Gul adds that the initial years were difficult because his clients were worried about his past. “It was difficult to strike business deals. I had to convince people that I didn’t own a gun anymore,” he says.

But they have now been successfully expanding their businesses — Dar has started a transport business too, Gul plans to start a furnishing shop and Sheikh also deals with interiors.

The former militants want their children to lead happy lives. Dar dreams that his children — Suvaid, 10, and Sovan, 5, who go to an English medium school in Baramulla — will prosper. “I want a promising future for my children,” he says.

But even that is not always easy. Ahmed says his daughter wanted to go abroad for higher studies. “But the government held back her application for a passport because of ‘adverse reports’ on my past,” he adds.

Sociologist Bashir Ahmad Dabla says the government has to ensure that former militants and their families lead a normal life. “They have been tortured and are now out of jail. If they have been cleared of charges, it is the responsibility of the government to give them the space to lead normal lives,” the Kashmir University professor says.

For some of the former militants, activism has taken different forms. Dar and a former operation commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, Zaffar Akbar Butt, who sat through the first ceasefire agreement with the Indian government in July 2000, are now distributing relief material to flood victims.

“It is important to tell everyone that we once had a bloody past but we have a heart too,” says Butt, who deals in real estate in Srinagar’s Chhanapora. “We have to prove ourselves daily.”



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  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.
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