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Archive for the ‘Kashmir’ Category

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New Delhi is stepping up arrests of Kashmiri clerics and monitoring mosques, sparking concerns of a religious crackdown, not just a political one.

By Sonia Sarkar

It was a dark Eid for 11-year-old Saeed Mutaiba this August. When she returned home from a brief vacation at her grandfather’s house, she discovered police taking away her father, Mohammed Ameen, a prayer leader at Jamia Masjid in Awantipora, in the strife-torn region of Jammu and Kashmir. She, her mother and her 6-year-old brother have repeatedly visited the police station to appeal for his release — in vain.

“He looked tired. I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything for him,” says the young girl.

A secular democracy, India has long tried to avoid emphasizing the religious undertones to the conflict in Kashmir, blaming it instead solely on Pakistan-backed militancy there. But in recent months, police have stepped up arrests of Islamic clerics and prayer leaders and clamped down on mosques in what was the country’s only Muslim-majority state. That has coincided with the Indian government’s move on Aug. 5 to strip off the constitutional provisions of autonomy Kashmir enjoyed while placing the region under lockdown. Though there is no official number of arrests, the government’s approach — which it argues is necessary for the region’s security — threatens India’s credibility, say analysts.

WE KNOW WHO IS WHAT IN THE MOSQUES AND HOW ANTI-INDIA MESSAGES ARE SPREAD BY THESE CLERICS AND RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS.

DILBAG SINGH, JAMMU AND KASHMIR POLICE CHIEF

Ameen, 39, was arrested on Aug. 6. In June, the police arrested a cleric in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. In March, two imams in south Kashmir’s Pulwama were arrested. The head of a religious body was denied a passport after he was charged with “anti-India” activities. Since Aug. 5, policemen in plainclothes are also recording the khutbahs (sermons) read out in mosques after Friday prayers, law enforcement officials concede. On Eid, Jamia Masjid and the Hazratbal Shrine — two of Kashmir’s most iconic shrines — were shut.

Donations made to Baitulmal, the charity fund in mosques, are being monitored. Police are asking clerics to divulge details of relatives living in Kashmir and in Pakistan. Their bank accounts are being scrutinized, officials say, arguing that these moves are aimed at preventing the radicalization of youth in mosques.

“We know who is what in the mosques and how anti-India messages are spread by these clerics and religious institutions,” says Dilbag Singh, the police chief of Jammu and Kashmir.

Indeed, religious organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir have long espoused the right to self-determination. And Indian officials too have kept the group’s imams under surveillance earlier. Others, like Jamia Masjid imam Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have been detained multiple times over the past three decades. But earlier Indian governments have tried to avoid the impression that they’re against religious bodies, by only targeting individuals. Farooq has been part of negotiations on Kashmir’s future.

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Friday prayers at Srinagar airport, Jammu and Kashmir.

SOURCE SONIA SARKAR

This February though, India banned the Jamaat. And now, notwithstanding ideological affiliations, all imams and mosques are under vigil. In September, religious processions for Muharram — the day of mourning the tragedy of Karbala — were banned in parts of Kashmir. Officials accuse some mourners last year of holding aloft portraits of slain militant leader Burhan Wani. “We use every occasion to remind ourselves that our fight is for freedom,” says Ubaid, who requested that his last name not be used, in downtown Srinagar’s Soura neighborhood.

But the Indian government is now increasingly blurring the line it maintained between religion and security practices, say many experts. Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst Ajai Sahni calls the clampdown on mosques and religious leaders by the ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi “ideology-driven.”

“The BJP’s strategy is to polarize and demonize Kashmiri Muslims,” he says. “These actions largely express communal prejudice compounded by an electoral calculus for political gains outside Kashmir.” The government’s moves, he says, are “intended to intimidate people of the Kashmir valley and tell them, ’Look, this is what we can do to you.’”

Hafsa Kanjwal, assistant professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, says the current Indian government sees the Muslim identity of Kashmiris as a threat. She says the efforts to exert control over religious spaces and leaders “is not surprising.”

India, experts point out, has seen worse threats to its sovereignty over Kashmir, such as in 1989, when local men picked up guns demanding azaadi (freedom). The government at the time mishandled the crisis, say analysts. Sahni recalls how after the Friday prayers in 1990–91, a section of mosques would name Hindu families and threaten them with violence if they didn’t leave Kashmir. “The government made a strategic error by facilitating their exodus, instead of providing them with security where they were,” Sahni says.

Yet there was no crackdown on religious institutions then. Now, a policeman at Awantipora police station has no hesitation in telling me on a Friday afternoon in August that he’s rushing to the Jamia Masjid — to “lead the prayers” — instead of letting the imam do so.

Some clerics point to the fact that especially over the past five years since Modi came to power, many educated Kashmiris, including engineers, research scholars and professors, have joined militancy. “If mosques are the only places of radicalization, then why would a research scholar or engineer join militancy?,” asks Hilal Ahmed, a 29-year-old imam at a Srinagar mosque.

But the government’s strategy could backfire, caution analysts. “Long detentions of religious leaders … [instead] of the narrow targeting of the troublemakers, will be interpreted as a broader communal assault on the Muslims,” Sahni warns.

For the moment though, those suffering the most are families like Ameen’s. Mutaiba’s wait for her father continues.

 

 

Now India Clamps Down on Kashmir’s Mosques

Okus-Bokus, by two Kashmiri women, comes as fears grow over loss of identity amid perceived attempts to erase culture.

by

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Granny takes little Billa and Munni for a walk in Srinagar, and stops by the tomb of the mother of Zainul-Abidin, Kashmir’s former king, built around 1430.

“Look at Kashmir’s history, you see how tough the people are,” she tells her grandchildren. “They have been ruled by foreigners for long – 700 years of occupation.”

Granny, or Naen, Billa and Munni are fictional characters in a new children’s book, Okus-Bokus, written and illustrated by two Kashmiri women, 29-year-old Onaiza Drabu, and Ghazal, 24, respectively.

The story has resonated in Indian-administered Kashmir, which has been under lockdown since August 5, the day India stripped the region of some of its autonomy.

The title of the book is derived from the Kashmiri phrase hukus–bukus, which broadly translates to: “Who is s/he?, who am I?”

In the tale, granny teaches Kashmiri words from A to Z to the children while identifying traditions, culture and food habits.

This book comes against the backdrop of rising concerns that Kashmir’s demography and unique culture will change, with fears that India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party will attempt to “Indianise” the region.

“Traditional ways of being Kashmiri are slowly losing relevance, and this book can tie Kashmiris to their roots,” co-author Drabu told Al Jazeera. “This book could help children of this generation [learn] all that we have in our history and culture, and hopefully set them on a quest for their Kashmiri identity.”

The author of the book [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Okus-Bokus co-author Onaiza Drabu, 29, said her book aims to educate children about Kashmir’s unique culture, which is neither Indian nor Pakistani [Courtesy: Onaiza Drabu]

Drabu said the book was written as an apolitical text, but acknowledged that it is not above political interpretation.

“Even though the book was not written consciously to refer to the pain of a Kashmiri, the language in use is alive, sub-consciously in my head too,” said Drabu.

Young Kashmiris related to the “language” Drabu referred to.

For instance, Javed, a 17-year-old from Srinagar, read “E” for “Enz” (goose) who “don’t fly like other birds,” as a metaphor.

“Like Enz, we too cannot fly. Indian forces have caged us,” he said.

In another entry that could be read as having a double meaning, the book refers to “al-hachi”, a dry Kashmiri pumpkin which is prepared in the summer and saved for the winter when it is unavailable.

The book says this helps when supplies are low, when the “roads become difficult to navigate”. 

Kashmiris preserve a range of vegetables, also including turnips, eggplants and tomatoes, so there is enough to eat during sudden curfews.

“At the peak of militancy in the 90s, curfews brought the valley to a standstill for days. In 2016, Kashmir was under curfew for about 99 days. Currently, despite government’s claim of ‘normalcy’ in the valley, shops are shut.

“Over the years, we have learnt innovative ways of coping with the crisis and to not die hungry,” Asiya Mushtaque, a 45-year-old teacher from Awantipora, told Al Jazeera.

Our history textbooks started with Partition of India followed by attacks by Pakistani rebels in Kashmir and glorifying Sheikh Abdullah’s role in acceding to India. There was nothing about people’s anger against militancy and military occupation.

SOUZEINA MUSHTAQ, SRINAGAR RESIDENT

US-based anthropologist Ather Zia recently wrote a series of children’s stories titled Gula of Kashmir, about Gula, a young fish who lives in the Verinag spring, that touches on Kashmir’s history and ethos.

She believes short stories can teach children about cultural and political resistance.

Nyla Ali Khan, a US-based author, academic and the granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah, the first Muslim prime minister of Kashmir, said the narrative around Kashmiri identity tends to centre around “militancy”.

“Kashmir has a distinct identity and any attempt to homogenise it and make it part of the ultra right-wing monolithic identity should be thwarted. It is important for people to be educated about one’s culture first,” she told Al Jazeera.

Young Kashmiris allege that the Indian government has long tried to “Indianise” Kashmiri history through textbooks.

“Our history textbooks started with Partition of India followed by attacks by Pakistani rebels in Kashmir and glorifying Sheikh Abdullah’s role in acceding to India,” 30-year-oldSouzeina Mushtaq, who grew up in Bemina, Srinagar, told Al Jazeera.

“There was nothing about people’s anger against militancy and military occupation.”

Social scientist Mohamad Junaid, of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, believes that attempts to wipe out Kashmiri culture will intensify under the BJP.

In December, in a move that angered linguists, the Indian government withdrew the Kashmiri language from Bhasha Sangam, an online portal it had set up to celebrate the “unique symphony of languages of our country”.

Some Kashmiri Pandits had complained that the version of the language on the website was widely used by Muslims, and therefore ignored Hindus, who according to them, speak Kashmiri differently.

“Some Kashmiri Pandits want to assert themselves politically in all matters related to Kashmir in order to settle the tragedy of their exodus,” M K Raina, a Delhi-based theatre director who has worked with Kashmiri artists for decades, told Al Jazeera.

Several Kashmiri Pandits support India’s move to revoke Article 370, the part of the constitution which had given some autonomy to Kashmir for seven decades.

“There could be a cultural aggression by BJP through imposition of Hindi in Kashmir like everywhere else in India,” feared a former director of education in Kashmir, who requested anonymity.

For now, though, Okus-Bokus is making its way to Kashmir’s children.

On the last leg of their journey, granny reaches the final letters of the alphabet.

“Y” is for “yaemberzal”, the fragrant narcissus flower which signals the arrival of spring.

“Will there ever be another spring in Kashmir?” said Faraz Khan, a 19-year-old from Srinagar, as he flipped through the children’s book. “India is the current occupier of Kashmir. It has paralysed us for 70 years.”

 

[The story appeared in Al Jazeera on 16th September 2019: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/kashmir-children-book-highlights-region-culture-190915140353211.html%5D

By Sonia Sarkar

 

A school in Kashmir's Tral area with Musa - a rebel killed by security forces - written on its entrance [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
A school in Kashmir’s Tral area with Musa – a rebel killed by security forces – written on its entrance [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]

 

When the bearded man in blue tee screamed – “There is only one solution,” hundreds of others on the street cheered  – “Gun Solution, Gun Solution.”

These were the scenes from Srinagar, capital of the Indian-administered Kashmir, soon after Friday prayers on August 23, showed a New York Times video.

 Curfew has been imposed across the Valley since August 5, the day the Indian Parliament abrogated Article 370 and 35 A which gave special status to Kashmir. Barring a few landlines, all communication channels have been snapped since then.

 Forces have been deployed in large numbers, especially during Friday prayers to prevent possible protests.

But these visuals showed that the locals defied all restrictions and gave a stern message to the government that the only solution to this crisis is militancy.

These sentiments have been echoed by 24-year-old unemployed commerce graduate Rasheed in Dangarpura village of Awantipora in south Kashmir.

Rasheed claimed, since the lockdown, he has been summoned by paramilitary personnel posted at a nearby camp several times because they wanted him to work as an “informer.” As he rejected the offer, they have started harassing him.

“Recently, two paramilitary personnel came home and threatened to slap a case under Public Safety Act against me if I don’t accept the offer. I would never work for an Indian security agency but if this harassment continues, the only way to protect myself is to join the militants, pick up a gun,” Rasheed said. “I prefer to die only once than dying multiple deaths every day.”

South Kashmir has turned into a hotbed of militancy in the past half a decade. Two militants of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Burhan Wani and Zakir Musa, killed by security forces in 2016 and 2019 respectively, belonged to Tral in south Kashmir. People came out in large numbers in their support at their funerals. Names of Wani and Musa are scribbled on every second wall including that of a school in Tral (see pic). A tag — “Burhan Wani, you are still alive,” stencilled by local boys outside Burhan’s house has been recently replaced with “India,” written by the security forces.

Detentions of boys

Police sources said, many “troublemakers” have been picked up from Tral township in the past three weeks. 

Locals alleged, the number is, at least, 100.

A day before Eid, a 12-year-old boy has been picked up by the police from his house on this lane adjacent to Khanqah-e-Faiz Panah shrine in Tral. “They picked him up for stone-pelting but the truth is, he was confined to his house all these days, didn’t go to tuition either,” alleged Salma, the boy’s Aunt.

Estimates said, around 4,000 people have been detained by the police across the Valley ever since the lock down. The director general of police of Jammu and Kashmir Dilbag Singh didn’t comment on the figures or on detention of minors but told Al Jazeera, “Detention is a dynamic process. We keep picking up men and releasing them.”

Tral-based contractor Tariq Dar said this harassment and torture would push the boys to join militancy.  “When they are being picked up, questioned and tortured for no reason, how else they would heal their wound other than picking up guns?” asked  Dar.

Human rights violations have been a routine affair in Kashmir for the past three decades. But what hurts young Kashmiris like 18-year-old Sameer of Tral most now is the snapping of all communication channels and ripping them off the special status and statehood. 

“The Indian government has made us non-existent in one blow,” Sameer, a Class XII student said. “If we follow the path of armed resistance like Burhan, we would, at least, feel we have done something fruitful to avenge this humiliation,” he reasoned out.

Burhan’s father Muzaffar Wani, a school principal, told Al Jazeera,  “Children don’t have the strength to bear the torture that we have been bearing for the past 70 years.” 

Adding that he never encouraged students to join militancy, Wani said, “Currently, everyone has been forced to remain silent. We will know how the boys react only after this lull.”

But Singh is confident that there will be “better days” ahead.

“Whenever our intelligence reports reveal, any boy is joining militancy, we tell his parents that he too will get killed like Wani and Musa, then the parents try to dissuade him,” he told Al Jazeera, adding, 127 militants have been killed so far this year.

Singh claimed, the number of men joining militancy has gone down in the past one year. About 120 men joined militancy between January – August, 2018, as compared to 70 in the same period this year.

‘Muscular’ approach 

The ruling nationalist BJP has adopted a “muscular” policy in Kashmir soon after implementing Operation All Out 2017 in order to “flush out” militants.

 

But Delhi-based defence expert A.S. Dulat warned that this muscular approach may not work.

“The excessive use of force won’t work if you use it as a policy to sort out Kashmir insurgency. There will be a reaction to it. Remember, the whole population is angry,” former Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Dulat told Al Jazeera.

Krakow-based Kashmir expert Agnieszka Kuszewska said, “People seem to be more determined to defend themselves against what they perceive as occupation and unprecedented military presence.”

Delhi-based national security analyst Happymon Jacob believed, historically, “political missteps” have led to a spike in militancy in Kashmir. 

“In all these years –1987 (rigged elections), 1990s (militarization of the Valley), 2008 (the Amarnath land dispute), 2010 (when over 100 Kashmiris were allegedly killed by the Indian security forces) and 2016 (killing of Burhan Wani), pre-existing alienation and proximate causes led to increased violence. What has happened now is a step further. New Delhi has not only stripped Kashmir off the statehood but also made mainstream politicians irrelevant. These factors could lead to a spike in violence in months ahead,” said Jacob.

Three pro-India former chief ministers have been put under house arrest after abrogation of Article 370.

“Indian government labels all Kashmiris as terrorists,” Rasheed said. “Let’s then prove the government right.”

ENDS

By Sonia Sarkar

World’s largest democracy, India, is electing the representatives for its next Parliament but a large section of people in the Indian–administered Kashmir has chosen to boycott. Amid the unprecedented deployment of security forces and internet shut down, nobody came to vote at 122 polling booths in Kulgam of Anantnag constituency on Monday.  The trend was similar in other two constituencies – Srinagar and Baramulla.  No votes were cast in, at least, 107 polling booths there a fortnight ago.

Srinagar-based Asma Firdous, who had taken to streets against Indian security forces with Franz Kafka in her bag and stone in hand, refused to get her finger inked in the ongoing elections. This 26-year-old postgraduate student, who often chanted slogans of  “Azadi (freedom)” on the streets, says –“We don’t consider ourselves as Indians, nor do the Indians consider us as one of their own, why vote for India, then?

Like her, many Kashmiris allege, India is only concerned about retaining Kashmir as its territory but never considered them as its own people. This disillusionment has been growing among Kashmiris ever since the Hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – came to power in 2014. The party articulated its core agenda to abrogate Article 370 and 35 A, which give autonomy to Kashmir and permanent residency to state subjects under Indian Constitution, respectively. Kashmiris allege, BJP is trying to change the demography of Muslim-dominated Kashmir, the strife-torn Valley of India over which at least two wars have been fought with Pakistan.

Poll boycott in Kashmir is a stern message to New Delhi and Narendra Modi that Kashmiris don’t trust them, Srinagar-based political scientist Sheikh Showkat Hussain says. “This is also an indication that the alienation has reached at such a level that people have become indifferent now.”

In 2014, BJP also formed a coalition with Kashmir’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to govern the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thereafter, it intensified Army excess – crackdown, detentions and killings. At least 100 civilians were allegedly killed and hundred more were blinded by pellet guns when they protested against the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, a Kashmir boy. Human rights activists claim, at least, 57 civilians killed in 2017 and 80 in 2018 allegedly by security forces during street protests. In 2017, an Army officer even tied up a Kashmiri to the front of his jeep and used him as a human shield to ward off stone pelters.

Kashmiris argue they have no reason to vote for a country which uses its brutal forces against them.  “India is a land of Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi, the peacemaker. Why vote for a country run by fascists?” asks human rights defender Khurram Parvez, who was detained for 76 days on charges of being an “instigator “of violence three years ago.

The latest bone of contention of Kashmiris is the gag order from New Delhi banning civilians from travelling on a key highway, which connects Kashmir to its twin city, Jammu, twice a week. The ban came after Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Kashmiri militant killed 42 Indian soliders in a suicide attack on the same highway. Kashmir doesn’t like this high-handedness by New Delhi. It started an arms movement pressing for the right to self-determination in 1989. After a lull period in the mid and late 2000, youths have started joining militancy again – 191 joined in 2018 and 126 in 2017, as per Army records. But the anti-India sentiment is so strong especially among the educated middle class that they call them “our boys,” not terrorists. A common narrative is – “If there is terrorism in Kashmir, it is in the hands of men in uniform.”

It is this hatred against India that pulls  them  away from the democratic process of polling. Kashmir never witnessed huge turnout in parliamentary elections — it was 50 per cent in 2014 — highest as compared to 40 per cent in 2009 and 35 per cent in 2004. But this year, it looks abysmally low so far. Out of the six parliamentary constituencies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, three –Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag – are in Kashmir Valley, others in Jammu and Ladakh. The voter turnout was 34.1 per cent in north Kashmir’s peaceful Baramulla constituency, still five per cent less as compared to the last general elections in 2014. Barring the Congress bastions of Dooru, Kokernag and Shangus, the turnout was exceptionally low in militancy-hit south Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency, where polling is scheduled in five phases, last one slated for May 6. Anantnag’s Bijbehara, the home turf for PDP head and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, recorded only 2.04 per cent voting as opposed to 36 per cent in 2014. No votes were cast in 40 polling booths in Bijbehara. Fearing resentment of people, who feel betrayed by PDP for joining hands with BJP, Mehbooba couldn’t campaign there. It’s a different story that the allies fell out and Kashmir is under President’s rule now.

In an exclusive telephonic interview, Mehbooba Mufti tells me, her party’s “credibility has been tainted.” “People are angry and disillusioned. They feel democracy is limited to elections, there is no democracy after elections,” she says.

People allege, both mainstream politicians –Mehbooba and her rival Omar Abdullah of National Conference – never kept their promises of demilitarization. “People know these leaders can’t do anything in Parliament without orders from New Delhi,” says Parvez of Srinagar, where the voter turnout was 14 per cent as compared to 26 per cent in 2014.

Barring a routine boycott call by Hizbul Mujahideen’s Kashmir chief Riyaz Naikoo on social media and a press note on the same by separatist alliance, All Party Hurriyat Conference, there has been no organised campaign on poll boycott unlike previous years. “At this juncture, people don’t need any leader to decide for them, they boycotted voluntarily,” says Firdaus Ahmad Shah, chairman of Democratic Political Movement, part of the alliance.

It is believed, those who voted are party cadres, relatives of political parties and tribals in the hilly terrain. Political activist Javaid Trali of Tral in south Kashmir, Burhan Wani’s home district, says, he would vote on May 6 because he “believes in exercising his democratic right.”

People who vote are stigmatized as “traitors” by many.  “When people vote, India tells the world, Kashmir is with us, which is not true,” adds 35-year-old pharmacist Nasir Patiguru of Anantnag.

The participation of villagers, who vote for better roads, electricity, water, employment,  and not much influenced by the sentiment of “Azadi.”has been less too this time, “There is no promising candidate; even if we vote, they won’t do anything for us,” alleges 39-year-old Sarir Ahmed Bhat of Srandoo villange in Kulgam, where the voter turnout was 1.7 per cent on Monday.

Former civil servant Shah Faesal, who resigned to protest against “unabated killings” in Kashmir and formed his own political party- Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement – says, many villagers moved around the polling booths, finished their daily jobs but didn’t go to vote.

There are some who voted to register this dissent. Government clerk Ashiq Hussain Bhat of Srinagar, who voted for NOTA (None of The Above) says, “I voted against poll boycott of separatists. I also voted against ‘mainstream’ politicians who are concerned about capturing state power and resources and don’t want any resolution of Kashmir conflict.”

Meanwhile, Mufti promises to do take up some “confidence-building” measures among people. Is this another poll promise?

(A version of the story with additional inputs has appeared in DW: https://www.dw.com/en/india-elections-why-are-kashmiris-not-voting/a-48547313?fbclid=IwAR0mlTeChBu0D3R0mcemMS3EmzdOyDmog84BvLAUeWo8ox6ZI0UYO4VsQnw)

ENDS

Kashmir’s nomadic Bakarwals are looking beyond their traditional wandering lives, reports Sonia Sarkar

UNEVEN GROUND: Bakarwals leave for higher altitudes with the onset of summer  

As a child Shahnawaz Chaudhary had no money to buy notebooks. He memorised lessons by writing them down on rocks with pebbles for chalk. In fact, when he got the news that he had passed his Class X examinations, he was busy grazing sheep in Mandhar of Poonch district in the Pir Panjal range, a good six-hour drive from Srinagar.

“It was the turning point of my life. I realised that even we can have a better life,” says Chaudhary, who is now editor-cum-culture officer at the government of Jammu and Kashmir’s Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.

Chaudhary is one of those rare Bakarwals who dared to dream.

 

The term ” bakarwal” is a derivative of the word “bakri” or ” bakar” meaning goat or sheep. Bakarwals are nomadic Muslim tribes. In the summers, the Bakarwals travel from Jammu to Kashmir and sometimes all the way up to Ladakh. In October, they give a slip to the impending harsh winter and return to the plains of Jammu in search of green meadows and favourable climate for their livestock.

The eight-year-old girl who was raped and murdered earlier this year, in the state’s Kathua district also belonged to this community. According to activist Talib Hussain, who belongs to the community and has been fighting for justice for the girl, Bakarwals are now looking for a life beyond shuttling between the hills and the plains. Hussain [he has since been accused of rape and arrested] says, “Living the life of nomads should not remain a compulsion for us. We should be able to look for opportunities to study and be successful professionally.”

In 1991, Bakarwals were recognised as Scheduled Tribes by the state. But, as Hussain points out, they have never enjoyed the benefits or concessions in education or jobs that ought to have come with this. But now, the young of the community are increasingly deciding to take charge of their own destiny.

Hussain has been walking barefoot for over seven months as part of his campaign for implementation of the 2006 Forest Rights Act in Jammu and neighbouring areas to ensure that his own community has a better life.

He says, “Since the Act is not implemented in Jammu, we have no dwelling rights on forest lands which have been our traditional habitat for generations. What’s more, we are barely left with any forest land to travel through; we are facing eviction.”

Bakarwals are often clubbed with Gujjars, another nomadic tribe. Together, the two constitute around 11.9 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s population, according to the 2011 census.

The Bakarwals, however, feel that this clubbing together has been detrimental to their case. Says Chaudhary, “A sizeable number of Bakarwals is still landless and without proper shelter. They have no idea of what is happening in the larger world. On the contrary, most Gujjars are studying in schools and also have a secure livelihood.”

Talib Hussain was desperate to study but had little opportunity in his home state. He fled to Delhi, worked at a property dealer’s office and joined a government school. But he had to go back, as he couldn’t sustain himself for long. Later, he got into a state-run hostel for Bakarwals and Gujjars. “But very few Bakarwal students succeed in getting into these,” he claims.

Humera Chowdhary, a 26-year-old dentist, shares her experience. She says, “As children, some of us have had to live away from our parents for the sake of getting an education. Our parents travelled for six months. I could see my parents because they survived the harsh weather conditions and the dangerous hilly terrain, but there were many who didn’t see their parents the next season as they failed to make it. Had there been functional mobile schools in every district, Bakarwal children could at least be with their parents.”

Humera and others who have had enjoyed better fortune are now thinking in terms of payback. Rafaqat Hussain Khatana is studying to be a doctor at Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. He says, “I would like to run mobile clinics for Bakarwals. They sleep and eat wherever they get space, it is important to see how to make them more aware of hygiene and sanitation. Plus, providing them mobile medical facilities would improve the quality of life.”

No one wants to sacrifice one good thing for another, but sometimes to have both is difficult, if not near impossible. Chaudhary tells us he misses his old wanderer’s life. Occasionally he even takes off from work to spend some days roaming the Pir Panjal range with the people of his kafila.

He says in hushed tones, “I miss the charm of the old life.”

Far removed from political jingoism and posturing, individual efforts are afoot to make whole a splintered Kashmiriness, says Sonia Sarkar

 

 

Only connect: Jaibeer Ahmad (above) and (top) Meanka Handu    

As Facebook pages go, Raabta is fairly basic. A stack of cards in muted colours, the image of a bench emblazoned on each – stark, awaiting its occupants – and jottings upon jottings. In some cases, as the written word spills onto the screen, an audio clip comes alive. Clang, clang, clang, the rabab quivers with emotion, and its soulful notes falling on alien ears seem to emanate from a sad hollow core.

Raabta might mean connection in Urdu, but this page, launched earlier this year, is about lost connections and old yearnings.

The community page for Kashmiris describes itself sans specifics thus – “…a small endeavour to help search and reconnect old friends, neighbours, school mates, colleagues who haven’t heard from each other in three decades.” Gurgaon-based Jaibeer Ahmad, who is from Kashmir, launched it. Ahmad, however, tells The Telegraph, “This page is only to reconnect those who parted ways in 1990 and reconnect them.”

One post is about Chennai-based Samir Pandita who has been looking for his teacher these past 35 years. “My favourite teacher was Mohammed Sayed from Bon-Bhawan Mattan… I am not sure where he is currently.” An S.A. Wahid is looking for classmates Vijay Pandita and Ajay Bhat. He has put out as much detail as he could summon from memory – Vijay lived in a rented house next to Regina cinema, Ajay was from old town Baramulla. More details. Someone is looking for a Vinod Kumar who used to live at Dharkocha near Temple Khankah-i-sokta between Safa Kadal and Nawa Kadal. There is an Anamika from Canada looking for childhood friend Saeba. Someone else looking for a third son “just born in a different house”.

 

When old connections are re-established, those experiences are posted too. A day after Pandita posted his message, his teacher was traced. “We spoke for over 30 minutes on the phone, recalled the school days and caught up with each other’s lives,” says Pandita, who is now a general manager with a chain of hotels. Dubai-based media professional Sameer Bhat connected with neighbour Arun Koul. “Nearly 28 years later when he said ‘hello’ over the phone, I could immediately recognise the voice. He was unmistakably Bunty bya[that’s how Kashmiris pronounce bhaiyya meaning brother].” He adds, “The first thing Bunty bya asked, ‘Do you still wear a watch on your right hand.’ He remembered.” Others recall with fondness, shared feasts, a tumble in the snow, the sheen mohnuv or the snowman.

Meanka Handu, another Kashmiri Pandit who left Srinagar in April 1990, is also trying to reconnect with her homeland, but through humour. The IT professional based in the National Capital Region’s Noida area has started a YouTube channel called “Asvun Koshur”, which means “smiling, happy Kashmiri”. Asvun Koshur contains a series of family-oriented comic video monologues presenting unknown aspects of Kashmiri culture and language. Though Handu keeps switching between Hindi and Kashmiri, the humour eludes translation. But it has traction within the Kashmiri community. The channel to date has 10,000 followers. A lot of elderly people from Kashmir watch her videos. Says Handu, “Language is a common thread that binds us, Kashmiris, regardless of our faith and individual beliefs.”

Raabta and Asvun Koshur are celebrations of a holistic Kashmiriness. Post the outbreak of militancy in the Valley, there was a mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. It has almost three decades since, but Pandits continue to ache for the land they had to leave perforce. Kashmiri Muslims stayed on, but life as they knew it changed. While steering clear from all talk of who is to blame for what and who fared the worse, Ahmad and Handu seem to be attempting a social corrective in the interest of Kashmiriyat.

Amit Wanchoo, a Pandit who lives in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar, talks about the syncretic culture of the Valley that was. He says, “Pandits ate the halal meat as did Muslims. Before a wedding, a Kashmiri Pandit would seek blessings of the eldest Muslim neighbour and vice versa.” The two communities, apparently, celebrated a series of festivals together. In fact, as a nod to this, Ahmad launched Raabta on Herath or Shiv Ratri.

Some years ago, Wanchoo also started an initiative called Salaam Mahara – that’s how Kashmiri Muslims greet Pandits. It tries to bridge the gap between the two communities. Last year, a programme called Ikwaith or coming together was organised on Eid. This March, another one was organised on Kashmiri new year, Navreh. He organises cultural shows, sponsors trips of Pandit students from Jammu to visit Srinagar and live with locals in camps. “This is how we plan to change the narratives and bridge the gaps between two communities,” says Wanchoo, whose grandfather was killed by militants in 1992.

Bridging the gap is what Delhi-based singer Pragnya Wakhlu is doing too. In one of her songs, titled Henzay – Returning to Peace, she has tried to fuse the Butta and Musalman wanwuns or Hindu and Muslim musical styles. In 2017, she released a Kashmiri-English album, Kahwa Speaks. In the title track, kahwa is the metaphor for Kashmir. She says, “Just as kahwa is made of saffron, cinnamon and cardamom, the fragrance of each coming together to make a wonderful brew, life in Kashmir is beautiful when all the communities come together.”

Raabta founder Ahmad wants to start a campaign next – to reconnect erstwhile neighbours in the Valley, “beyond the virtual world”. He says, “The tagline would be – do you miss your neighbour.”

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/bridge-from-lost-to-found-221717?ref=india-new-stry