The town of Tral in the district of Pulwama, or the “volatile” Tral as Indian media refers to it, is for the local people the “Land of Martyrs”, “Town of Newton” (a militant, Ishaq Ahmad Parray had been nicknamed Ishaq (Arabic for Issac) Newton for excelling in studies before picking up arms)”, “Land of Mujahideen” and the “Land of Burhan”.
We arrived in Tral on the sixth day of the shutdown to gauge the mood of the people and try to understand where their hearts and minds lie. As students of the University of Hyderabad, hailing from places like Kerala and Bangalore, the five of us stick out like a sore thumb. We are in a place described by the media as a hotbed for militants. We are slightly apprehensive and realise that our appearance here comes as a surprise to the locals and the CRPF.
We were dropped off at the Martyrs’ Graveyard, where Burhan Wani is buried and made our way to the bus stop in the main town. We were told that youths had clashed with policemen in the morning. However, when we arrived, we found a deserted bus stop and a local restaurant with broken windows. Some youths emerged when they saw us loitering around the area and clicking photos of pro-freedom graffiti sprayed all over the place.
Imran, 17, pointed to the broken windows of the restaurant and told us the CRPF did it. He said the situation in Tral was a repeat of the incidents that followed the killing of Burhan Wani, who also hailed from the sub-district. The curfew, which lasted for six months, had been imposed by the forces. We asked him what he thought of the PDP government, and a little boy, Sahil, 10, answered us: “Jalaa do sabko (burn them all)”. We asked him who was Sabzar Bhat and he gave us a cheeky smile and hid behind the others. He said he was in 4th standard.
We walked the bylanes of the town hoping to meet some traders to see what they thought of the frequent shutdowns and curfews imposed on Kashmir. However, all shops were shut and only pharmacies were open for business. Fayaz Ahmed, 32, is a native of Tral and has been running his pharmacy for about 12 years. He pointed to the broken windows of his building and said that the CRPF had broken them last year during the uprising post-Burhan Wani’s killing.
We asked if he questioned the forces about this and he started laughing.
“If they had a conscience, they would not have broken the windows of a clinic and pharmacy. We have not repaired them in a year because we fear a repeat of the incident,” he said.
When asked about the PDP government, he replied, “Maaro goli government ko (shoot them), no government has done anything for us. This is a war against Kashmiris. They are trying to suppress the voice of Kashmir. Dialogue with Hurriyat and Pakistan can help the situation, but nobody is doing anything.”
We want to leave the main town and travel to Rathsun, Sabzar’s native village, which is the epicentre of attention among the people of Tral. But we realise that there was no transport, meaning we will have to reach the outskirts, several kilometres away, on foot.
After about an hour of walking, we reach Shikargah, a scenic location which is a picnic spot for the residents of Tral. The Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has promised to boost tourism in the area by connecting it to the popular destination of Pahalgam. Here, we meet a Sikh family, which was venturing out of their home in high spirits.
Pavitra Singh, 55, is a native of Tral. We are informed that his family has been here since his great grandfather’s time. He works at the Forest Department. When asked how his family was coping with the shutdown, he laughed and said, “We have everything here, we grow vegetables, we have no fear. This goes on. Only the people in the town suffer.”
We asked about the conflict, he told us, “Hindustani bullets were first meant for Sikhs, now it’s for Muslims, sometimes Hindus get in the way too. The only resolution is freedom. We don’t want India or Pakistan, we want independence.”
We decide to rest for a while in the Shikargah park but we are stopped by a CRPF barricade. They asked us to leave the place even after we said that we were here to report. We change our route and walk towards another spot in the park. We can see why it is a picnic spot. Shikargah lies amongst an endless expanse of greenness that might dazzle one’s eyes. We see pine cones all over, walnut trees, apple trees and we were warned about bears. After a half hour’s rest amidst the cool breeze blowing in our faces, we reluctantly left Shikargah towards Rathsun. Friendly locals who spotted us called out to us to rest a while with them. The scene was one of idyllic setting and makes one forget that the sub-district is reeling under a shutdown, teeming with militants and heavily armed CRPF personnel.
The road was deserted until we reached Rathsun, Sabzar’s village. There we met a man who knew Sabzar since his childhood.
“Sabzar was very innocent, he was polite. He was always ready to help, as long as it was legal. He was not very educated compared to his fellow militants”.
A report published by Muzamil Jaleel for Indian Express shows that 67 local boys have joined militancy since the killing of Burhan Wani. They are highly educated, holding PhD, M.Phil and post graduate degrees.
The man continues, “Sabzar is our hero, we went to the encounter site to save him by throwing stones. The CRPF breaks the window panes of our houses, and on that day (of the encounter) they shot an innocent youth too.”
The youth he is referring to is Sarshad Ahmed Dar who was shot in the head by a CRPF bullet after the encounter with Sabzar. When asked about the future of Kashmiri political struggle, he replied, “The people are sad about the killing of Sabzar, but they feel another Sabzar will take his place. We want the right to self-determination. The people will choose their future. NC & PDP are pro-India, the Hurriyat is pro-independence. India is prepared to talk only by constitutional means, but the people want freedom.”
The roads that led us to Sabzar’s home in Rathsun are narrow and riddled with stones. We didn’t come across a single asphalted road. Posted on Sabzar’s house are large posters of him in full combat gear. There is a huge gathering in the house, as neighbours and relatives had come to pay their respects to the family. We were stopped at the gate and asked if we were from “Hindustani” media. We were led into the house only after we brandished our Greater Kashmir identity papers.
We were brought to a bare, but large, carpeted hall. And before we knew it, everyone in the house followed us inside to see what we wanted. The interview we conducted had an audience of at least twenty to thirty people. We wanted to talk to the family members, but we now had a large audience waiting to follow the proceedings.
Sabzar is survived by two brothers, one sister and parents. Sabzar’s brother, Firoze Bhat serves us juice himself. Most of the answers provided in the interview are from Sabzar’s brothers and a couple of elderly men.
1. Was the family troubled by the government forces after Sabzar joined militancy?
Yes. The CRPF and army did trouble us. Sometimes, they would enter the house in the night. They have locked up Firoze four times. Once, he was detained for 15-20 days and released only before Eid. He was a daily wage worker who had gone to work in the neighbouring village of Aripal. The forces came there and troubled him.
2. Why did Sabzar join militancy?
There are two reasons. One – Islam. We do what the Quran says. Everything we need to live our lives is written in the Quran and we need to follow that. Two – Azaadi. No one is safe here. Our sisters and daughters are not safe. The army attacks us in our own homes. We want Azaadi, it is the only solution to our problems. Burhan wanted the same thing. When he was killed, there was a shutdown for nearly eight months. In the ‘90s, people were scared. They used to run from the encounter sites. Now, when our mujahid brothers are in trouble, we go there to help them by throwing stones (at the forces). We want Islamic rule here. The people of India are like brothers to us, but the government and forces are against us. No government has ever done anything for us. The voter turnout in this village is zero.
3. Is there a political or a non-militant solution for Kashmir?
We respect (Syed Ali Shah) Geelani sa’ab. We respect all the leaders of the Hurriyat.
4. What are you hoping for in the coming days and months?
(Everyone in the room, in unison) Azaadi.
5. What do the women of the village want?
We want the respect which Islam gives us. The Indian government doesn’t respect the women of Kashmir.
6. What do you miss most about Sabzar?
(The women answer) He was our protector. He made us feel safe. Without the mujahid, the boys and girls are not safe. He sacrificed his life for us.
7. Do you feel the Indian media misrepresents the people of Kashmir?
Yes. I saw on YouTube that the media is accusing us of being paid protestors. The Indian media says that we are paid money to throw stones. They say we are paid five hundred rupees for this. If that was the case, then the Indian government has to just pay six hundred rupees to stop the stone pelting, no? The media doesn’t tell the truth. Worse, they are lying to their own people.
8. What do you feel about the present PDP government?
Mehbooba Mufti says only 5% of the people throw stones, and 95% are against it. If that was the case then why was the voter turnout at 7% for the by-polls? When Mufti Mohammad Saeed died, they hired people to attend his funeral. While 5 lakh people showed up for the funeral prayers of Burhan and Sabzar. The PDP mean nothing to us. Please tell them that 110% of Kashmir is with the militants and 0% is with them.
As the interview concludes, many slogans of Azadi spontaneously burst out. By the time it concludes, several people are in tears.
Election data for the 2014 Legislative Assembly Elections in Tral constituency shows a dismal voter turnout of 38.22%. A PDP MLA represents this constituency. But, the people have turned against the party. Nobody here has anything positive to say about the Chief Minister or the PDP. Independence is the prevailing sentiment here. The people want to exercise their right to self-determination. Further, they are angered by the Indian media’s portrayal of Kashmir. The word ‘terrorist’ is casually applied to the militants here, which gives a perception that Kashmir has been taken over by the Islamic fundamentalism which has gripped Syria and Iraq. A piece written by the Greater Kashmir Executive Editor Hilal Mir for TRT World describes the militancy in more accurate terms.
He says “the Kashmiri resistance movement is not a symptom or a by-product of global Islamic movements. Its struggle begins in the 1930s against a tyrannical Hindu monarchy and predates the Palestine struggle and the rise of various pan-Islamic movements. A deliberate attempt to link it with such movements sows confusion”.
It seemed to us that their Kashmiri identity was as important as religion was for them. If it were only an Islamic movement, it would cease to explain the desire of religious minorities also demanding independence, thus making it wrong to locate the struggle within the frame of Islamic fundamentalism.
It would be difficult for a Hindu to comprehend what Islamic rule means, but many Indians, including judges, have romanticised Manu’s abhorrent laws and even a statue of Manu stands outside the Rajasthan High Court. To understand the Kashmiri struggle, one would have to switch off Indian media’s misinformation and speak to Kashmiris in Kashmir. How is it that a family of slain militant is able to welcome people from the aggressor’s side? What equips them to do so? Maybe religion is the answer or perhaps, it is their inherent nature.
Nikhil Cariappa and Amritha Mohan, journalism students from Kerala and Karnataka who are currently interns at Greater Kashmir, pen down their impressions after a visit to Burhan Wani’s hometown.
Courtesy of Greater Kashmir.