Kashmir: To fight is to survive
As the snow melts on the Pir Panjal mountains, Haji Mohammad Shafi along with his family embarks on his annual summer migration to the lush green pastures of the Kukernag region in Kashmir. However, a chance encounter with two militants on a quiet night changed their lives forever. Three years after the incident, Shafi's family recalls the haunting encounter vividly.
For the Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir, this annual migration is a way of life, and the search for pastures for their sheep makes them tread many kilometres across the rugged Pir Panjal. However, with the advent of militancy, these routes not only posed challenges of harsh weather and difficult paths but also crawled with terrorists - hiding, hungry for food and more.
On their way to the summer dhoks (mud huts) in the summer of 2009, Shafi and his family decided to halt for the night at Gul Gulabgarh. As the family began setting up camp, two men carrying AK-47s, the favoured weapon among Jihadist fighters, approached the family asking for food.
Refusing or resisting the demand for goats was not an option for Shafi as his family was in danger. "We knew not to fight them; for us both the army and the militants are god," says Liyakat Ali, Shafi's nephew.
Haji Shafi with his nephew and SPO son Akhtar Ali
However, the militants didn't stop there, their hunger suddenly took a vicious turn and a demand for Shafi's youngest daughter sent the whole family into shock. Without wasting a moment, Shafi's nephew Liyakat and son Akhtar Ali grabbed the guns. This surprised the militants and the brothers were able to overpower them. The anger and frustration of the brothers over such a demand made them strangle the militants to death.
Today, Shafi and his family are in grave danger of a revenge attack, and they find themselves on the hit list of insurgent groups.
When militancy hit the state more than two decades ago, it made life harrowing for the nomadic community. Caught in the narrow gallis (lanes) of their nomadic routes, they were open to exploitation from militants and often gave in to demands. It remains unexplored to what extent nomadic families lost their dignity and many were probably not as lucky as Shafi.
Many young boys of the community would be forcefully inducted into the militant ranks. This made many nomadic parents hesitant about travelling with their children. Under pressure, the Bakarwals would sometimes be forced to guide militants from one point to another. However, the militants would never hire permanent guides, says a Bakarwal from Salwa village of the Mendhar district in Jammu. They would maintain secrecy and never trustthe locals which is why so many Bakarwals were killed in the conflict.
Although official figures based on FIRs are low, many members of the community feel that unregistered cases amount to hundreds, as many have been killed in conflict in isolated and remote corners of the Pir Panjal, far away from any police station.
Even for the non-nomadic Bakarwals, things have not been easy. For the residents of Salwa it was unimaginable that the conflict would reach their homes. Shaukat Chaudhary, the sarpanch of Salwa, explains the atrocities the villagers encountered when militancy was in full force: "After 1998, the environment of this region changed completely. From Mandi to Darmiyan, this whole ridge in the Pir Panjal was like a highway for the militants." This discouraged many nomads from continuing their migratory practice and they began settling down in the nearby regions.
Bakarwals from Salwa village
But soon things got worse. Militants began hiding in the Salwa region, and the area got dominated by terror and fear. "People got scared; they couldn't even go to the Mendhar market," remembers Chaudhary. Soon the civilian population became target for the militants. Between 1998 and 2004, several beheadings took place.
Take for example, a woman who was preparing a meal for her child in the wee hours of the morning; the militants came and killed both. Abdul Gafur, a resident who would often argue with the militants, calling their ways to be immoral, was murdered near the Salwa valley. Abdul Gani, Chaudhary's security guard, would often travel and come in contact with the army and police officials. He also suffered a horrible fate as the militants beheaded him on suspicion of being an informer. "They had a strong network, knew what and where people work. Our cousin Mohomman Shafiq, a police constable ,was killed," Chaudhary adds . Any affiliation with the security agencies spelt death for the locals of this region. Even a hint of suspicion brought grave danger for many Bakarwals leading to killings.
In 2007, the Sub-Divisional Police officer of Mendhar, Yougal Manhas, was shot at in broad daylight outside his office. He survived and is today posted in Poonch. "They initially coaxed people to join the terrorist movement banking on their fascination for the gun and power. Salwa was the most notorious in terms of militancy," he says.
However, the barbarianism of the militants forced the locals to retaliate. Fear turned to vengeance. In 2001, the people of Salwa decided to get together and began informing security officials in the region of any militant activity. They even aided in some major operations in the region.
"We took the first step when we realised that nobody can come with 20 odd guns and liberate us," says Chaudhary. Together the people helped capture 20 militants. "We felt that even if we have losses on our side, at least the rest of the population would be at peace," asserts Chaudhary.
Shaukat Chaudhary the Sarpanch of Salwa
Soon after, at the request of the people, the Army's Romeo force established a camp in Salwa. "Even the temporary road to Salwa was constructed by the Army after firing took place here," adds Chaudhary.
The relationship with the Army continues till today. A Brigadier in the Manjakot area explains that the people's confidence on the security forces has increased immensely and they inform the Army of suspicious movements.
"They call us from their mobiles and say 'We have spotted an Afghani looking man, he doesn't look like he is from this area', this contribution and assistance from the civil population has helped us greatly," explains the Brigadier. The Army too, wanting to gain the trust of the local population, began distributing aid in the form of blankets and medicines to the aggrieved Bakarwal community.
Meanwhile, the government has been quick to respond to Shafi's situation and has appointed both his sons as Special Police Officers (SPO) to serve as a local policeman in the area. SPOs have played a pivotal role in fighting militancy in the remote villages of J&K. Says Danish Rana, DIG of Poonch and Rajouri, "The SPOs helped augment security operations with their intelligence gathering."
Shafi still feels fear for his family but continues to go to his pasture areas across the Pir Panjal as he knows no other way to support his family and believes it is what he must do. What this nomadic family did three years ago, was unthinkable. He believes life must go on, and continues to face this reality. His grandson now goes to school. "I want him to have a stable future and look beyond this nomadic lifestyle," he says and plans to leave this migratory practice in a few years from now. Some feel otherwise. Wazir, a resident of Gurrah Sarkari, states that with the improving security situation he is seeing a rise in the number of people going to the upper reaches.
Militancy brought many challenges to this nomadic tribe with a unique lifestyle. For many Bakarwals, defying the demands of the militants was a new step towards growing stronger as a community. They have since emerged as a resilient tribe and their contribution to growing normalcy in Jammu region is unheralded but immense.
(Posted on 04-02-2014)