It was almost dark, on a last April day, when 34-year-old banker Asif* began his journey home after spending a day at his maternal uncle’s house in Shopian outskirts in south Kashmir. He was stopped by an army trooper guarding a make-shift barricade outside the Army’s Chowgam garrison near the town, the biggest one on the historic Mughal Road, around 55 kilometres south of Srinagar.
The masked trooper, after checking Mr. Asif’s car directed him to hand over the keys and leave. “He said it so plainly that I couldn’t react for almost a minute,” Mr. Asif recalled. “But the soldier was adamant.”
The trooper wanted Mr. Asif to leave his car with the army officials and travel the rest of the distance to the Shopian town, around two kilometres, on foot.
When Mr. Asif resisted, he recalled, the trooper told him plainly: “You seem to be an educated person, so you should know it is mandatory.”
All of a sudden stories of army troopers forcibly taking over civilian vehicles for anti-militancy operations began flashing in Mr. Asif’s mind. The only difference was that the trooper was addressing him politely.
Five minutes later Mr. Asif was sure that he could not reason it out with the trooper. He got down from his car, took out the registration papers and other important documents before he handed over the keys politely. “I knew I could not argue beyond a point. It was not safe,” he said. “Besides it was already getting dark and lonely.”
Mr. Asif informed the local Deputy Commissioner, immediately. “What if my vehicle would have been used in an anti-militancy operation? Who would have trusted me then?” he said. It was after DC’s intervention that his vehicle was released the following morning.
Several residents from different villages of Shopian allege that the troopers from the Chowgam garrison usually take their vehicles for a period of two to three days.
Mr. Asif said that after August 2019, the army is more frequently taking away vehicles from residents. The army’s official spokesperson Colonel Rajesh Kalia, however, denied the allegations. “No vehicle is being used forcibly and the civil vehicles are hired and payment is made as per the SOP,” he said.
It didn’t take long before residents of Shopian and its adjoining villages came to know about such incidents. The Chowgam garrison quickly earned notoriety and became a no-go zone for civilians travelling in their private vehicles after sunset.
When 35-year-old Mr. Hazik, a Shopian based lawyer and his friends came to know about Mr. Asif’s experience, they stopped visiting Hurpura, a nearby tourist resort famous among the locals. One has to cross Chowgam garrison to reach Hurpura.
“It is risky now,” said Mr. Hazik who used to visit Hurpura with friends in free time.“Slowly, our space is shrinking because of heavy militarization in the area.”
“I was still half asleep when I came face-to-face with lots of soldiers in our lawn. I was very scared… The helplessness I felt at that time cannot be explained in words. We were locked inside our own house, [the] uncertainty of our fate.”
The process of re-militarisation in south Kashmir started with the killing of popular militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016. Dozens of new makeshift bunkers and also some camps came up overnight in populated areas and on the major roads on South Kashmir. Feeling this, residents from the four districts in South – Pulwama, Shopian, Anantnag and Kulgam, claimed that the free movement of people to their orchards, between villages, towns and districts has become a daunting task.
“It is not [just] about taking the vehicle. The problem is the way they have normalized it,” said a Shopian resident, Basit, who gave only his first name. His vehicle was also taken by the Chowgam garrison. “They (troopers) talk to you as if you are legally bound to do so.”
In the last week of March this year, a business administration student in Kulgam, 23-year-old Shadab, was allegedly thrashed and made to sit on a rock for two hours by a paramilitary trooper as punishment for going out on his motorbike after sunset.
“Life comes to a standstill as the sun goes down here,” he said, adding that it was only after a local police officer’s intervention that he was allowed to go home.
The incident has left Mr Shadab traumatised. “They could have simply fined me or asked local police to take action against me if I had broken any law,” he said. “But treating someone like that is not done.”
Mr. Shadab said that he felt alive whenever he visited his friends in Srinagar city. “At least I can roam outside without the fear of getting humiliated or beaten,” he said, miffed at the difficulties of life in Kashmir’s southern districts.
In Kulgam, Mr. Shadab said that he lives in a state of constant fear. “Imagine we cannot keep lights on and study beyond 10 PM. Lights often attract trouble,” he said. As the night falls, he feels anxious as if he is “living in a graveyard”.
However, compared to what others of his age group, most in early twenties, go through on a daily basis in small nondescript and forgotten villages, Mr. Shadab considers himself lucky.
However, not everybody felt the same.
Mr. Tariq, a resident of Pulwama, was returning home on his scooty, after attending a function in Shopian when he was stopped by army troopers at the Bundzoo Bridge near Haal village in Pulwama district.
“They took my phone and ordered me to unlock it. When I did, one of them slapped me on my right cheek,” he said, adding that he was beaten without provocation. “But I was not in a position to argue.”
As the troopers kept slapping Mr. Tariq on his face, another trooper went through the picture gallery on his phone. “He pointed at my sisters pictures and asked who she was?” said Mr. Tariq. “When I told him that she is my sister, he slapped me again. He said that I am lying.”
Then the trooper then went through his WhatsApp and began checking his recent chats. “I wanted to tell him that he cannot check my personal stuff like this but I couldn’t. I just wanted to go home,” said Mr. Tariq.
Mr. Tariq’s painful ordeal continued for nearly an hour during which he was dragged behind the troopers’ armoured vehicle. “They made me lie down, kept my legs against the vehicle, and beat me with a stick,” he recalled.
When it finally ended, Mr. Tariq was asked to collect his phone two days later from the nearby Haal camp. “I took my father and brother along. I was barely able to walk [two days later].”
The phone was returned to Mr. Tariq but the incident left a lasting impression on him. Since then, like many others in south Kashmir, has stopped going out after sunset. “I feel vulnerable all the time,” he said. “I feel as if they will come to my home and take me away.”
During his ordeal at the bridge, a number of vehicles passed by but none dared to stop and help, said Mr. Tariq. “This makes me even more afraid that no one is in a position to help you here,” he said.
Speaking about Mr. Tariq’s alleged ordeal, army spokesperson Colonel Kalia said: “The individual had not been thrashed and the allegation is baseless. He was signalled to stop but he didn’t. So his mobile was checked and then returned.”
Back-to-back cordon and search operations (CASO) by the government forces and the subsequent gunfights with militants have left a trail of destruction across south Kashmir.The highhandedness that comes with it, has been etched on the people’s minds.
On a last June morning, at around 5am, 21-year-old Shefali Rafiq was sleeping when her mother came rushing into her room to wake her up. “Army is everywhere outside. Get up quickly. It might be a CASO,” she recalled her mother as having said.
A resident of Qaimoh village in Kulgam, she jumped out of the bed and rushed outside with her mother. “I was still half asleep when I came face-to-face with lots of soldiers in our lawn,” said Ms. Rafiq, a journalist by profession. “I was very scared.”
After Ms. Rafiq’s family was ordered out of the house, the troopers went inside the house and checked it thoroughly for half-an-hour. “Then we were allowed to go inside and ordered to remain there till instructed otherwise,” she said.
By 6 AM, men, women and children from the entire neighbourhood were brought to Ms. Rafiq’s house as the troopers searched the houses one-by-one.
“It was finally over at 1:30 PM,” said Ms. Rafiq.“Till then we were in a state of fear and anxiety. We were sure a gun-fight would erupt at any moment.”
The seven hours Ms. Rafiq confined to her house with her family and neighbours played in her mind often since then. “The helplessness I felt at that time cannot be explained in words,” she said. “We were locked inside our own house, [the] uncertainty of our fate.”
The helplessness is palpable on the faces of the locals passing through another garrison in Chowdary Gund on the outskirts of Shopian, on a daily basis.
Near the garrison, everyone except the vehicle’s driver are ordered to de-board and walk around 250 meters of the road along the military camp. “It is a standard practice that we are now used to,” said a resident of Shopian, Sartaj. “In absence of civil government, we are entirely at the army’s mercy. They (local representatives) at least worked as a buffer between the army and people. Now there is none.”
According to Shopian based social activist and lawyer, Mr. Habeel Iqbal, since August 2019, army troopers are more aggressive as compared to the last few years.
“This aggression coupled with their massive presence has impacted the lifestyle of locals and their day-to-day life,” said Mr. Iqbal. “The impact can be seen in all spheres of life including social, political, economical and religious.”
“This aggression coupled with their massive presence has impacted the lifestyle of locals and their day- to-day life. The impact can be seen in all spheres of life including social, political, economical and religious.”
The aggression is visible on the 66 kilometre long highway from Pantha Chowk on the outskirts of Srinagar city to the far end of south Kashmir, in Anantnag district’s Qazigund.
“There must be around a hundred small and big bunkers on this highway now,” said a south Kashmir based journalist who frequently travels to his office in Srinagar. “And every bunker means extra halt in the journey.”
The new highway, once hailed as a model of development by both local and New Delhi based governments, has now become a source of trauma for Kashmiris.
“They (soldiers) don’t care if it’s an ambulance, school bus, or a private vehicle rushing towards the hospital in Srinagar, they treat everyone the same way,” said the journalist.
In February 2019, a Jaish-e-Muhammad militant, Adil Dar, rammed his explosive laden vehicle into an army convoy on the highway in Lethpora, killing over 40 paramilitary troopers. Since then, traffic is halted on both sides of the highway—across Kashmir but more aggressively here—to clear the way for convoys of government forces.
“At times entire traffic is stopped just to pass a few army vehicles,” said the journalist.
But the practice of controlling a civilian road is not new. Mr. Sartaj, a social activist, recalls how he had to lift barriers himself and make way for his car at Bihibagh garrison while on the way back to Shopian from Anantnag.
“At 5:30 PM they close the gates erected in the middle of the road. No one is allowed to pass through after that,” said Mr. Sartaj. “They let my vehicle cross when I convinced them that I had gone for my mother’s check-up. It is humiliating.”
As Mr. Sartaj moved barriers, and put them back after crossing through, his ill mother could only watch helplessly.
The remaining journey home was unusually silent, which has become common for residents from South Kashmir, who have to commute daily. Life for these residents has changed, largely impacted by the militarization, which frequently leads to escalated violence leaving a grave impact on civilian life.
*Some names of the characters have been changed on request to protect their identity.
This story was first published in the 3-9 August 2020 print edition.