September 2002 News

A piece of Kandahar in Kashmir

28 September 2002
The Statesman

Tral: To get a taste of fear which Kashmir is infamous for, visit Tral, aka, the second Kandahar. The city has strong associations with Afghanistan and the Taliban. This is a second home for militants, almost all of whom are foreign mercenaries. And, they may kill you if you talk about elections. Not a single party flag is visible, no loud speakers blare at the main chowk. Political workers are afraid to go beyond the chowk. Minutes before cadres arrive, shopkeepers bring down their shutters. “None of us will venture out to cast our votes willingly though we want to defeat the National Conference. If we are given protection we will think about it, we cannot afford to annoy militants groups. … If we are able to spend one peaceful day we feel we have lived a thousand years… All local militants are dead. Only foreign fidayeen are around but they don’t come out openly”, said Rahim Khan, a local. Even drivers for hire — a lucrative profession in the militant-hit state — are unwilling to go beyond the chowk. A little ahead of the main chowk is Taj Mahal mohalla. The name is a cruel joke on the place. Semi-pucca houses line both sides of narrow roads that have not been, and will not be, as locals say, macadamised. An old man turns up from nowhere. He claims he has the Election Commission identity card but is not willing to say whether he would cast his vote. Instead he offers a prayer for the safety of the inquisitive journalists. “You have come till here with your own fate. May God be with you and you reach your home safely.” Foreign militants keep “in touch” with the locals and the majority of the latter seems to have resigned themselves to their virtual subjugation. and majority of the villagers have completely submitted themselves to the militants. Reshma, a teenager, seems to know more than Gen. Pervez Musharraf says he knows: “There are militants from Pakistan, Sudan and Afghanistan … they are all hiding in these mountains. …they are fighting for what they call Islam and not for us. …” Some feel differently. Razia, another teenager, is satisfied that militants “don’t trouble us”. “Why should we be frightened of them …they are like our brothers. Militants’ presence doesn’t affect the children, they regularly go to school”. Contrary to what one expects, security forces, whose presence is impossible to miss and hard to ignore, do not generate hostility among locals. Perhaps, they are as used to soldiers and policemen as they are to Sudanese and Afghan fanatics. One thing, people in Tral are fed up of the National Conference. “Why should we vote for this party … when half the villages of Tral was burnt down , the NC MLA had said we will be provided relief … where is that relief … it has not reached us as yet,” said a shopkeeper. The anti-NC mood extends to the Pulwama constituency. In Uthura village, the PDP and the Congress have already held rallies but the NC candidate is yet to arrive to seek votes. “If he comes here we will stone him and his supporters,” said Ghulam Mohammed., who voted for NC last time. Bashir, a graduate, said he did election work for the NC candidate in the 1996 Assembly elections on the assurance that he would be given a job. After the polls when he went to meet the MLA , he was shown the door. “We have got our EC identity cards and if we decide to cast our votes, it will all go against the NC”. Rashid, an employee of the central public works department, said he had stopped casting his vote since 1989 because he felt that past experience has shown that his vote does not count. “So even at the age of 48, I will not cast my vote. …we will boycott.”


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