By KO Correspondent
Sanjay Kumar is battling for his life in Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital.
On October 17, he, along with his associate, Charanjit Singh—both from outside the state—was shot at by unidentified gunmen in an apple orchard in south Kashmir’s Shopian district. While Singh died on the way to the hospital, Tariq Ahmad (name changed for security reasons), Kumar’s local partner, and Rishu Poda, the victim’s brother-in-law from Ferozpur, Punjab, are now attending to the 25-year-old survivor.
“Doctors say he is not out of danger yet. We are praying to god now,” says Poda. “He had three bullets in his body, one in the right side of his chest, another in the back, and one in the arm.”
Forty-one-year-old Singh, a truck driver, ferried Kashmiri apples to markets outside the state. According to Ahmad, two gun-wielding men appeared out of nowhere in an orchard at village Trenz late in the evening on Oct. 17. They threatened around 20 non-local traders to leave Kashmir. Kumar and Singh who were present there were asked to move to a particular spot, along with Ahmad. The gunmen then fired from behind and Ahmad saw Kumar and Singh fall to the ground as he ran to the side. Later he saw the gunmen set Singh’s truck ablaze.
Six non-locals associated with the apple trade, including Singh, have reportedly been killed by suspected ultras over the past few weeks, the latest outrage being reported yesterday (Oct. 28) from Anantnag.
This spike in violence is being seen as an opening shot in the worsening identity conflict in Kashmir in the wake of the emasculation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution by the central government on August 5. The provision guaranteed J&K partial autonomy in conducting its internal affairs and barred non-natives from settling down in the state.
With the Article now rendered ineffective, the Valley is suddenly vulnerable to an influx of outsiders which, in turn, has made locals paranoid about an impending demographic change.
Spread across 1.87 lakh acres—the largest area under apple cultivation in India—and catering to the livelihoods of around 3.5 million people, the apple industry is threatening to become a site of Kashmiri versus outsiders tussle. This threatens the state’s Rs10,000 crore ($1.4 billion) horticulture industry, the backbone of the state’s economy.
The attacks on outsiders began on Oct. 14 when a truck driver from Rajasthan, Shareef Khan, was shot dead and his truck burnt. This was followed two days later by the killing in Pulwama district of Sethi Kumar Sagar, a brick kiln labourer from Chhattisgarh in central India. The attack on Singh and Sanjeev followed a day later.
The killings have already triggered an exodus of non-native truckers and apple traders. Prompted by the extraordinary nature of the situation, the government has tried to reassure outsiders by providing them security. The administration has identified six routes from the main sale centre to the orchards to transport fruits. The forces will secure these routes from morning to evening for the purpose. Immediately after the attacks, J&K police chief, Dilbagh Singh, visited Shopian along with senior army and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officials to instill confidence among fruit growers and traders.
But the reassurance hasn’t been enough. Fear now lurks across Kashmir’s orchards. Traders and truckers now avoid orchards located deep into the interiors of South Kashmir. A similar restraint is being observed in central and north Kashmir. The government’s measures may, for now, help tide over the situation. However, any fresh attack could exacerbate matters.
An air of intrigue
Apple growers in Kashmir view the development with consternation. The killings have come as a double whammy for a sector already reeling from the three months of security lockdown and communication blockade in place since early August. At times, apple growers have had to travel 400 kilometres to Jammu merely to talk to traders in other parts of India or even to text them their bank account numbers.
“Militants are telling them not to hire outsiders,” said an apple grower at Tahab in Pulwama on the condition of anonymity. “They want us to hire locals.”
This, however, may not be easy.
Kashmir’s apple trade is inextricably tied up to traders and truckers from other parts of India.
“Shopian apple market has just about 215 locally-owned trucks. During harvest season, we require 8,000. So, we depend on truckers from other states to export our produce,” says president of Fruit Mandi, Shopian, Mohammad Ashraf Wani. “If truckers from outside were to stop coming to the Valley our apples will rot. Similarly we need outside traders to buy our apples. If they stop coming, who do we sell apple to?”
Yet, the apple growers avoid blaming militants for killings. “Militants won’t do this. They won’t do anything that is against the interest of the apple industry. We see a conspiracy,” says a grower not wishing to be named and unable to explain what the conspiracy could be. “Our priority this time is to salvage the apple season. But some forces are intent on disrupting the trade.”
Senior vice-president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Nasir Ahmad Khan, sees the killings as a result of the recent politicisation of the apple industry. “There has been excessive government and media attention on horticulture. The sector should have been left to its own devices. It has weathered turmoil in Kashmir earlier, too, it would have done so now also,” says Khan about the state government’s much-hyped efforts to help the sector by buying some of the apple produce. “The consequent politicisation may have made the sector a site of an ideological contestation.”
Khan may have a point. Killings of outsiders apart, Kashmiri apples have been used to send across a political message. The apples with anti-India and pro-Pakistani slogans such as “we want freedom” and “Pakistan zindabad” written on them were recently found in cartons by fruit sellers in Kathua. The police are investigating the issue.
However, the selective nature of the killings makes it apparent that there is a bigger dynamic at play, too.
August 5 transformed the conflict in Kashmir from a political into an existential issue breeding, in turn, a deep anxiety about identity. It was this anxiety that, in part, was responsible for the flight of about 500,000 non-local labourers in the early days following India’s move on Article 370. People suddenly became conscious of an outsider amidst them, a sentiment exacerbated by the shock of the sudden loss of special constitutional status and its grave demographic implications for the state.
If this conflict catches on, it will add yet another bloody layer to the three-decade-old cycle of violence in the state.