They call Palhalan the ‘Kandahar of Kashmir’. Here is why it might yield new recruits for militancy

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By Zahid Rafiq

Anguish Palhalan epitomised the anger in Kashmir as eight boys lost their lives and many others were disabled in the firings

PHOTOS: REUTERS

PALHALAN IS called the ‘Kandahar of Kashmir’. It epitomises the riddles of Kashmir: the pro-freedom sentiment, the history of militancy, influence of the Jamaat-e-Islami, State repression and also how new generations inherit these animosities. If Kashmir’s young pick up the gun again, it is possible that Palhalan will yield a big chunk of recruits. And it is the siege that might draw them towards the gun.

When Kashmir was burning in the summer, Palhalan, a village in Baramulla district, 30 km north of Srinagar, embodied that anger. As life returns to a fatigued normalcy in most parts of the Valley, Palhalan still reels under military control, earning it the epithet of Kashmir’s ‘curfew village’.

Since July, eight people have succumbed to armed forces’ firing in Palhalan. More than 60 have been wounded and hundreds have been arrested.

Between empty orchards, damaged houses, shops with half-rolled shutters and numerous mosques, the road twists and turns to reach the houses of the dead. There is a poster on one of the walls with the picture of Adil Ramzan, commemorating his death and promising faithfulness to the 12-year-old’s blood.

Ramzan, a Class VII student, became Palhalan’s first casualty this summer when he and his friends went to Pattan to join a pro-azadi protest and was shot in his back on 30 July. He had been playing cricket earlier and his bat lay on the street near his bleeding body. He died in Pattan a few hours later and no one in his family could reach the hospital as soldiers had blocked the roads. His body was brought home through wet paddy fields.

A few metres away, Ramzan’s mother Syeda lives with her husband and three kids in a one-storey house. As his siblings got promoted to the next grade, Ramzan’s schoolbag lies in a shelf along with his uniform. “Sometimes, I sneak into the room and kiss his shirt, tie, notebooks and sob silently,” says Syeda. “When I serve dinner, I put down the fourth plate only to take it back. The dining table looks so empty without him.”

Ramzan is not the first casualty in his family. His grandfather Ghulam Mohideen Sheikh, a Jamaat member, was shot dead in 1999 by “unidentified gunmen” while he was going to offer prayers. Then, Sheikh’s two brothers, who were Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) militants, were killed in encounters. In 2005, two of Ramzan’s uncles — Ali Mohammad, a pharmacy owner, and Samiullah, a Class XII student — were arrested and charged for ferrying RDX. They are imprisoned in Tihar jail.

Ramzan’s aunt had tied the knot nine days before his death, and her husband, Nasir Ganai, a Hurriyat activist, was arrested and booked under Public Safety Act (PSA). He is now lodged in Udhampur.

Ramzan’s family is not the only one with a bloody history in Palhalan. In the past 20 years, hundreds have been killed by the army, STF, militants and Ikhwan, though most of the deaths and disabilities have come from the guns of armed forces.

Palhalan is a village where the Jamaat has had strong roots since 1975 when its leader Zahoor ul Haq started madrassas. Palhalan soon became a stronghold of the Hizb, the militant arm of the Jamaat.

According to records, Congress worker Ghulam Ahmad Sheikh, 54, was the first person to die by a bullet when he was killed by militants in 1991. Tantray Mohalla, Sofi Mohalla and Rai Pora have seen bulk of the deaths: 325 people from 150 households in these areas have been killed in the past two decades. Out of them, 180 were directly or indirectly related to militancy.

With militancy on the wane, the HM has become invisible, but the Jamaat still has a strong grip here. “Almost every family is associated with the Jamaat,” says a boy. The Jamaat has many local leaders who, over the years, have opened madrassas and strengthened their hold over Palhalan.

Every strike call given by rebel Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani is followed religiously. When Srinagar and other places limped back to normalcy, stone pelting continued in Palhalan.

After Ramzan’s death, Ansarullah Tantray and Ali Mohammad Waza were killed on 18 September inside the compound of a local mosque. Then Feroze Ahmad Malik died while being shifted to a hospital. Mohammad Ramzan Mir and Noor-ud-Din Tantray succumbed to injuries. Muhammad Ramzan Mir and Muhammad Ashraf Mir were also killed in the summer firing.

A strong Jamaat-e- Islami influence, a history of militancy and a crippling curfew keeps Palhalan on the boil

Cut off from the rest of the Valley, Palhalan was subjected to two-and-a-half months of curfews, including 39 days at a stretch. Its phone lines were snapped, mobile phone services disabled and outsiders barred. As the death count rose, there were reports of molestations, looting, mosques being ransacked and boys being picked up from paddy fields during work. More than 14 people have become disabled this summer, and eight have been booked under PSA.

Palhalan has a population of more than 30,000. The police say that it is because of the large population that villagers refuse to sit quietly. Another reason they suggest is Palhalan’s self-reliance. With 5,856 kanals of apple orchards, 2,096 kanals of paddy fields and 15,000 kanals of cultivable land, Palhalan produces enough food for the village to survive hard times.

Apart from the curfew, Palhalan has been facing a silent siege over the past couple of years. For a village of its size and education, Palhalan has less than 500 government employees, say police sources. Most of them are in their 40s or nearing retirement. “My father was a government employee but after his retirement there is nobody working for the government in our family,” says Nayeem Tantray, a BA graduate. “We all do our little business and don’t harbour hopes of getting jobs,” says Tantray, whose brother Ansarullah was one of this summer’s firing victims. “Forget jobs, getting verifications for SIM cards is impossible. Hardly anyone in the village has a passport,” adds Tantray.

Epicentre The village was one of the Hizb strongholds during the heights of militancy
Epicentre The village was one of the Hizb strongholds during the heights of militancy
Photo: AP

SECURITY SOURCES admit that one of the former Senior Superintendents of Police had given informal orders to slow down verifications. “They are extremely violent people who damaged every vehicle that passed through the village during the summer protests,” a police officer says. “They even attacked the ‘Caravan-e-Aman’ bus that was going to Muzaffarabad. We had to transport the passengers to safety in our vehicles. The villagers fight all the time. They fight among themselves when the protests are not happening.”

Most of the boys on the streets are college students and graduates who no longer want jobs but crave azadi. Two of them were holed up in the Joint Interrogation Centre for two months before they were released last month. One of them had gone for police enrolment a few months ago but could not get in. “Even before the physical test started, they asked boys from Palhalan to raise their hands. We were asked to go back home,” he says.

On 4 May, the police arrested six boys from Palhalan when they were trying to cross the Line of Control in Kupwara. The police said that the boys were part of a cricket team that had raised money by winning matches and tried to cross the border.

Here, the boys are angrier than ever and the old people share their passion. As Kashmiri boys start rejoining the militant ranks, Palhalan won’t be far behind. “We will pick up the gun again if this is the way the authorities react to stone-pelting. We will kill and die too,” says an old shopkeeper as boys nod in assent.

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