Srinagar: Once regarded as a district aloof from pro-freedom politics, Budgam is fast shedding that tag. Both police and the residents of Chadoora were surprised by the number of people who came from neighbouring Budgam villages to the site where a besieged militant was fighting the government forces on Tuesday.
The police officials whom Kashmir Reader contacted refused to come on record, but admitted that street protests and stone-pelting started in a big way in Budgam during last year’s uprising.
The police officials said that in the 2016 unrest, there occurred in Budgam 8 deaths and 257 persons were injured, 28 of them with bullets, in clashes with armed forces. In comparison, in Srinagar, the immediate neighbourhood of Badgam, health department figures recorded only 203 injuries.
“If you look at the number of deaths, most of them happened in Chadoora, Khan Sahib, and Magam areas in 2016,” a senior police official said. “The entire Budgam district was involved in the uprising.”
“People in Yousmarg as well as in upper regions of Khan Sahib, bordering forest areas, were involved in anti-government protests in 2016,” the senior official said. “It was something we had never expected.”
The police official said that the intensity of protests was such that the entire district was locked down, all roads blocked by protesters and troop deployments constantly engaged in stone battles.
“Pro-freedom demonstrations and rallies were held almost every day during 2016,” the official said. “We used to note down the main rallies. The smaller processions and rallies were ignored. The scale of the anti-government protests was huge.”
After three months of winter, violent protests have returned to parts of Budgam especially since the encounter at Chadoora. They again took officials and locals by surprise. The locals told Kashmir Reader that hundreds of boys gathered to break the cordon at Chadoora, a sight the locals had never seen.
“We had witnessed no encounter in Chadoora or other nearby areas for quite a long time,” 35-year-old Riyaz Ahmad from Wathoora area of Chadoora said. “People, especially young boys, coming out in such large numbers was something unusual for us. I have witnessed small protests in our area. But youths coming out of their homes to confront the army to save a mujahid I never expected.”
Several other residents of Wathoora said that the high-handedness of the government troops and the ongoing situation of conflict is the main reason why youth have taken to street protests.
“These kids of 12 and 13 years were born in the era of conflict and have a strong political consciousness. They see death as something normal. The fear of death is gone. The future seems to be bloodier,” a resident of Wathoora said.
Referring to the recent encounter, a Class 7 student, Rahil Ahmad Bhat from Chadoora, said he, too, was part of stone-pelting crowds during the recent encounter. “I wanted to save the militant. I did not fear for my life. I made sure that I was in the front rows of the stone-pelters,” Rahil said. He said he was arrested during the 2016 uprising as well. “I remained in jail for some time. Then the police let me go. I think we are suffering due to oppression. India has to leave. For that to happen, we have to sometimes embrace death, like militants do. I will continue to take part in protests to fight the oppression.”
A senior police official who is currently posted in Budgam said that except in the district headquarters, people of Budgam areas identify with pro-freedom politics. “Except in the main town of Budgam, we had law and problems everywhere in Budgam. It happens usually when separatists call a strike,” the senior police official said.
Referring to the protests during the Chadoora encounter, the official said that not only Budgam, youths came from nearby Pulwama district, too. “There were only a few people from Chadoora. Rest came from other places like Pulwama,” he said. “The security establishments are sparse and located away from settlements as there is less disturbance in the district. However, things may change now due to the growing law-and-order problems.”
Police in Budgam say that recently two local youth have joined militant ranks in Chadoora area. “Younis Ganaie, 24, of Patergam Chadoora, and Tafazul Islam, 23, from Chadooora joined the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen a month ago,” a police official said. “Now there are five militants, including Yasin Yatoo, active in Budgam district. The main problem for us, however, is the increasing involvement of youth in separatist politics.”
No police official wanted to come on record. But the legislator from Chadoora constituency and former minister in the ruling government, Javed Mustafa Mir, said that Budgam was still the most peaceful district in Kashmir. He said that by and large, less killings and injuries were witnessed in Budgam compared to other parts of Kashmir.
“I worked with the administration and police in the entire Budgam district. I worked with them because discord is against the very tenets of Islam,” Mir said. “First of all we should understand that protests will not end in Budgam or elsewhere in Kashmir. The Government of India has to address the Kashmir dispute through political means. How can you expect the situation to improve if the dispute remains unresolved? Once it is solved, peace will return to the state.”