Return of the natives

Return of the natives

By Hilal Mir
Magam: A few half-baked bricks that show through the dense foliage are all that remains of the five single-story houses that once stood in Chawalgund village. Nettles and wild shrubbery in full spring bloom cover the dug-up remnants of the stone foundations.

The mosque at Chawalgund
The mosque at Chawalgund

In 1995, the five families, 43 members in total, who constituted the human society in Chawalgund hamlet in Magam, Budgam district, about 35km from Srinagar, decided to migrate en masse to escape persecution by army. The migration was unique. The families in flight took along their houses to nearly the last brick and stone. The modest dismantled dwellings were transplanted at the new place, Gund, about a kilometer away, albeit with a few modifications.
What they left behind, besides their farmland, was the mosque, about 25×25 feet, brick and mud building with a hip roof, nearly indistinguishable from the houses. The mosque sits under a canopy of poplars and walnut trees. It had been built only a year before the migration a few paces away from a narrow stream where the men performed wazu.
The imam, Mohammad Shafi Shah, came from Gund village. He would be paid a few sacks of rice for his religious services.  He stopped coming after the migration. For all these 22 years, men would occasionally offer only zuhr and asr nimaz at the mosque. That too only during the sowing and harvesting seasons when they worked the farms nearby.

Remnants of the foundation of one of the five houses that existed in the 90s
Remnants of the foundation of one of the five houses that existed in the 90s

Migration was not easy, even if it meant shifting to a place at a walking distance from home, where elders easily traced ancestry back to four generations. For every metre of land at Gund, the families had to part away with two to three times of their farmland in exchange. Being farmers who didn’t own much land and had to embroider shawls for others to supplement income, none could afford to purchase land.
“Then there was this thing about people looking at us as coming from ‘a small, insignificant’ village,” said Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh.
Chawalgund is equidistant from four big villages—Gund, Malwah, Lokipora and Sharan. In the mid-nineties, dozens of militants roamed these beautiful places and carry out low-key guerilla attacks against the Indian army’s ubiquitous counterinsurgency force, Rashtriya Rifles. Those also were the heydays of Ikhwan, the barbaric Kashmiri militia nourished by the army.  The worst time to be anywhere in the Valley.
After every militant attack, the soldiers as a routine vented their ire on civilians, many of whom had their children in the militant ranks. Chawalgund’s location made it especially vulnerable to such reprisals.
“I alone was interrogated by the army at least nine times. I was 20 then and recently married, a fit case for suspicion. I was bearded too. During one such interrogation they pulled skin off my finger,” said Sheikh, 42, a chef.
Crackdown search operations were frequent. Sheikh recalls that Gund alone was subjected to 75 such daylong operations. One extended for three days. Caught between four big brothers, Chawalgund was never spared.
Sheikh recalls what happened during one of these crackdown searches in Chawalgund a day after militants had fired at a patrol party walking along the terraced orchards in Malwah, about a kilometer away.
“Militants’ action was waste of ammunition in my opinion but army was always in search of pretexts to harass us. What did it mean that shoot when the enemy is half a mile away? The next day the army came and their office took me aside,” he said.
“What happened here?” the officer asked.
“Militants fired at your party yesterday,” Sheikh replied.
“How do I know.”

Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh and Fayaz Ahmad Wani
Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh and Fayaz Ahmad Wani

Frankness of Sheikh’s replies softened the officer and he asked his men whether a search was necessary.
“One of them told him that they should search the houses,” said Sheikh who was asked to accompany the search team.
“When they entered the barn, the same guy who insisted on searching the houses dropped some bullets in the husk, probably thinking I had not seen him doing so. He then asked me ‘what is this’. I smiled and told him let me see. The bullet had numeral 18 on it. I told him let the officer check it,” Sheikh said.
The soldier was outraged by Sheikh’s calm audacity.
“What do you mean by let the sahib check it?” the soldier asked.
“I told him this is Indian ammunition. Militants have Pakistani and Chinese bullets,” Sheikh said.
“How do you know these things?” the soldier asked.
“Everybody knows about these things these days. Even children know about such things,” Sheikh retorted.
The search team was agitated and pushed Sheikh towards the fields.
“They could have killed me and then said that I was trying to escape. But Allah’s grace saved me because the officer entered at the same moment and told them ‘where are you taking him,’” he said.
One of the families had invited husbands of two daughters for lunch. The wazwan attracted the attention of army.
“They told us that we had prepared a feast for a large group of militants. We told them that when a son-in-law comes for firsaal (the first visit to in-laws’ home after wedding) we do serve them wazwan. But they searched the homes and stole a tape recorder that was worth Rs 5000 to Rs 6000,” said Ghulam Mohammad Wani, who was 30 then.
It was encounters like these that the five families started fretting about the safety of their women. There were 10 young women in the hamlet, both married and unmarried, and 22 children.
Aripanthan, Poshkar, Khag are the names of the villages where Rashtriya Rifles had camps and where from they would launch crackdown operations. For Chawalgund residents, these names signify camps.
Five heads of the families, Fatah Kumar (9 members), Abdul Salam Wani (15 members), Abdul Rashid Sheikh (7), Abdul Aziz Wani (7) and Ali Mohammad Wani (5) decided to migrate to the nearest place, Gund.
Ali Mohammad later shifted to Aboor village. One of his sons went across for arms training. He is still there. Another son, Sonaullah, after being persecuted by the army for his brother’s ‘sins’ aligned with Ikhwan. Militants killed him at a time, Sheikh said, when he was no more associated with the dreaded militia.
Migration provided relief but there was no escaping the army and Ikhwan.
Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh was picked up by Aripanthan camp one day and asked why he left Chawalgund.
“I told them straightway that I have heard that Kukka Parray (Ikhwan chief) shaves off beards of people wherever he goes. I didn’t want mine to go. It is a sin,” he said.
Many boys who left Chawalgund got married in Gund and raised families and built new houses. But the connection with ‘home’ was never forgotten, nor did the new neighbourhood let them forget. An occasional namaz at Chawalgund was the one of the ways to maintain the connection.
“Even now they tell our children that you belong to Chawalgund. Those innuendoes hit you like barbs. If you live for 100, 1000 years elsewhere your identity would not change. So I decided to return to Chawalgund. This is where we belong,” said Fayaz Ahmad, who was eight years when the family left. He is father of two kids now, both of whom were born in Gund.
Fayaz has laid concrete foundation of a small house he is building on the family plot. He is the first one to return. Three years ago, Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh’s brother Ghulam Hassan Sheikh planned to return. In fact, he dumped a few truckloads of stones on his land. But he was advised against building a house because ‘you never know when it will erupt again’.
“They told me the same things but I said that I will construct a house here only,” Fayaz said.
Returning is a necessity now. The 43 who left are now 88 excluding the one who went across for arms training. Five members also died during this period.
“Today we are enough to defy their crackdown. We would make a big protesting crowd,” said Sheikh.
Fayaz has removed cobwebs from the mosque, which was due for refurbishing when the migration happened. He has also evened its mud floor. Flooring and ceiling are next. A regular imam may not be needed now. Many men are capable of leading prayers now.
“A lot of things have changed since. Shah sahib might not be acceptable to many of us now. He belongs to Barelvi school of thought. What is important is that the mosque becomes abaad (living) once again,” Sheikh said.
(With reporting by Moazum Mohammad and Ishfaq Reshi)