It’s 11.30 am and after battling the rain, the crowds of tourists in the narrow lanes, and the incessant horns of cars, a drenched Altaf Hussain Khowja manages to reach his well-lit, spacious shop on Mussoorie’s Mall Road. It’s peak tourist season in the hill station and Khowja, 34, instructs his three Kashmiri workers to unpack the material — women’s suits, saris, stoles, and shawls — and place them across shelves and hangers in the ‘New Kashmiri Collection’ shop. Pointing to a corner showcasing shawls, he says, “Kashmiri shawls remain our most sold item.”
Two hours later, there is no sign of customers. “Afternoons usually remain lean. Business starts in the evening and goes on till midnight, sometimes beyond that too,” says Khowja, who seems sleep-deprived after closing the shop at 12.30 am the previous night. It takes some prodding for him to talk about another issue that is keeping many of them awake. Recently, the Mussoorie Traders & Welfare Association resolved that Kashmiri traders would have to leave the town before March 2018, and that all Kashmiri hawkers be driven out immediately. Exception was made for the Kashmiris living in the town for about three generations; owners of seven shops fall in that category.
The meeting of the traders’ body followed the June 18 India-Pakistan final in the Champions Trophy in England. After Pakistan won, some pro-Pakistan slogans were reportedly shouted by three “juveniles” on Mall Road. None of the three was from the Valley, but BJP leaders and the local traders said Kashmiri traders had “incited” them and other Muslims.
Looking around for his mobile phone, Khowja, who is from Kashmir’s Kupwara district and set up the shop in Mussoorie in March, says, “I have been getting calls from police officers in Kashmir, the local sub-divisional magistrate, the Mussoorie police station, some traders’ associations from Srinagar in Kashmir, the Kupwara MLA. They have all been asking what really transpired that led to such hostility towards us here.”
Khowja says both police and officials have assured them full support, saying no one would be able to drive them out. But that doesn’t answer his question, one repeated in the 18 shops run by Kashmiri traders across Mussoorie — “What have we done wrong?” Adds Khowja: “If we are wrong, punish us. But if we are not, then let us do our business.” Grabbing a page from a local Hindi tabloid lying behind him, he says,
“Look what they have written.” An article from June 23 says “the rising number” of Kashmiris in Mussoorie was making the town a bastion of terrorists. It adds, “betahasha roop se aaye Kashmiri dukandaron ne Mussoorie mein anekon dukanon ko bhari-bharkam kiraye par le liya (entering in indiscriminate numbers, the Kashmiris have rented numerous shops at high prices)”. Khowja says he pays Rs 60,000 as rent, much lower than the showrooms charging Rs 1.5-2.5 lakh a month. The sales are good, he adds, showing his entry for the day before. “We had sales of Rs 44,650.”
Khowja’s “hamsaya (neighbour)” from Kupwara’s Ladriwan village, Fayaz Ahmed Malik, 38, who runs the ‘New Kashmir Shawl House’ shop, enters just then. After listening to Khowja for a few minutes, he butts in: “What have we to do with cricket, or politics? We have come a thousand kilometres from home to earn money for our families.”
Pointing out that they had also been accused of receiving terror funds and keeping expensive phones, Malik shows his Rs 8,600 Gionee phone. “Is this an expensive phone?” he asks. His shop rent is Rs 25,000 a month. It’s 4.00 pm, and Khowja is yet to take a break for lunch. He lives in a two-room house about 200 metres away, with his three workers. His family, including his three children, wife, younger brother and father, live in their village Zurhama in Kupwara.
Khowja’s house has little, except utensils and a bed. While he uses the bed, the workers sleep on the floor. “If I keep a TV, the boys will sleep late and business will suffer,” he says. The 34-year-old yearns for home food, and missed it most on Eid. Here his workers mostly cook rice and curry. “We do eat non-veg but only once a week.” Fellow traders from the Valley make up for the absence of families, and they are a close-knit group. Today, so far, three Kashmiri traders from nearby stores have visited Khowja, with the conversation unfailingly veering around to the resolution asking them to leave town.
Khowja points out that he came to Uttarakhand hoping to provide a good life to his family and education to his children. “If I could earn Rs 15,000-20,000 in my village there would be no need for me to come to an unknown place and bear all the insults. I studied in a government school, that too only till Class10. I want my children to get a good education. But their total school fees is Rs 2,500 per month. How will I pay if I don’t do this business? I don’t know any other way of earning a living,” he says.
Here, despite there being several of them, business is good. “Tourists come looking for shops bearing ‘Kashmiri’ tag,” says Khowja. The unrest in Kashmir since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s killing last year has worsened the situation in the Valley. “I have a shop of Kashmiri garments in Pahalgam, but it’s closed for a year now,” Khowja says. Till 2015, he would run this shop from March to August every year, help his father and brother sell walnuts from their orchard in September and October, and spend the winters running a shop at Moga in Punjab.
“Since trading in Pahalgam was not an option this year, my relatives working in Mussoorie suggested I rent a shop here. I liked the town initially, but now I don’t know what the hundred-odd Kashmiris working here will tell people back home about the hostility we face in our own country. They are deliberately trying to isolate us,” Khowja says.
If he had a choice, adds Khowja, he would have been in the Army, like his elder brother Mushtaq Hussain Khowja, who is a Major. But he couldn’t clear the entrance examination despite three attempts. “When we are young, we have dreams. Mushtaq and I wanted to be Army officers and do something for the country. He succeeded, I didn’t.”
It was then that he started hawking Kashmiri clothes for a living. Initially, he went door-to-door with his father. “By evening, the skin on our shoulders (where the strap of the bundle of clothes ran) would be raw,” he recalls, pointing to his left shoulder. It’s 5 pm, and with the rain having stopped, tourists are thronging Mall Road. A few enter the store. While most customers leave finding the prices too high, others haggle over the clothes they have selected.
As a customer bargains for a discount on a “long suit” that is in fashion these days, Khowja politely says, “This suit has come all the way from Kashmir; look at the fine work.” As it gets dark, Khowja gets more pensive. “When I first came, this felt like home, the hills, the trees and the weather here are somewhat like in my village. All they need have done is been nice to us, so that we would be assured that there is a place outside Kashmir which we can call home.”
The news has travelled to Zurhama, and Khowja’s wife Jameela Begum has been insisting he return. “She tells me, ‘We have all that’s needed. Life comes first, so don’t put it in danger for us’,” he says, slipping into the Pahari dialect they speak in Zurhama. The J&K and Uttarakhand governments’ intervention has brought some relief. “The president of the traders’ body (Rajat Agarwal) came to tell us not to worry, that we could continue doing business,” Khowja says.
It would be another five hours before he downs the shutters. As he settles back against the clothes that are reminders of home, a few metres away, Wasim Raja, the owner of ‘Kashmir Art Emporium’, Mussoorie’s oldest Kashmiri shop, dating back to 1950, looks on. While he is exempt from the order to “leave”, the anxiety that has now come to stay has affected everyone. “They (new Kashmiri shopkeepers) shouldn’t be allowed to stay another moment,” says the 40-year-old. “It is because of them that fingers are being pointed at us too. They must leave the town, now.”