Mohammed Hashim, 26, has woken up at 7 am, an hour later than usual. It was the first time in days that Hashim, a truck driver from Mewat in Haryana, and his co-driver Mustaqeem Khan slept right through the night, curled up in the cabin of the truck, one of 10 that are parked inside the compound of the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Shopian, South Kashmir.
The previous day (October 29), Hashim and the other truckers had been told the good news — after days of waiting on the road leading to Shopian, they would finally get to go to the fruit mandi in Shopian to load their trucks with apples.
With J&K under lockdown, the Centre has tasked the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd (NAFED) to procure this season’s apple crop in the Valley. While J&K’s Directorate of Horticulture, Planning & Marketing will do the actual procurement, NAFED is to take delivery of the apples. Truckers like Hashim are meant to take the apples to the designated NAFED delivery points.
Hashim, his two elder brothers and two of their nephews left home in Mewat town soon after casting their votes in the October 21 Haryana Assembly elections. The family runs a transport business and owns several trucks, eight of which came to Shopian to bring back apples.
Hashim, the fourth of five brothers, gave up his studio-photographer job to join the family profession five years ago. It is his fourth visit to Kashmir since 2016 and the second this year.
But this visit, he says, has been different. Since October 14, more than 10 non-Kashmiris, including many truckers, have been targeted in South Kashmir. In the latest such attack, on October 28, suspected militants shot dead a trucker who had parked his apple-laden vehicle on a road in Anantnag district.
“We are a group of 10 trucks that set off from Haryana, eight of these owned by our family. We arrived in Kashmir on October 24 and since then, we have been waiting on the road in the Hirpora area. The authorities said they couldn’t let us (into Shopian) because of these attacks on trucks. Tonight, for the first time, we had some good sleep at the DC office because there were security personnel with us,” says Hashim.
The five nights that they spent on the road outside Shopian were the most scary, says Hashim. “We couldn’t sleep. While we whiled away the hours during daytime, we would get inside the trucks early evening, keep the doors locked and come out only the next morning,” he says.
After five days of waiting, on the morning of October 29, an official from the district administration came to them and said they would get help getting their trucks loaded. “They (officials) took our documents and told us to come to the DC office,” says Hashim.
At 9.15 am, after a breakfast of tea and biscuits at the canteen on the DC office campus, Hashim asks his co-driver to prepare the truck for the journey to the mandi. Soon, the trucks set off in a convoy.
In about 20 minutes, they reach the mandi, where they slowly make their way to the grounds outside the loading point.
There are only a few other trucks at the mandi today. Looking around as he hops out of his truck, Hashim says, “We should not have come to Kashmir. It was not a good decision.”
He then heads to the office of the Horticulture Department to register his truck and that of the others. An official at the counter tells him to wait for their truck numbers to be called out.
Hashim returns to his vehicle, where the other truckers have now assembled. Around 10 am, Hashim’s eldest brother Jacom Khan, in his late 30s, comes up to him and says that Saddam, their youngest brother, has been calling them repeatedly from home in Haryana to know if everything is fine.
“We have been getting calls after calls. Our family wants us to forget the apples and come back. But we can’t go back without loading the trucks. Our losses will be huge. I bought this truck three years ago and I have been paying EMI on the loan I took. Who will pay that?” asks Hashim, a father of two.
There is another reason the family has been calling frantically. Saddam’s wedding is scheduled for November 4, and Hashim, his brothers and the other relatives have to get home fast. The journey back to Mewat takes about five to seven days if the trucks are fully loaded and they have to reach at least a day before the wedding.
“Saddam has warned us there will be no function without us,” says Jacom.
Around 1 pm, Nazir Ahmad, a driver from Shopian, comes up to Hashim and greets him. “When did you get here and when are you going back? Many of the truckers have gone back without waiting for their trucks to be loaded,” says Ahmad. “Bhai, 50,000 ki kisht lagti hai is gadi ka. Kahan se layenge woh kharcha (I have to pay an EMI of Rs 50,000 for this vehicle. Where will I get the money from)?” responds Hashim. Ahmad nods and goes back to sipping his tea.
The conversation soon veers round to the elections in Haryana. “I left home soon after voting. I wonder who won,” says Hashim. As Ahmad fills him in on the details — the BJP losing its majority and having to ally with the Jannayak Janata Party — Hashim listens intently. “Really? I didn’t even know that. See how cut off we have been,” he says, asking one of the truckers to get him a cup of tea.
Jacom says the lockdown in the Valley has only made it worse. While postpaid phones have been restored, prepaid phones are still down, as are mobile Internet services. “We have three working mobile phones among 20 of us. So we don’t get much time to talk to our family,” he says.
Vakeel Khan, a relative of Hashim’s, says the rushed phone calls to his family haven’t been ending too well these days. “I got married recently and my wife is unhappy that she hardly gets to talk to me. She is worried for my safety, but she is also angry that I am away from her. I feel bad too, but what can I do?” he smiles.
It is now 4.30 pm and Hashim and Jacom go to the horticulture office once again to ask for an update. Hashim requests one of the officials to hasten the loading, but the official tells him it may not be possible.
“Not all the trucks will be loaded today. Come tomorrow morning… will see what happens,” he tells Hashim. Disappointed, Jacom calls his brother in Haryana and informs him that only one of the 10 trucks has been loaded so far. They will have to soon take a call on the wedding.
Around 6 pm, Hashim calls out to the others, telling them to eat their dinner and get back on their trucks. “It gets very cold at night. We have one blanket in each truck and it is very difficult to sleep. I just pray to god that we go back home soon,” he says.
As the sun sets, the drivers head back to their trucks after a quick dinner at an eatery in the mandi compound. After half an hour, Hashim asks the security forces if they should go back to the DC office for the night. The officials assure them that they are safe in the mandi.
As he gets onto his truck, Hashim says he will come back to Kashmir only after the situation improves. “We had never faced any problem here and people are nice, but this time, Kashmir feels like a different place. It’s full of fear. Why should we come here again? To die?”
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