Maraaz (South Kashmir) has too many scary tropes tagged to it by default, particularly after the 2016 Burhan Wani incident when the region, particularly Shopian, became a hotspot for violence. Shopian is the smallest and the newest district of J&K, located 20 km eastwards of Pulwama, along the mighty Rambiara channel. Our bountiful apple crop — 3.5 lakh MT/year — ensures that there is minimal poverty in the area.
Few people know that many in Shopian had sacrificed their lives over a long, popular struggle for a separate district. The movement pointed to the strong sense of regional identity and aspiration. However, repeated bouts of unrest over the last few years have disrupted Shopian’s developmental trajectory, especially in 2016 when a mob set the DC office complex on fire.
The post-August 5 transition was carefully directed and sublimely executed. There were a few rough edges, like the internet restrictions for which we faced constant reproach, but given the sensitivity of the times, no chance could be taken. I must acknowledge that people showed great maturity and cooperated immensely, even as rumours of “outsider influx” and “demographic change” abounded. The administrative landscape post-August 5 required some rewiring. But we on the ground were conscious that we had to cushion the effects to ensure that the transition did not affect public service delivery mechanisms.
Making the Shopian fruit industry adjust to a new administrative and financial landscape was not easy. In the middle of peak season, a series of terrorist attacks took place in which five non-local truck drivers and traders were killed. The attacks were intended to scare people into observing an economic shutdown. An exodus of non-local buyers and truckers followed. We stared at a possible economic catastrophe. However, a cohesive collaboration emerged between us, the administration, and the locals, to save the day.
To plug the scarcity of trucks, we brought in every government truck we could find, while local transporters, including those from neighbouring districts, chipped in and we jointly ensured sale and evacuation in time. We rolled out a market intervention scheme in collaboration with NAFED and notified an attractive MSP for apples to protect those left without buyers. The more wealthy growers surrendered their selling spots for the poorer ones. Those months taught me something crucial: In times of crisis, the people of Kashmir come together and engage constructively with the government.
In the militancy-affected Zainpora area, there’s a village called Wachi, which lends its name to the legislative constituency and also houses one of the Amir Kabir shrines of Shah-e-Hamdan (RA). The elders of Wachi, a group of educated septuagenarians, led by the ebullient Mohammed Shafi Sahab, fought tooth and nail to secure the new proposed degree college for their village. The college was finally allocated at Zainpora headquarters. That didn’t stop the elders of Wachi from thronging my office repeatedly, sometimes camping for hours on end and refusing to leave, while Shafi Sahab belted out polemical pleas against developmental discrimination in fluent Victorian English.
I was forced to compensate by meeting their other demands, which led us to build three new bridges and a new hospital in Wachi. On January 20, a major anti-militancy operation took place in Wachi, in which three local militants of Hizbul Mujahideen were killed. Despite the tension in the area and security warnings, we inaugurated the PHC in an impressive ceremony that was organised by the locals. As I was leaving the function, I turned back to hug Shafi Sahab, realising what he had managed to achieve for his village. As a people who have seen numerous political upheavals, leadership is intrinsic to Kashmiris. Numerous elders like Shafi Sahab exist in every village of Kashmir, leading “Auqaf committees” and other such groups, jostling to seek their share of the development pie. Their relationship with government offices continues unchanged.
In November last year, we ran a sequel of our popular “Back to Village” programme, wherein senior officers go to every panchayat to ascertain demands and review works. Initially, we groaned over the scheduling of the programme in freezing temperatures. However, once the officers arrived in the hamlets, they surprisingly received a warm response from the people. Some villages, as expected, did berate us for not doing enough. I realised that in Kashmir if you walk up to people’s doorstep and knock, they would always let you in and talk to you, even if they are not happy with you.
And finally, even as COVID-19 spread, a silver lining emerged as the administration and people came together to tackle it. Numerous PRI members and locals became key partners in our fight against the virus, helping us with contact tracing, public sensitisation and community-level capacity building. Imams of various mosques showed a lot of maturity to convince worshippers against gathering for congregational prayers in an unsafe manner.
I finished one year in Shopian recently. Fortunately, we haven’t had even a single civilian killing this past year. We achieved much more than we expected post-August 5, 2019, but none of it could have been possible without the support of the people. Yes, things are not completely perfect — they never have been — but do we, as officers in Kashmir, have the option to give up? No. Neither do the people of Kashmir. All we can do is hope and look forward to a better tomorrow while continuing to work hard together amid onerous circumstances. As Lal Ded said: “Aami panah saedras naavi tchas lamaan, Kadi boazi deyi Myon, maeti di taar” (With a loose-spun thread, I am towing my boat upon the sea, Would that God hear my prayer and bring me safe across).
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 8, 2020 under the title ‘Towing the boat together’. The writer is District Commissioner, Shopian.
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