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September 17, 1999


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The Rediff Election Specials/ Chindu Sreedharan

'The issue is not Kargil or corruption, but Kashmir. We want azaadi'

Thursday morning finds us in Sopore, which falls under Jammu and Kashmir's sensitive Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency.

It is less than 20 hours since a powerful improvised explosive device planted by militants blew the heck out of a Central Reserve Police Force convoy here. At first count, 26 personnel and six civilians were injured (unofficial reports say that four more died later) and a civilian killed.

The road is still littered with glass pieces for some 20 metres on both sides of the blast site. There is a hartal on in the town. A partly open STD booth has its glass panes shattered.

"The mine was planted here," says a local, guiding us to a spot opposite the general bus stand, in front of a seven-shuttered building. A little ahead is a Border Security Force post. How on earth could anyone have planted anything here, right in the middle of such a busy place, without anyone noticing anything, we wonder.

There is only a slight depression on the ground, but the power of the blast -- "it occurred around 3 pm" -- is obvious from the damage it has wreaked on the building. Two shutters have been wrenched off. And the rest all showed marks of the blast.

More scary than the blast, the locals are telling us, was the way the security personnel reacted thereafter. There was exchange of fire with the militants who had, as soon as the convoy came to a stop, targeted it. Once that ended, the security personnel went berserk: they raided shops, the locals allege, and emptied a burst into the only available man around, Gulzar Ahmad, 55, a handicapped telephone operator.

"He had only one leg and couldn't run away," says a local requesting anonymity and leading us to Ahmad's STD booth. "He lost his daughter three years ago in an exchange of fire... now this."

Is there any eyewitness to his killing, we ask a policeman.

"How could there have been?" comes his counter-question. "Everyone had run away as soon as the blast occurred."

What adds credence to the allegation that it was the security forces that killed Ahmad is that his telephone booth is some distance away from the scene of the encounter -- so how could he have been caught in the crossfire?

"If they didn't kill him who did?" the locals demand.

We ask when Ahmad's funeral is and are awakened to another facet of life in Kashmir. Here, death is so much part of life that once you are killed, that is the end of the story. The police file the customary FIR, you are buried without even a postmortem, and life moves on.

"Things are always ready at the mosque," a local says, "And Ahmad's last rites were done at 7.45 am yesterday itself."

Sopore, they tell us, has had more than its fair share of security excesses, which to a certain extent explains the obvious hatred of the people for security personnel. The most infamous incident was in June 1993\, when a BSF firing killed 45 civilians and gutted some 200 shops.

The conversation soon drifts to the elections and the locals tell us, firmly, that they wouldn't care to cast votes. The National Conference's Abdul Rasheed Shaheen, sitting MP and now-independent Professor Saifudin Soz and the People's Democratic Party candidate Muzafer Husain Beig hold no noticeable sway with the people here -- nor, for that matter, do any of the other seven candidates. The refrain of the locals is: why vote when the government has done nothing for them?

Our need to find an STD telephone leads us to the new government colony, where we get a powerful taste of the anti-India feeling that we sensed earlier.

"In this 50 years the government has not lifted even a finger for the Kashmiris," says Balroo, an elderly gentleman, "Whatever money they got from the Centre they put into their own pockets. Look at the situation here -- no water, bad roads, the price of rice has gone up... The government is not interested in bettering the life of Kashmiris."

In that case why don't they vote against Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah and give someone else a chance?

"Vote ka sawaal hi nahin uttha," a youth spits out, "All are bastards. We know."

Why not give it a chance, we press. This time, it was another man, 30-plus, who answered.

"Why don't you tell them the truth," he asks the rest and then turns to us. " Dekho, here is the real issue is not corruption or Kargil or anything else. It is Kashmir. We want azaadi. Ask them yourself -" he turns to the gathering, "Tell them, what do you want?"

The reply is a chorus: "Azaadi."

Adds an elder, who wishes to be identified as 'just a Kashmiri', "If you tear our breasts and look into our heart, you will find imprints of tyranny there. We do not wish to be part of India. We do not want to vote. *Nobody* from here will vote."

The youths invite us to see an example of the apathy. Some hundred metres away, almost in the centre of a narrow road, we find a live grenade. Seven stones and a few policemen guard it from being disturbed accidentally.

The pineapple minus its pin, the youths tell us, has been lying here since 4 am yesterday -- a matter that was reported to the BSF and the army. But they refused to defuse it. The only people who showed any interest were the local police who, for the past 16 hours, had been standing around it.

No one seems to know for sure how the grenade landed there. But many claim that it is the security personnel who left it there in retaliation for the blast.

"This is how things work here," a youth tells us as we start back, "Their attitude is, so what if it bursts, let the Kashmiris die."

The Rediff Election Specials

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