War By Other Means

  • Saqib Malik
  • Publish Date: Dec 19 2016 1:18PM
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  • Updated Date: Dec 19 2016 1:18PM
War By Other MeansFile Photo

A giant welcome billboard watches over the entrance to Zainakote Industrial Estate, located close to the periphery of Srinagar. Inside, potholed dirt roads branch away to scores of production units of varying size. At first look, it is just another industrial complex ubiquitous to the landscape of any half-decent economy. Only it isn't; this estate is more a garrison.

It stands as a metaphor for how conflict and military occupation has shackled the economic potential of Kashmir.

The estate, managed by the Small Scale Industrial Development Corporation Limited, is sandwiched between camps of 2nd Battalion Rashtriya Rifles and 44th Battalion CRPF. The latter occupies about 350 kanals of land, most of it belonging to the HMT industrial complex. The overbearing security presence has riled the local youth, who have frequently clashed with the paramilitary personnel over the last six years. One such clash led to the death of a young man, Gowhar Nazir, in CRPF firing last year.

The presence of the military, coupled with state neglect, has left the industrial estate, established in 1978, nearly moribund. It is plagued with a host of infrastructural and civic problems. No matter what season it is, the road running parallel to the playground next to the estate is always buried under dog-infested mounds of garbage. “SMC lets local people to dump garbage on the premises of the estate. They should set up garbage collection points in the surrounding areas for them,” says Nazir Hussian, senior vice president of the Zainakote Industrial Estate Association. That the estate, riddled with defunct and dilapidated production units, lacks proper drainage only makes matter worse.

Starved of official attention, the Zainakote estate is maintained largely by the association. Hussain says the army camp was set up, in 1990, in an industrial unit. “There used to be a unit there by the name of Kashmir Alkaloids and Steroids which belonged to a Jammu-based person. He rented it out to the army. While he receives lakhs of rupees from the army, the unit holder has been paying only a few thousand rupees to SICOP as yearly rent for the last several years,” Hussain complains.

The CRPF camp on the HMT end is more recent, established during the Azadi agitation of 2010. Recently, there had been reports of “high-level deliberations” being held to have the CRPF vacate the “HMT premises”, which give the residents, and the factory owners, hope. As it turned out, it was too good to be true. “The good news was short-lived. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti put it in black and white, in the assembly, that there was no way the forces would move out of the HMT premises,” says a unit holder.

The HMT industry once provided employment to thousands of people, from near and far. But the watch-making unit became defunct after Kashmir was thrown into an armed conflict in the 1990s. Eventually, the company offered a “golden handshake” to the employees and shut shop.

In the years since, young entrepreneurs have sought to make the industrial area their base of operations, only to see their efforts frustrated by a lack of proper infrastructure and the inhibiting presence of the military. Junaid Ullah Bhat, 29, who runs Emco products, a cherry processing unit, says workers at the estate, even factory owners, feel insecure working in the shadow of heavy military presence. “The minutest of incidents here snowballs into a major law and order problem. We are psychologically troubled by the presence of the forces,” Bhat adds. Bhat employs 70 women from nearby areas for cleaning and packaging cherries and he says they feel uncomfortable moving around freely in the area.

If this was not enough, the police and the CRPF allegedly often vandalise industrial units on the pretext of taking “action against stone pelters”. “My property worth thousands of rupees was ransacked by the police while they were chasing stone-pelting youth two months back. We were locked inside the unit while the police went berserk, breaking computers, window panes,” said a factory owner who didn't want to be named for fear of reprisal.

To deter the youth from playing cricket near their camp, the CRPF men are said to throw liquor bottles on the playground overnight. “This irks the youth who resort to stone-pelting, which sparks the vicious cycle of teargassing and lathicharge, and more stone-pelting,” says a resident who requested not to be named.

On the hot June afternoon Kashmir Ink visited the industrial estate, members of the association have gathered to discuss ways to get rid of the “menace” of security presence. “We have written to the district commissioner and other senior officials to remove CRPF and army camps from here, but to no avail,” says Nazir Hussian.

Spools of concertina wire and a series of barricades set up by the camps give HMT and the adjoining estate the look of a war zone – a brutal monument to the ruin heavy military presence has made of Kashmir's industry and economy. “On the 350 kanals of land at HMT, we can accommodate hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs even if we give them just two kanals each? It is unfortunate that the HMT which used to provide livelihoods to thousands of people has become a gloomy place,” remarks a member of the association while giving Ink a guided tour of the estate, which is spread over 550 kanals.

Workers at the estate are subjected to frisking by the military before they're allowed inside; women workers, who number in the hundreds, in particular have to face “much inconvenience while passing through the camp”. “They feel insecure going through even the main road. And the army has blocked the way to several units inside. Unit holders have to seek permission of the army to move in and move out of their units,” says a factory owner.

“There's a branch of UCO Bank and a post office located within the premises of HMT. Every time a unit holder or a worker needs to access the ATM at the bank or the post office, they have to furnish details, show their ID cards,” he adds. He alleged that in 2010, CRPF men deployed at HMT camp had even vandalised the Jamia Masjid nearby.

Obviously, commercial activity has also been affected, says the association's general secretary. “We have lost a lot of clients as they are scared of coming to this estate.”

Asked about these allegations, a CRPF commander defended his men saying they had been the target of heavy stone-pelting, especially over the past year. “Stone pelting has been growing since 2015 but CRPF is trying to retaliate with utmost caution and ensure that there's no loss of life or property in this industrial hub,” he added. “Unfortunately, the youth Gowhar Nazir was killed allegedly by a CRPF bullet last year, but ever since we have been trying to maintain peace in the area. The chronic stone pelters have been nabbed by the police, which is still on the lookout for such anti-social elements.”

The commander claimed the CRPF was ready to move out of the estate as soon as the state came up with an alternative accommodation. “In 2010, we were provided this accommodation by the police. The onus of providing the accommodation, water, electricity to us is on the state government. This is an alternative accommodation to Naaz Cinema where we were earlier based. Whenever the state provides us an alternative accommodation, we will have no problem moving out.That said, the chief minister's statement that the CRPF is needed for guarding the area vindicates our presence here.”

The unit holders, though, aren't really hopeful of the military leaving them to their business anytime soon. They point out that the army has been promising to vacate Tatoo Ground in Batamaloo for years, but never done any anything concrete about it. Fayaz Ahmad, who runs an establishment right across from the HMT gate, says due to the routine clashes between the security forces and local youth, the J&K Bank ATM kiosk at the estate is being relocated to a nearby market. “We don't even fix the broken window panes since stones make their way into our shops and homes almost every day,” he adds. The local community, he says, is “eagerly waiting for the day the CRPF camp is removed”.

A middle-aged resident who has gathered alongside a crowd of men, women and children at a traditional baker's to buy bread says even a minor incident often triggers violence as the CRPF resorts to aerial firing and heavy teargas shelling. “Earlier shops used to shut late in the evening, but now because of the tension prevailing, shopkeepers down shutters early. Several times, shopkeepers and bystanders have also been beaten to pulp by the CRPF men.”

No wonder, a young shopkeeper across the road from the HMT complex is hesitant to talk. Yes, there is a problem because of the forces here but I am not the right person to speak with. Maybe you should speak with the other shopkeepers.”

Still, despite such hardship and a gnawing sense of insecurity, the owners – 130-odd of them -- and workers come to their units at HMT and Zainakote every day. Most put in 12-14 hour shifts, making everything from canned cherry to retreaded tyres and cotton. It's only their sheer resilience that keeps the place going.


(Published in the July issue of ink)