Srinagar/Baramulla/Shopian: Says a 30-year-old, a minor government functionary in Baramulla, in an uncomplicated way, “Aap apne Pakistan ka gussa Kashmir par nikal rahe hain!” (You are taking it out on us in Kashmir because you are angry with Pakistan!)
He is angry. “Look at what Modi has done. Militancy had tapered off, but you scrapped Article 370 on the pretext of stopping terrorism. Life was running quite smoothly until the Burhan Wani killing. And then, after an interruption, it was back to normal again.”
“New Delhi has cooked up the fear of terrorism,” says the young man. After this, who knows what will happen? Militants are gathering already. The Army says hundreds have crossed over from Pakistan. Young men here can’t be unaffected. They are hurt and angry. The government has cut our mobile phones. So now the militants can go about organising, and no one can know.” (This was the day before the embargo on post-paid connections ended after 70 days.)
One morning, I rise early and rush to get to the famous apple trade mart — the apple “mandi” at Sopore in northern Kashmir, the biggest in India after New Delhi’s Azadpur mandi, by about eight in order to get there ahead of the closing time imposed by the “people’s resistance”. These days shops in Kashmir, other than the local vegetable seller or butcher, don’t stay open beyond 9-9.30 in the morning, if they open at all.
The place is practically empty. It is supposed to be so packed with trucks on a normal day around this time of the year that visitors must park their cars more than 2 km away and walk. But we drive right in. There are no more than a dozen trucks and a few tempos and tractors scattered about, and this is peak season.
On a normal working day, around 1,400 trucks laden with the lush apple crop start revving out of Sopore for destinations as far away as Bangladesh.
But this year the fruit economy is in shambles, badly denting the incomes of practically every single Kashmiri home since nearly everyone owns a few apple trees, or is connected with the fruit trade in some way — as financier, transporter, commission agent, loader, push-cart apple seller, labourer, the dhaba people who feed the thousands who come to the mandi every day.
I accost a couple of commission agents, who are just hanging around, not having much to do. Both have very sad faces. They explain the trading mechanism — the orchard-gate-to-loading-the-trucks process to me, and fall silent. One of them begins again, and asks: “What was wrong with the way the Congress used to do things in Delhi? Why have these people ended 370 and ended everything that was normal?”
I shrug this off and ask, “So, when will the people’s protest end — why not lift the self-imposed embargo and get on with it?” Hearing this, the other man comes to life, “No! We must carry on with our strike. Why does the government think it can do anything it likes and get away with it?”
Shopian in the south produces Kashmir’s best apples and has the second-most important apple mandi after Sopore. It too is shut, I find two days later. Completely shut. Since all commercial establishments are closed in Kashmir these days, a few trucks show up in the villages to load the fruit. In a normal year, about 800-1,000 trucks leave Shopian every day, laden with the apple. Business worth crores of rupees is transacted. In the current season, local traders say, only around 20 trucks go out every day.
According to a high-ranking district official in northern Kashmir, apple could account for about 25 to 30 per cent of Kashmir’s GDP. The season is practically over but apple growers have no interest in selling to Nafed, the government market intervention agency. The open market is a well-oiled system and offers a much better price than the government’s fixed rate.
The growers won’t mind selling to Nafed the apples that fall off trees and get somewhat damaged but would still be first rate for juice and jams. But Nafed has shown no interest.
Since all the phones were dead until a few days ago, the apple grower and trader could not be in touch with their destination markets in faraway places and gain access to market intelligence, which usually helped them regulate daily supplies. This too has led to a drop in earnings.
Apparently, in order to keep markets shut, suspected militants have killed an apple trader in Sopore, and last week hit at a transporter from Punjab and a trader from Rajasthan in Shopian and Pulwama respectively. In September, a shopkeeper was killed in Srinagar. Plain murder is naturally culpable, but the militants’ game also seems foolish since an angry Kashmir appears to seek to press on with the peaceful strike anyway — at least for now. There appears to be no Pakistani hand in this.
(To be concluded)...