The large black crosses look like multiplication signs with squiggles at the top left corner. The edges are uneven, a bit of paint dripping at places, but the strokes are broad and bold, a couple of feet long.
Such signs have been painted on the shutters of some of the shops in the main market at Newa. Newa is a market hamlet on the highway from Srinagar to Pulwama. It is within Pulwama district in south Kashmir. Pulwama is arguably the district worst affected by unrest over the past five months, and within the district, Newa is a nerve centre of agitation.
Not just agitation, Newa is also a centre of Lashkar-e-Taiba militants. Yes, those black crosses on shop shutters are warnings — warnings that those shops have been marked by Lashkar-e-Taiba activists for defying the hartals ordered through the ‘protest calendars’ issued in the name of the joint Hurriyat groups.
Many well-informed Kashmiris, including some Hurriyat leaders, acknowledge that control over the situation in Kashmir has been harnessed by Pakistan, that the broad guidelines come from there for how and when protests and various degrees of violence are to be organised.
In Newa, Pakistan does not need remote control mechanisms. Lashkar, the most aggressively anti-India war group based in Pakistan is right there.
A local asks me quite nonchalantly whether I would like to meet Abu Dujana, as if it were the most natural thing. Since Dujana is Lashkar’s militant head in Kashmir, the suggestion startles me.
I look around to take in how well that surreal suggestion fits with the physical and social landscape. I have just emerged onto a rock-and-mud surface that suffices for a road. We have turned sharply right towards a makeshift bridge that has remained makeshift two years after a flood destroyed the bridge. There’s been no proper reconstruction yet.
I have just had a series of chats with locals in Gudoora village, not far from Newa. Much of the angst expressed in those conversations revolved around forces’ discourtesy — things like their entering houses with shoes on, breaking doors late at night, and disrespecting women’s privacy. These essentially cultural issues plug into receptivity to foreign militants.
So apparently, even a militant head as major as Dujana flits around places such as these, quite at home. Those who want to can get to him.
For all the recent talk of restored normalcy, Pulwama is one of those Kashmir districts that remains unsettled. Not only was it one of the three most disturbed Valley districts (along with Kulgam and Kupwara) in summer and autumn, it not only still simmers, it is home to militiants. Several are of Hizb-ul Mujahideen, but Lashkar too is embedded in some pockets of the district such as Newa.
There’s more surreality in how the power of the state is exercised. A police officer at the Pulwama police station airily explains the relative lack of protests in places like Tral, compared with Pulwama, saying that “that’s because there are militants there. They don’t attract attention where there are militants”. Visits to places like Gudoora indicate that there are plenty of militants in Pulwama too. So that sort of talk from police officers is either calculated to mislead, or that such officers live in la-la-land.
In places like Newa (which apparently falls under the jurisdiction of the Pulwama police station), people even talk of posters urging shopkeepers to follow ‘protest calendars’, and announcing that Lashkar will deal with those who continue to flout it.
Even that police officer says later in our conversation that a hundred or so local militants are probably active now, 10 or 12 of them in Pulwama. His estimate is that there must be double that number of foreign militants, since, he points out, the ratio of locals to foreigners in encounters with the forces is often 1:2.
His theory is that, for the moment, the HM (often local) boys have been instructed to sustain themselves and survive, rather than get exposed, while Lashkar operatives engage in battle as and when.
That Lashkar not only engages in operations but seeks to impose its will on shopkeepers and others in places like Newa indicates that hard-core militants are entrenching themselves. The future looks as bleak as the wintry landscape of bare poplar clusters standing in a grey-brown haze in sub-zero day temperatures.
First Published On : Dec 11, 2016 13:12 IST