PERILOUS JOURNEY

  • Haziq Qadri/ Muhammad Inzamam
  • Publish Date: Nov 18 2017 8:46PM
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  • Updated Date: Nov 18 2017 8:47PM
PERILOUS JOURNEY

                                                   Illustration by Suhail Naqshbandi/KI

Cab drivers in Kashmir are often taken to ferry military or police. They dread nothing more

 

In his seven years driving a taxi in South Kashmir, Bilal says he had never felt so scared as when he was compelled to drive a contingent of seven army men one April night this year. 

The 35-year-old from Yaripora Kulgam, had been called to a nearby army camp, where an officer told him to take his men to Frisal, a village around 5km away. It’s common for the Indian military in Kashmir to hire or commandeer civilian vehicles. Given they hold the power of life and death, hardly anybody dares to refuse. Bilal had to drive the soldiers wherever they wanted to go.

But it was an undertaking fraught with great danger, as Bilal knew. The soldiers might not harm him but merely being seen with them, and at night, was risky enough. “All through the trip, I was praying for safe return,” he says. “Anyone walking on the road, I would feel, might start firing at my car.”

When they got to Frislan, the soldiers ordered Bilal to park the taxi near a shop and wait for them. 

“They returned after 20 minutes. In that time I almost died of fear,” Bilal says. What if there were militants about and they took him for an army agent? Bilal thought. Wouldn’t they kill him?

His fear wasn’t misplaced, of course. There are numerous instances of civilian vehicles carrying army or police personnel being attacked, and their drivers getting killed. Some drivers have been threatened by militants or ostracised by the community for being seen as army agents.

The army’s spokesperson in Kashmir, Colonel Rajesh Kalia, claimed that they use civilian vehicles only for non-military purposes. “When we get some guests, we hire private cabs for their safety and security, because, unlike army vehicles, they don’t attract attention,” he said. And the drivers, he added, are paid “according to local standards”. “As far as I know, the army has never coerced a cab driver to ferry soldiers to any place,” he said.

Many of Kalia’s claims do not stack up against lived reality, however. 

On May 4 this year, the Jammu and Kashmir police and the army laid siege to two dozen villages in Shopian district, presumably to search for militants. Scores of them went there in civilian vehicles to avoid detection from afar. On the way back after the siege was lifted, one of the cabs was ambushed by militants near Kellora village. The driver, Nazir Ahmad, of Kachdoora village, was killed and two of the army men he was ferrying were wounded.

It is unacceptable if the military forcibly takes drivers to work for them, says the human rights campaigner Khurram Parvez. “If the drivers are coerced to ferry the army, it amounts to forced labour and torture,” he argues. “If they are hiring a cab with the driver’s consent, they have to ensure his security and make sure the driver is insured.”

Abdul Qayoom Bhat of Rajpora village in Pulwama drove a mini-bus for a living until he traded it up for a cab. He has come to regret the decision. 

“When I had the mini, I earned less but it was peaceful,” he explains. “Now that I have a cab, army men often get me to take them to different places and that is always risky.”

Abdul Qayoom says he was paid every time by the army, as most drivers indeed are. He couldn’t care less, though: what good is the money he must risk his life and his community’s goodwill for? 

In fact, Abdul Qayoom is not as worried about personal safety as what his neighbours might think of him. “When others hear I had ferried army in my cab, they call me an Indian agent. That is worse than getting caught in an encounter because militants may target us, thinking we work for the army,” he says.

It isn’t unheard of in Kashmir what Abdul Qayoom fears. One evening in June 2013, Manzoor Ahmad Sheikh, a lorry driver from Markundal village village in Bandipur district, was summoned to the 13 Rashtriya Rifles’ camp in Hajin, allegedly by an army major, and told to take a contingent of soldiers to his village, five km away. There, the soldiers shot dead 18-year-old Irfan Nabi Ganai.

Being an eyewitness to the killing, Manzoor was arrested, but only after the slain man’s family identified him to the police as the driver who had brought the soldiers to the village. Manzoor protested he was not working for the army, but it didn’t cut ice, not least in Markundal. Such could be the fate of any cab driver in Kashmir.