A mixed crowd gathered in Handwara town square on 19 April when a group of municipal workers, aided by a bulldozer, dismantled the Army installation that was at the centre of protests across Kashmir earlier this month. Built in 1994, the demolition of the installation, one of the long pending demands of the people of Handwara, was catalysed, unfortunately, by the killing of five civilians and the subsequent flare-up across the Valley which brought the state on the brink.
That day, Sajad Gani Lone, the Cardiff educated MLA of Handwara and an ally of BJP, slowly walked towards a broken fence bordering the bunker, surrounded by few dozen workers in a sea of pro-freedom and anti-India protesters. Once a bastion of his father, Lone looked visibly frightened but clam. Police and paramilitary vehicles kept vigil at a distance.
In the assembly election of 2014, Sajad managed to win two out of five seats in his father’s home turf of Handwara. People, even some separatists, pinned their hopes on him after he joined the mainstream. But when the Army installation was brought down, Sajad was preparing to address a gathering, even if for few minutes, it could have well ended up being his last.
As the concrete walls of the installation came down, thunderous applause by the people gathered to watch the spectacle followed. Sajad was in the crowd and a lump was growing inside his throat. His mouth was parched out of fear,recalled one of Sajad's workers who stood next to him.
“We had already made up our mind. If someone among the crowd was to throw stones at us, we would not have left the place. We had decided to stick there,” the worker said.
The installation in the middle of the main market in Handwara has been an eyesore for residents for a long time. "In the previous PDP-Congress government, it was raised on pillars in 2007 to avoid direct contact of soldiers with schoolgirls and people walking around it after complaints," said Ghulam Mohideen Sofi, a former minister in PDP-Congress alliance government said.
“We requested the army to relocate the town square bunker. They asked for a place on top of buildings because their convoys pass through the town. Then we constructed the concrete structure on a plinth to avoid direct contact,” Sofi, who lost to Sajad after winning three times in a row from Handwara, told Firstpost.
After three civilians, including a women, were shot dead, the Valley was again caught in a vicious cycle of violence which left two more civilians dead. Caught on the back-foot, the state government attempted to calm the tempers in the district and started negotiations with the locals.
Of the five demands made by the local representatives of Handwara, one was the removal of the installation. For the first time in recent memory, the state government managed to break the cycle of violence by directly involving the stakeholders. In a conventional atmosphere, it was a perfect setting for any separatist politician to address the gathering.
But something unusual happened. For the first time, a mainstream politician of the valley, an ally of the BJP, a party despised by the people of J&K, had actually managed to walk into a thousand-strong crowd of angry protesters. The government, and more importantly Sajad, had finally delivered on the promise, but after much bloodshed.
“This place (town square) belongs to Handwara after 22 years. The government has given this place back to them,” Sajad told the gathering evoking huge applause and drum beating, “It will be converted into a park and as we have decided, we will call this place as Nayeem Chowk.” Nayeem Qadir Bhat was a budding cricketer who was killed along with four civilians in firing by security forces in Kupwara district at protesters demanding punishment for an Army soldier for allegedly molesting a local girl.
By daring to venture into the troubled waters of Handwara that day, Sajad snatched a picture perfect moment from separatist leadership and also made an uncanny opening for mainstream leaders. Most importantly, he had delivered on the promise made to people of Handwara.
“Everything can be replicated but not the courage he displayed by going there. That will be very difficult to replicate,” Mohammad Amin, a PC worker told Firstpost in Handwara after the bunker was dismantled.
In Kashmir’s politics of symbolism, Sajad has done the unthinkable. Even if he spoke for few minutes in front of the crowd and faced jeering, he did what he did at a place contested by overlapping ideologies of nationalism and freedom.
Before the demolition of the Army installation brought a semblance of normalcy in the town, Sajad was camping in the district for six days. He flew straight from New Delhi where he was undergoing treatment in his left eye and camped outside the Handwara town, pacifying people of the town during the day and meeting the administration by night.
According to one of his close aides, Sajad played a significant role to ensure that no one in the district was slapped with the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA), as has been the norm with protests of such scale. Also, no arrests were made by the police. Those detained were set free after taking verbal assurance from parents that their children won’t participate in protests again.
Even Hilal Ahmad Banday, the only one arrested in the case whom the minor girl had named in the video, too was handed to the police by Lone's workers, sources said. “We did arrest people involved in the unlawful activities during these days but, except for one, no one was unnecessarily kept in detention. We don’t have anyone in custody now,” SSP Kupwara, Ajaz Ahmad, said.
The impact of the removal of the Army installation in the town has boosted confidence among people. It has also lent some credibility to mainstream politicians, who are often accused of not working for the interests of people of J&K but New Delhi.
In Handwara, the removal of the Army installation has raised hopes that elected representatives in Kashmir too can stand up for their people which perfectly gels with the ruling Peoples Democratic Party’s demand of demilitarisation of the state. Even the moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq termed the process as a “good sign” which should be extended to other parts of Kashmir.
“Removal of bunkers at Handwara is a good sign, though a late development. We demand all forces bunkers be removed from wherever they exist in Kashmir," Mirwaiz said.
Sofi, the former minister, says that even if the bunker was removed, the relation of Kashmir with India should not be conditional to bunkers being present and “they controlling Kashmir’s and coercing them, to be part of India.”
"It should be a bunker-less relation. People living out of their free will. When you remove a bunker, it is the fulfilment of a dream. Why do they feel that it is their defeat, I fail to understand. People in Delhi have taken at it as something 'anti-national' when it is, in fact, a small victory of India in Kashmir,” Sofi said.