'We come to Kashmir every year, but this time we fear for our lives': After 3 civilian deaths in 2 days, non-local truck drivers flee Valley

Quratulain Rehbar

After a second attack on an apple trader in which another non-local Charanjit Singh was shot dead in Shopian district of Jammu and Kashmir, the incident has created a panic among fruit growers especially non-local truck drivers who load their trucks and dispatch apples to outside state.

On 14 October, a non-local truck driver from Rajasthan was shot dead when he was loading the apples produced by local trader Shakeel Ahmad in Shirmal area of South Kashmir. While the driver was loading his truck, he was reportedly killed by masked militants. According to the family of Ahmad, who is under investigation in connection with the case, said that the two gunmen had barged into the truck and drove it away. The owner of the truck Ikram Khan had narrated the story to them, they said.

Mohammad Yousuf, relative of Shakeel ahmad, whose apples were burnt by suspected militants at Sindoo Shirmal of South Kashmir. Firstpost/Quratulain Rehbar

Mohammad Yousuf, relative of Shakeel ahmad, whose apples were burnt by suspected militants at Sindoo Shirmal of South Kashmir. Firstpost/Quratulain Rehbar

His uncle Shareef Khan was in the truck when the two masked men sped away with the vehicle. "The truck driver came back running to us barefoot. He was crying after he said that two masked men sped away with the vehicle towards the main road," narrated Mohammad Yousuf, a relative of Ahmad.

Shareef and Ikram had already loaded the truck with 150 boxes of apples and there were 50 more boxes left to load when the incident happened. "I had bought that truck just three months ago, but now I, atleast, want my uncle to be safe." Ikram was with Ahmad when the incident happened, who tried to pacify Ahmad and then ran behind the truck. "But the truck was already burnt and we heard a gunshot," said Yousuf.

After this incident, police arrested 27 suspects from the area, who are right now being investigated along with Ikram.

Fear and panic among non-locals

In South Kashmir's Pulwama, a few truck drivers, who have come from states like Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, among others, had loaded their trucks with the produce in near an Army camp in Hawal-a village. After the killings, they fear for their lives.

Non-local truck drivers parked their vehicles along the main road near an army camp in Pulwama. Firstpost/Quratulain Rehbar

Non-local truck drivers parked their vehicles along the main road near an army camp in Pulwama. Firstpost/Quratulain Rehbar

Irfan, a non-local truck driver from Haryana, has parked his truck after loading it along with ten other trucks which belong to oither non-locals. They said they are huddling together to ensure their safety. 'Some locals adviced us to keep our trucks here. We have now gathered here to load our trucks. Once we are done we will leave the state," he said.

"We come here every year but this time we fear for our lives. This shouldn't happen with us," said Dilbagh Singh, who is from Punjab and owner of two trucks. He had kept one of his trucks near the army camp. It was Dibagh Singh's third day in Kashmir. He says before travelling to Kashmir, he, and other drivers, had enquired about the situation in the Valley, especially when reports suggested that things were normal after over 70 days of shutdown. "Now, even phones have started working after the communication shutdown was lifted two days ago. So, we thought it will be safe to visit Kashmir. Otherwise, we would have not come."

After the markets in Shopian were closed, packers are using makeshift spaces around the Mandi to pack apples. Firstpost/Quratulain Rehbar

After the markets in Shopian were closed, packers are using makeshift spaces around the Mandi to pack apples. Firstpost/Quratulain Rehbar

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre scrapped Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, at least three non-locals have been shot dead by unknown gunmen. Most of the migrant workers fled the Valley after government ordered tourists and students to leave the state three days before they revoked the special status accorded to the state.

On 16 October, suspected militants shot dead another non-local, a brick kiln labourer from Chhattisgarh at Nehama area near Kakapora Railway Station of South Kashmir's Pulwama district. The slain person was identified as 29-year-old Sethi Sahas of Bansula Champa area of Chhattisgarh.

Business affected

The recent killings have provoked a sense of fear among non-locals, especially the apple traders who travel to the Valley and are worried about the future if such incidents were to continue. Since the Centre restored postpaid mobile phone services in the Valley after 72 days of lockdown, three such incidents have occurred.

"We are dependant on transporters from other states to export our apples. But now, everyone is afraid and we also don't want these drivers to face any consequence," said Mohammad Ashraf Wani, president of Fruit Mandi Association in Shopian. "Our lives are completely dependent on apple business. If such incidents keep happening, it will only make things worse for us."

According to Wani, Shopian apple market has more than 200 locally-owned trucks but as per need they require around 8,000 extra trucks, which usually come from outside states.

Witnessing events unfolding in the Valley since 5 August, apple cultivators are paying double for the fare, packing and plucking of apples. Till last year, cultivators used to pay Rs 500 to packers, but this year, since the risks are heavy, the prices have gone up to Rs 900.

The fruit mandi in Shopian has been closed this year, amid heavy security, and was shifted to Batpora, near the police lines. Reportedly, since 5 August militants have threatened the locals who were working in apple orchards. At a few places, reports said that warning posters were also seen around the orchards. But details about the posters and who might have put them up, remains unknown.

Also See: Targeted killings of apple traders and non-local labourers show Kashmir battle has reached a decisive phase

Reluctant to travel away from their homes in Kashmir, businessmen in Srinagar fear situation will worsen two months since abrogation of Article 370

From offering 50,000 jobs to launching DBT scheme for apple growers, Centre's detailed outreach plans for Kashmiris

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