When troops handed over keys of sports complex Bijbehara to displaced bat manufactures after 23 years it brought back bitter memories of the past. Once hailed as a sign of prosperity the complex became part of people’s nightmares. Suhail A Shah talks to bat manufacturers who are fighting odds to piece together their lives.
Different people remember the Small Scale Industries Development Corporation (SICOP) unit, in Bijbehara town of Islamabad district, for different reasons.
Called Seecaf in local parlance, the Bijbehara Massacre of 1993 is the first thing that comes to the minds of most of the people in Bijbehara on any mention of the place. The unit housed the 74th Battalion of BSF, members of which carried out the Massacre.
Some remember it for the torture they were subjected to, by different government forces housed at different times inside the SICOP unit.
However there is a group of about fifteen people, rather fifteen families of Cricket Bat Manufacturers, who see the unit as a business opportunity snatched from them. They remember the place as their place of work, of their dreams and of what the place could have been.
The complex has been handed over to the unit holders after 23 years long struggle. Ironically, the keys were handed over to them on 22nd of October this year, 20 years after the Bijbehara massacre was carried out on the same day.
They, however, are still weighing the pros and cons of moving back in as 23 years have changed a lot.
The dirt track, along the recently black topped road to Bijbehara Railway station, in Jablipora area of the town has two sign boards erected at the entrance: one belongs to the SICOP and another to the Indian Army’s Rashtriya Rifles (RR).
Some two hundred meters ahead of the sign boards, a rather large entrance leads to a maidan. Right side of the maidan is lined with neatly trimmed mulberry trees and the other, bigger portion, on the left is dotted with a number of rundown, single storey buildings.
What catches the eye is a neatly kept building, at the far off corner of the haphazard maze of these abandoned buildings, with pictures of Hindu and Sikh deities on its walls.
Rest of the complex resembles a battle field. A battle field where the fighters have taken no care to restore order before fleeing the scene abruptly, as the battle was called off.
The complex was established in the later days of the year 1981, with the aim to boost the almost non-existent industrial sector of Kashmir. It was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Shiekh Muhammad Abdullah.
The Unit came to be known as the Sports Complex after about fifteen cricket bat manufacturers moved in and started their individual units.
“We were not very happy with the standard of the complexes provided, but nevertheless we moved in,” said Nazir Ahmad Salroo, one of the unit holders, “It was 1985.”
Salroo has been on the forefront of the struggle to get back, what has been rightfully theirs all along.
The wheels had just started to spin and the production, even though very little, had been underway when armed struggle against the Indian rule in Kashmir broke out in 1989. The ‘counter insurgency’ measures were in full swing and one of the major steps taken by the Indian government back then was to place forces at strategic locations across the Kashmir valley.
It was under these measures of attaining strategic points that the unit holders at the complex were told to vacate the place ‘temporarily’. It was the then SSP Anantnag, Muhammad Amin Shah and SHO Bijbehara, Nasir Khan, who approached the manufacturers and convinced them to move out, recalls Salroo.
“If we had the slightest cue what ‘temporary’ is going to mean, we would have resisted. But then we did not have much of a choice,” Slaroo says.
The manufacturers moved out and days started to turn into months and months into years. The end of the exile looked bleak to the unit holders.
Life moved on and soon people in Bijbehara started to forget what the Seecaf actually stood for. At the peak of the armed struggle the only thing people could associate the complex with was forces and fear.
The name Sports Complex was soon replaced with the Seecaf Camp in the local lingua. Being the sole forces camp in the town it was associated with everything that the forces did in the area including crackdowns, encounters, arrests, frisking and torture.
It was the early-nineties and many youth were arrested by the forces; some for their links with the militants and some for being just sympathisers.
“I was a young boy then and I remember how I was kept at the camp for more than a week and subjected to torture,” said a local business man, requesting anonymity, “I was that young that I don’t even remember what agency of the forces it was.”
The locals eventually dreaded the place. The worst however was yet to come and it did come in 1993, when the 74th Battalion of the Border Security Force (BSF) stationed at the complex, shot dead more than 35 people on 22nd of October, protesting against the siege of Dargah Hazratbal in Srinagar.
After the massacre, one forces agency was replaced by another and the place remained subsequently occupied by BSF, Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Rashtriya Rifles and finally by the Central Reserve Paramilitary Force (CRPF).
WHILE people forgot the actual purpose of the complex, life had taken different courses for the fifteen bat manufacturers displaced. Some of them left manufacturing business and tried to run errands by other means, some stuck to it. Life however has not been easy either way.
Salroo is one of the people who stuck to bat manufacturing. He had a little family owned land along the National Highway in Bijbehara where he restarted to manufacture cricket bats and despite all odds he has managed to carve a space in the Indian market for cricket bats.
Unlike Salroo, Muhammad Iqbal a unit holder from Bijbehara did not have any family land to fall back upon forcing him to give up manufacturing. After trying his hand at many other things, Iqbal finally established a shoe selling shop in Bijbehara.
“Life has been very difficult all along,” said Iqbal, who now is in his early fifties, “This is what occupation does to you.”
Other manufacturers, who were from Sangam and Halmulla areas of Islamabad district, also fought hard. They established units in their villages and kept doing what they did best. They kept manufacturing cricket bats.
Their ordeal, however, was not over. During the ongoing Highway widening process many of them have been displaced afresh. They are finding it hard to keep things rolling in their favour.
Sixty-five-year old Haji Abdul Majeed, a unit holder, says that the unit holders from Sangam and Halmulla met the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who assured them that they will not be displaced at any cost.
“But he did not keep his word. We were displaced for the second time,” Haji said, “And now we are groping in the dark to make things happen again.”
It was Salroo who took it upon himself to get the sports complex back to its rightful owners. As violence declined in late nineties, he decided to give it a fight.
“It was during the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) stint in New Delhi that I started to pursue the case and demanded that the place be returned to us,” said Slaroo.
It has been a long battle ever since. Salroo, along with some other people, have left no stone unturned to make the impossible happen.
“Right from the Defence Ministry, Industries Ministry and other Ministries in the Indian government to their counterparts in Kashmir I have knocked every possible door to get the place vacated,” Salroo said.
What brought more intensity into the struggle was the displacement of bat manufacturers from Sangam and Halmulla areas recently. The unit holders were told to move the sports complex to Qazigund, “Which was illogical to say the least,” says Haji.
After more than 15 years the place was finally vacated by its present occupiers, the CRPF. In a symbolic ceremony the keys were handed over to the owners in presence of SICOP officials and officials from the police and the district administration.
But the handover has been only partial. One part of the complex is still occupied by the Army’s RR.
However the real challenge, the unit holder’s face now, is to restart work inside the complex. It sure is going to be a daunting task, with buildings run down and the authorities less than willing to help the unit holders.
“The damage that has been done is almost irreparable,” Salroo says, “It’s going to be real tough.”
The buildings inside the complex have been damaged beyond use, while some have been simply bulldozed, without a trace left behind. Among the bulldozed buildings is Salroo’s unit.
The unit holders say that they are not even asking for the compensation for the 23 years of business they have lost. What they are asking for is a helping hand to start afresh and make it work.
However the authorities have been at their callous best. Ironically the unit holders are being denied even power supply to their units.
“The PDD officials are telling me they do not have the feasibility to provide us the power supply,” says Slaroo, “Is this some kind of a joke?”
Slaroo argues that the complex housed more than 3000 forces’ personnel at any given time during the 23 years and there has been uncut power supply throughout.
“And now they tell me they don’t have the feasibility,” Salroo bemoans.
Moreover many other unit holders are now reluctant to move back in, for that means they have to leave their well established units behind and start afresh. Besides, presence of the Army in the complex has left the unit holders in doubt.
“What if they are angry at something and thrash us or for that matter damage our raw material,” said another unit holder, requesting anonymity for obvious reasons.
Salroo however is adamant, “Power supply or not, I am going to move in March 2014. Whether any other manufacturer wants to or not.”
With odds stacked against them, it remains to be seen whether majority of the unit holders move back in or choose to remain wherever they are as of now.