Battle against smuggling has made Kashmir literally beg for cheap inter-continental timber that now sustains a huge economy. With scores of compartments totally denuded and sprawling chunks under encroachment, Nayeem Rather visits three families who are fighting for survival after their males were consumed by the battle against smuggling
On the evening of September 7, 1997 Abdul Rehman Ganie, a forest guard with State Forest Department, got a tip-off about smugglers passing through Kundroo village in Beerwa, 25 kms from Budgam. Immediately, he informed his other three colleagues. It was pitch dark when the four left towards a culvert connecting the forest with a village. They sat quietly waiting for smugglers to pass.
After a while, galloping of horses was heard, approaching towards the bridge. Ready to face them, Rehman and his men scattered a bit and placed themselves strategically to take smugglers by surprise.
As the smugglers’ convoy reached the bridge, the guards asked them to stop. The smugglers skipped the command and attacked them, instead. A chaos ensued. All guards ran for their lives except Rehman. He fought determinedly and injured four smugglers. Armed with sticks and axes, someone from the smugglers hit Rehman’s head with an axe. He fell flat and died on the spot.
Rehman was known as a brave man who had fought smugglers on various occasions. He had infused fear in timber smuggling mafia during his caeer as forest guard.
“In 1996, he single handedly caught 30 ponies laden with stolen timber from Arizal forest,” says Nazir Ahmad, a forest guard who has worked with Rehman. “Despite getting death threats he never compromised. I have never seen a man of such bravery,” says Nazir.
Sixteen-years after Rehman‘s brutal murder, his widow Jani Akhtar tries to keep his memories alive. Akhtar’s prized possessions are his dozens of pictures showing Rehman with handcuffed smugglers standing beside ponies laden with stolen timber. She preserves them as the family medals.
“I asked him not to go. I implored but he was stubborn and paid no heed to my words,” remembers Akhtar of that fateful night. “I remember, he told me ‘protecting forests is my duty and if I fail to do so, it will be treason. What will I say to God almighty?”
After Rehman’s murder, Akhtar had hard time to manage her family. “All that he left behind was four daughters and one son. They were too small to understand the loss,” says Akhtar.
Akhtar regrets that nobody sympathized with her. Nobody actually helped her monetarily. In the hope to get some help from the government, she routinely visited departments – from forests to the social welfare but returned empty handed and disillusioned. She was not even given the ex-gratia relief. Under SRO 43, a job was promised to her only son Nadeem who was five years old at the time of his father’s murder. “That promise is still a promise even after 16 years have passed. Nadeem is 21 now,” says Akhtar.
It was the ‘family’ that gave her more pain than the society. Akhtar alleged her brother-in-law, Abdul Aziz Ganie, whom she regarded like a father, began to harass her. “He was eyeing his brother’s share of property. He wanted to get rid of us (Akhtar and her kids) and take possession of our inheritance,” says Akhtar. “He used all sorts of tactics to throw us away. He beat me and my daughters on several occasions.”
Akhtar resisted but not for long. “One day I came back from fields and found my children sitting outside the house weeping. My house was locked by Aziz. I had nowhere to go,” she says.
Akhtar tried to reason with Aziz but he did not listen. With no other option left Akhtar rented a small room in the nearby Beerwa. “I took my children along and started living like a nomad.”
With no source of income and a large family to feed Akhtar started to beg for a living. She started going door to door to collect rice, ragged clothes and alms to keep her family from starvation.
“While begging, I used to cover my face so nobody could recognize me,” she said with moist eyes. Instead of helping her get her share of property back, her relatives abandoned her completely for being a beggar. “It is a sick society. People taunted my daughters just because I was a beggar. I was not a beggar by choice. Circumstances forced me to do so,” says Akhtar.
Akhtar’s elder daughter Zareena (name changed) wanted to become a school teacher but had to leave her studies mid way because of the taunts. “My classmates taunted me for being a beggar’s daughter,” says Zareena.
After Rehman’s murder, Akhtar had come face to face with an altogether new society. She had never imagined that people will stoop so low and start raising fingers. “I was fed up by the way people pushed me to the wall. Finally, in order to save my reputation I remarried in 2007,” says Akhtar. “I never wanted to remarry. Even my daughters never approved of it but circumstances forced me to such a step,” says Akhtar.
After her remarriage Akhtar took legal help to get her inheritance back from her brother-in-law. “I approached police and local elders and spent money to get my land back,” says Akhtar. After a bitter court battle Akhtar was given right to own her husband’s share of land. “I sold off my jewelry and the land to construct a house for my family.”
Now Akhtar lives in a three room one story house which is covered with tarpaulin for rain and snow. All the windows in her house are covered with dyed polythene. “Though this house is not sufficient for such a large family but we somehow manage. During winters it is extremely hard to live in it,” says Akhtar.
In one of the rooms an old framed picture of Akhtar and Rehman hangs on the wall. Wearing a traditional woolen cloak (pheran) Akhtar looks happy in the picture. “My biggest worry is that all my four daughters are adults now. I have to marry them soon before life takes another twist,” says Akhtar. “I know God will not disappoint me this time,” says Akhtar hopefully.
At the peak of smuggling in Pir Panchal range in 2000, smugglers made Arizal their fief and for a long time they were unstoppable till Farooq Ahmad Sheikh emerged on the scene. A forest guard from Zanigam village, 30 kms from Budgam, Farooq changed the situation almost dramatically.
Within six months when smuggling decreased drastically, Farooq became a target. In October 2000, Farooq accompanied a forest ranger and four other guards on regular duty. As they reached the middle of a forest, smugglers attacked them.
“We were attacked and our men dispersed. A smuggler amid chaos tried to hit me but Farooq pushed me aside and instead took the blow on his head,” remembers the Ranger Mehraj-ud-din who survived. “Had he not intervened, I would have been no more.” The attack triggered a fierce reaction. In the year ending December 2001, Farooq had captured 81 timber laden ponies – a record that fetched him a merit certificate by the Deputy Commissioner on January 26, 2002.
“At that point I insisted my husband to quit the job but he was reluctant,” said Farooq’s aged wife Tasleema. Surviving threats, Farooq’s health deteriorated. “He used to have headaches and we took him to SKIMS and a tumor in his head was detected. He was hospitalized for seven months.” Nobody from the department visited this brave man. But he braved the tumour and survived it. Farooqsurvived the tumour but not the smugglers.
UMER, Farooq’s son remembers that on June 10, 2004 at around noon, he was inside school near forest check post when he heard two fire shots. At that time he would not have imagined that his father was the target. A commotion rose after a while and Umer saw his father’s mutilated, blood drenched body – he was shot from a close range by two gunmen. Police carried out no investigation.
In order to get justice, Farooq’s family sold their land but justice never arrived. There were no arrests. “My children were young and I had no male member to follow the case” said , his widow. She has to fight for SRO and ex-gratia. Even it took the family, two years to get slain brave man’s GP Fund, something he had earned.
All of a sudden everything was gone, literally. “I had to leave my studies and earn” said Iqbal, his eldest orphan. It was sheer hard work of Iqbal and his mother that Umer is now pursuing his masters in political science from Barkatullah University. “My husband sacrificed his life but the forests department forgot everything,” Tasleema said.
With Farooq no more, another battle started. For Iqbal, it took six years to fight the system, pay three lakh rupees as bribe to get a job in forest department – something that should have naturally come to him. “I never wanted him to join the department that swallowed my father,” says Iqbal. But Umer is upbeat. “I want to become an IFS officer to complete the work that my father left unfinished,” said Umer.
With the market exhibiting a massive appetite for timber, the forests in J&K have remained a major mobility factor for a section of the society. As part of the smugglers became forest lessee’s and eventually landed in politics with a stake in policy making, the strife created its own bands that fed on green gold. As the militancy peaked and the routine systems of control and sanity crumbled, forests would fund the insurgents, counterinsurgents and part of the security grid. Entire compartments were denuded. Till recently, saw mills were operating deep into the forests as security men prevented their sealing and destruction.
Post-1996, there were a series of interventions. Forest Protection Force that now has 1771 personnel was created which has a yearly budget requirement of Rs 50.25 crore (2012-13). The Force in 2012, for instance, claimed seizure of 32574 cubic ft of smuggled timber, 48 vehicles and 45 ponies. But nothing is foolproof.
Even after sealing more than 1000 saw mills operating within the forests or in their immediate peripheries, there are 13233 hectares of forests encroached upon as on day. This is despite the fact that 1114 hectares of forests land was retrieved last year.
Arrests are a routine, so is seizure of timber, ponies and trucks. In the last three years ending March 2013, forest department registered 5446 cases against various people for various forests related offences in Kashmir and 5884 in Jammu.
While smugglers continued their activities, there were brave-hearts who fought. Between 1989 and 1996, nearly 40 forest department staffers were killed. Such murders still take places.
Take the case of ad-hoc forest guard Sonaullah who left his Basant Wodar house, near Doudpathri, 30 kms from Budgam, for his duty on June 20, 2011. On the night of June 20, he entered a Pir Panchal forest division as usual but never returned. At 9 pm he was flanked by smugglers who blindfolded him. At 11 in the night, he found himself tied to a tree at Arizal.
A local shepherd heard the cries and curiously went in the direction. “I saw Sonaullah tied and smugglers put rope around his neck and beat him and then they hanged him,” recollects Shabir Khan (name changed). “I was helpless so I could not save him.” It was only the next day (June 21) that Sonaullah was found hanged.
His work was his introduction and reputation in his area. An erstwhile smuggler talked about his heroics. “One day, we were six men with 10 ponies. Near Sitharan, he saw us and began to chase us. He was alone but still he captured four of our ponies and we escaped narrowly.” Sonaullah was instrumental in seizing 86 timber laden ponies and was instrumental in halting the smuggling.
Hanged to death, Sonaullah Zargar left behind his wife and four little children. His widow Saleema is a sallow woman. She squelches her way in poverty. She owns a two room hut, one kanal of land and a cow which is not sufficient for her survival. “My husband left nothing for us,” she sighs. As is the classic routine in these cases, Saleema went from office to office to get help but met with disappointment.
“When I approach officers for help, they feigned ignorance and told me they did not knew Sanaullah. They have forgotten that brave man,” she said. Helpless and devastated, Saleema moved to her mother’s house where she survives on rearing cattle of other people. With the onset of summers she along with her children moves to upper reaches of Doodh Pathri to rear cattle of other people – a professional herd grazer! She finds it difficult to feed her children and has sent them to orphanages, Shahid aged 10 is in an orphanage in Srinagar.
The only contribution that Sonaullah’s murder led to was a massive campaign that forests department launched in the area and is claimed successful. There are vigilantes and volunteers in villages keen to prevent the smuggling. In Khag, for instance, a village that was totally relying on smuggling has given up.
Police investigated the matter and arrested eight people on suspicion including a Forester Ab Gani Wada but the dirstict court acquitted them all for the lack of evidence. Saleema had no means to carry on the case.
But Saleema says she has put her case before the Almighty God. “God is just. He will do justice and help my family to move ahead,” she asserts. A brave poor lady.