From shoppers’ paradise to ghost town, Handwara becomes the ground zero of 2016 unrest

Handwara,ISHFAQ-UL-HASSAN: Under the abandoned half-burnt bunker, cattle are making merry by grazing on the small patch of grassy land. A large posse of cops and paramilitary forces rest on the shop fronts as the once-bustling market resembles a ghost town. Stones and bricks lie strewn on the roads as armoured vehicles zip through.

Welcome to Handwara, the picturesque north Kashmir township which has become the ground zero of the 2016 unrest. Strict curfew is in place as police and paramilitary forces are deployed in huge numbers. Police in riot gears had rolled out concertina wires on important road axis to prevent protest marches.

The bunker of 21 Rashtriya Rifles, which was at the heart of controversy, has been quietly vacated by the army in a bid to cool tempers. “It has been temporarily vacated. Subsequent options will be deliberated upon,” Colonel NN Joshi, defence spokesman at Srinagar, told dna.

It is perhaps for the first time since 1993 that the bunker in the township has been vacated. A platoon-size troops used to camp in the huge bunker built on concrete column structures in the main town square. To its opposite lies another bunker on the roof of the shopping line. On the sideways of the shops is a washroom used by the troops as well as the general public.

This bunker was built in 1993. It was an infamous picket in the Handwara area. In 2002, this bunker was converted into a concrete structure. “The funds were provided by the state government under the constituency development fund,” said Sheikh Abdul Rasheed aka Engineer Rasheed, MLA of Langate constituency and president of Awami Ithaad Party.

Violent protests had rocked Handwara township after locals alleged that a girl was molested by a soldier when she entered a public washroom on Tuesday. Five people have so far died in incidents of firing on protesters at different places across Kupwara district.

Once dreaded as a militancy corridor, the township made a historic turnaround when people snubbed separatists by ignoring their boycott call to participate in the polls. In the 2014 assembly polls, Handwara recorded a turnout of 71%.

Interestingly separatist-turned-mainstream leader Sajjad Gani Lone won the polls on a People’s Conference ticket. Lone’s brother Bilal Gani Lone, who heads another faction of People’s Conference, is a senior moderate Hurriyat Conference leader and a member of its executive council.

A year and a half on, the gains seem to have fizzled out. Anger and outrage have replaced enthusiasm and passion. “Traders federations have decided to keep the market shut till the bunker is permanently removed from the township,” said Zahoor Qadir Bhat, brother of Under 19 cricketer Nayeem Qadir Bhat, who was one of the two boys shot dead by the forces on Tuesday.

Tension is palpable in the township as forces are not allowing people to move around. People peep through the windows to assess the situation outside even as the stone-pelting and protests have ebbed. “Today, we were observing the fourth day for our brother, but most people were not allowed to visit us,” said Zahoor.

Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said that the Handwara and Natnusa incidents have come as a major setback to her government’s efforts in consolidating peace dividends in the state.

“I have told Lt Gen DS Hooda (Northern army commander) to exercise maximum restraint while dealing with law-and-order situations. The defence minister has assured me of time-bound investigations,” she said.