The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Family pays poll price: four lives in 12 years

Tral, Sept. 3: Fear grips this family even if somebody pays them a courtesy visit. Seeing a visitor, family members rush to the second floor and bolt all possible entry points. Armed guards of the Jammu and Kashmir police have been posted to protect this family in this south Kashmir town in Pulwama district. But experience has taught them a tragic lesson.

Militants have killed four members of the pro-regional National Conference household in the last 12 years. Mohammad Subhan Bhat, a veteran National Conference leader and head of the family, was the first victim of militant bullets.

“He was a great leader of the area. He always believed in democracy and elections. One night in April 1991, the militants came and killed my father outside the shrine near here where he was offering prayers,” says Mohammad Ashraf Bhat, the eldest son of Subhan Bhat who is now the family’s breadwinner. “My father was not scared of the militant threats and he wanted arms to fight them.”

Tragedy visited the family again when militants abducted Showkat Ahmad, Ashraf’s younger brother. “The militants came inside our house in October 1995 and told my brother, who was standing on the verandah, to accompany them to a nearby place. We cried and pleaded with them and my mother wept. His body was later recovered by the police,” says Ashraf.

Gunmen killed his other brother, Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, who was tipped to contest the forthcoming Assembly elections from Tral, last month. Fayaz was an executive magistrate of the area.

“News had appeared in a local paper that Fayaz was the prospective candidate of the ruling party from Tral. We had no information. The local National Conference leaders, we are told now, had recommended his name to the leadership in Srinagar. The gunmen fired dozens of rounds on his car, in which he was travelling, killing him along with his police guard on the spot,” says Ashraf, tears rolling down his eyes.

If the family is afraid, most people in the town are angry and indifferent to the polls. “We will not vote. We have suffered a lot. We are subjected to harassment by the security forces and the police,” says Ali Mohammad, a resident of Tral. “The 1996 polls brought no relief in our area and we continue to be harassed.”

Police constable Mohammad Youssuf alleges his son Ashiq Hussain was picked up by the special operations group of the state police and later killed in custody. “He was innocent. I don’t know why they killed him. The state human rights commission conducted an inquiry and found my son was innocent,” he says.

Public reaction to the elections is laced with cynicism. Mohammad Shaban, a shopkeeper, does not think polls are a solution to the problem. “They will come to us again during the elections and once they win they never bother to visit us again. They remember us only during these elections. Then you don’t see them,” he adds.

“I voted in 1996 despite grave threats. But what happened' Our area continues to suffer. I think this issue needs to be resolved peacefully once and for all,” adds Ghulam Rasool, another resident.

“Whenever militants attack the security forces in the town, in retaliation they beat the innocent bystanders. Last year, a portion of the market was torched,” says Bilal Ahmad.

“The security men force us to make the electors photo identity card.” A police officer admitted the situation was tense in Tral and its adjoining areas. “The area is infested. But we will deploy sufficient troops to instil confidence among the voters.”

Tral was regarded as a National Conference stronghold before the eruption of militancy. But the ruling party’s activists today are a threatened lot. The Bhat family has reason to be scared, but the rest of the constituency hardly seems better off.

“I pray to Allah that a bomb should fall on Kashmir so that we are spared the agony of dying by inches,” says Mohammad Ashraf Bhat.

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