On June 29, two groups of men waited outside the office of the sub-divisional magistrate in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, amid an unceasing patter of rain that brought a mist and chill to the tourist town.
There was a chill of a different kind between the two groups waiting on the wooden verandah of the single-storied building. One group comprised about 12 Kashmiri traders, all in their early thirties, who run shops selling shawls and bags embroidered with Kashmir’s famed embroidery in this hill station town. The other comprised three members of the Mussoorie Traders’ Association and an office bearer of the local unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Though both groups occasionally met up, if only to reassure the other that they held no personal grudges, the tension was palpable.
Then Rajat Agarwal, president of the traders’ association, walked to the side of the Kashmiri traders, who were talking quietly in small groups. “When two or three of you stand and talk in your language in the market, a local boy overhearing you feels suspicious that you are talking against him,” said Agarwal. “You should also employ at least one local salesperson.”
The Kashmiris went silent.
Later in the evening, Altaf Hussain Khwaja, one of the Kashmiris Agarwal had addressed, asked: “If you are a Punjabi, you will talk to your relatives in Punjabi, won’t you?”
The lives of Khwaja and other Kashmiris like him, who run shops in Mussoorie, some for many years now, were upended last month after the Mussoorie Traders’ Association announced that it had decided that no Kashmiris would be allowed to rent shops in the town from March 2018. In addition, the association said that those who already had taken shops on rent would be required to shut shop by then. The provocation for this diktat was a complaint that Muslims in Mussoorie had shouted pro-Pakistan slogans after that country beat India in the Champions Trophy final on June 18 in connection with which three local juveniles have been detained.
The two groups were at the sub-divisional magistrate’s office to present their cases before the administrative officer.
How a cricket match started it all
On June 19, it was Kushal Singh Rana, the general secretary of the BJP’s Mussoorie unit, who filed a complaint that Muslim boys had shouted pro-Pakistan slogans after India lost the cricket match to Pakistan. On the basis of the complaint, the police filed a First Information Report in which it charged unknown persons for making imputations and assertions prejudicial to national-integration.
“Neither I nor any member of the traders’ association heard the slogans ourselves,” said Rana. “But we heard that the sloganeering had taken place.”
The minors apprehended for the sloganeering were picked up on June 20 from Mullingar and Butcher-Khana – Muslim-majority neighbourhoods around the Landour Bazaar area adjoining Mussoorie. One of them is a local resident, while two others are from a village near Saharanpur, 100 km from Mussoorie, in Uttar Pradesh, according to the barber who employed them as apprentices.
Speaking over the phone from his home in Saharanpur where he had gone for Eid, the barber, Sajid Salmani, denied that the boys could have been involved in the alleged sloganeering. “They come from poor households,” he said. Their parents sent them [to me] to learn some skills. They have no interest in cricket, either.” The minors were released on bail on June 23, according to Investigating Officer Mukesh Dimri.
On June 20, the traders’ association met and announced its decision to bar Kashmiri traders from hiring shops in Mussoorie. The Kashmiri traders said that they found out about the decision through the media, and that the association has not sent them any formal notice or communication regarding the decision.
But what did Kashmiri traders have to do with the alleged slogan shouting?
“Residents of Mussoorie fear that Muslims of Kashmir incited the local Muslim boys into shouting slogans of Pakistan zindabad”, or long live Pakistan, said Agarwal. He added that he was also worried about “the influx of Kashmiris in Mussoorie who numbered more than 150 now”.
According to the 2011 census, Mussoorie has a population of 30,118 people.
Kashmiris in Mussoorie
One of the papers that reported the traders’ association decision was local Hindi language weekly Nishpaksh Rashtra Sewa. In its June 25 edition, a report on the ban went on to accuse Mussoorie’s Kashmiri traders of using narcotics, “Pakistani mobile phones”, and blamed them for making the town appear like a hub of terrorists.
The report made Khwaja fear for his safety. The weekly had used his photograph along with the story. Khwaja said that he had allowed a reporter to click a photograph of him in his shop on Mussoorie’s arterial Mall Road not imagining that it would feature in such a damaging story.
Khwaja is from Zurhama village in Kupwara, Kashmir. His parents, wife and three children still live in the village, which he visits every two months. One of his brothers is a Major in the Indian Army, another is a farmer.
Like Khwaja, several Kashmiri traders who have set up businesses in Mussoorie in recent years are from Kupwara, and have studied in schools in the neighbouring villages of Zurhama, Ladriwan, and Kawari. Many of them are related.
When Khwaja’s family got wind of the developments in Mussoorie through media reports, they asked the 34-year-old to return home at once. “They imagined the worst was upon us and asked me to wrap up the business here,” said Khwaja.
But Khwaja had left home only in March to set up shop in this Himalayan town. Earlier, he ran an outlet in the winter in Moga, Punjab, and another seasonal one in Pahalgam, Kashmir. “When a protesting crowd gathers in Kashmir, one has to shut shop for fear of damage,” said Khwaja. “So, I thought of going out of Kashmir to do business.”
Another trader from Kupwara, Jaffer Malik, offered similar reasons for moving his business out of Kashmir. “It is unfortunate for us that the tourism situation is bad in Kashmir and things have gotten tough in the past year,” said Malik.
The Kashmir Valley has been in turmoil for almost a year now after the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter on July 8 sparked widespread protests and a state crackdown.
Malik has been setting up a shop in Mussoorie during the tourist season in the summer for three years now. He helps his family with their apple and walnut orchards for the rest of the year.
There are approximately six shops run by Kashmiri traders that have operated in Mussoorie for at least 15 years.
On the day of the meeting with the sub-divisional magistrate, Manzoor Ahmad stood beside a string of crewel work handbags hanging outside Rex Kashmir Art Palace, on the Mall Road. “This issue has been going on since March when 13-14 new shops came up,” said Ahmad. “The cricket match incident was only a trigger.”
The younger lot of Kashmiri traders look up to Ahmad for support. He is one of the oldest Kashmiri settlers in Mussoorie, opening a shop there in 1971. He also owns the land his shop stands upon, which insulates him from the traders’ proposed action.
“These people have paid rent for three-year agreements,” said Ahmad. “How can they be removed? If they remove them, then it will be a declaration that Kashmir is separate” from India.
Back in the sub-divisional magistrate’s office, it was Meenakshi Patwal’s second day on the job.
When Patwal arrived, the party of local traders and BJP’s Rana were the first to meet her. Also present were Rameshwar Prasad Dimri, Mussoorie’s circle officer (a police officer who heads an independent police sub-division) and Inspector Rajeev Rauthan from the Local Intelligence Unit of the Uttarakhand police.
In the meeting that lasted about an hour, Agarwal and traders’ association treasurer Jagjit Kukreja appealed to the sub-divisional magistrate to do something about their concerns regarding the number of Kashmiri traders in Mussoorie. The traders also repeated their June 20 decision to bar Kashmiris from renting shops in Mussoorie, emphasising that “most of them are from the border areas”. Said Agarwal: “They have opened 18 new shops this year. We don’t have a problem with the older Kashmiri traders.”
Inspector Rauthan told Patwal that the antecedents of Kashmiri traders in Mussoorie had been verified and that his department had found no evidence against them in connection with the alleged sloganeering on June 18. “Local traders must have read something on WhatsApp,” joked Rauthan.
Patwal told Agarwal that the police was in charge of law and order and he did not need to worry on that front.
Ranbir Singh, president of the Mussoorie Bar Association, who had dropped in to greet the new sub-divisional magistrate, said that legally, the traders’ association could not prevent any particular community from working in the town. “If the matter goes to court, the traders’ decision will be stayed in two minutes,” he said.
Then it was the turn of the Kashmiri traders. They had waited to meet Patwal for about four hours. Tired of the wait, a few of them had left for their shops.
Malik hesitantly opened the conversation about how Kashmiri traders were being targeted in Mussoorie only now, even though some of them had been running businesses in the town for several years. He also brought up the media reports, emphasising the one in the Nishpaksh Rashtra Sewa, saying that it had spread anxiety among members of his community.
Patwal advised Malik and his colleagues to ignore such reports. “You should not pay attention to these media reports when the traders’ association has not directly asked you to leave,” she said.
Dimri chided the traders saying: “If you believe you are Indian then you have to stop identifying yourselves as Kashmiris.”
The 10-minute-long meeting ended with the sub-divisional magistrate assuring the Kashmiri traders that their businesses would run unhindered.
By the time the delegation left the office, it was 4 pm. They gathered at the shop of Sameer Khan, Khwaja’s nephew. There, Khan mulled over Agarwal’s statement about hiring local residents. “We had local staff for two to three years but they could not pick up the trade,” he said.
Before the sub-divisional magistrate’s office summoned the June 29 meeting, the governments of the two states concerned had already been involved in this case after Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti took the matter up with the Union Home Ministry, reported Kashmir Life, a Srinagar-based weekly.
According to that report, the chief secretaries of both states spoke to each other regarding the issue. Similarly, Jammu and Kashmir’s Director General of Police SP Vaid also spoke to his counterpart in Uttarakhand, MA Ganapathy.
Speaking over the phone from Srinagar, Vaid said: “I requested that Kashmiri traders there [in Mussoorie] not be harassed to which Ganapathy assured that this was more of an economic [issue] rather than Kashmiri versus local issue.”
A day after the meeting with the sub-divisional magistrate, the traders’ association seems to have eased its stance. “We are deliberating,” said Agarwal. “For now, our February 2018 decision for Kashmiri traders has been stayed.”
Khwaja was relieved that the matter had been resolved, at least temporarily. He had spent about Rs 6 lakh in March to furnish his shop ahead of his three-year lease. If the issue flares up again, he is hopeful it can still be resolved. “We will reach out to find a solution with the leaders of Mussoorie traders, or the state government,” he said.