Last June, traders’ association in Mussoorie decided that Kashmiri traders would be barred from renting shops in the town. Kashmiri traders who had set up shop in Mussoorie over the last two years were to leave by February 28, 2018. A day before the deadline, however, the local traders’ body seems to have decided that the Kashmiris would not have to leave.
“The situation has changed,” said Rajat Aggarwal, president of the local trade organisation, over phone from Mussoorie. “We have resolved it because we want communal harmony in Mussoorie. No Kashmiri is going out.”
The tensions had begun with an India-Pakistan cricket match last June. After India lost the match, the general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Mussoorie unit filed a complaint. Pro-Pakistan slogans had been chanted during the match, it alleged. The police filed a first information report on the basis of the complaint and picked up three minors from a Muslim-majority neighbourhood.
The blame fell on the Kashmiri traders in the area. Aggarwal had then claimed that residents of Mussoorie feared it was the Kashmiris who had incited the boys into chanting slogans. He also claimed to be worried about the “influx” of Kashmiris into the town. Back then, a truce had been brokered after the chief secretaries and senior police officials of Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir discussed the issue, but tensions remained. At the end of February, the traders’ association maintained that the 18 new Kashmiri shopkeepers who had arrived were to leave.
Aggarwal has now said a change of heart has taken place “without any outside intervention” after confusions over anti-India sloganeering had been cleared. “Kashmiris have always been cordial with everyone here,” he said. The issue had been resolved amicably, he said, “in the better interest of the community, town and the country.”
Before the shops were set up, Kashmiri traders dealing in shawls and other handicrafts, which are among Kashmir’s chief exports, would travel to Mussoorie to sell their wares. By the 1970s, five shops were established and run by Kashmiris on the Mall Road in Mussoorie, traders say. In all these years, Kashmiri traders in the town say, this was the first time they were asked to leave.
Manzoor Ahmad owns one of the five early shops. His shop was established in 1971, when he moved, as a 12-year-old, from Srinagar to Mussoorie with his father. Ahmad studied in Mussoorie and then bought a house there. Over time, he got involved with the local wakf (an Islamic charitable trust) committee. Ahmad also has ties to the local Congress. “There was a time when 150 hawkers from Kashmir would come to Mussoorie [every year],” he said. “There was no problem among people here.”
“When the Babri Masjid was demolished, there were rallies here like everywhere else,” Ahmad recalled. “Muslims had disappeared but I was standing outside my shop when they were passing by. No one said anything to me. But today my family wants us to come back (to Srinagar).”
The resentment towards Kashmiri traders, Ahmad said, started building since March, last year, when 16 new shops came up on the Mall Road, rented by Kashmiris as well two traders from Jammu. Local traders, Ahmad said, were unnerved by their arrival and tried to create pressure on their landlords to not let them stay.
According to Aggarwal, the traders’ body had told landlords not to rent their properties to the newly set up shops and they had agreed. According to Ahmad, the landlords were not too eager to comply with the orders.
The “mahol”, situation, had changed since the BJP came to power in Uttarakhand in March last year, he said. “Before this incident, there was an issue with the hawkers. We, too, were against them because they were selling goods at cheaper rates, that was badly affecting our business,” Ahmad said. “We opposed all hawkers but some local traders opposed only Kashmiris.”
It was after the alleged anti-India sloganeering in June last year that the traders’ body acted against the Kashmiri traders. Those arrested for the sloganeering were Muslims but not Kashmiris, Ahmad pointed out. Yet, at least initially, Kashmiris were blamed. Ahmad, too, was accused of uploading pro-Pakistan content on his Facebook. Even though Ahmad denies the charge, he has presented an application distancing himself from endorsing any pro-Pakistan content before the local police and apologised.
Business as usual
A landlocked state with little industrial activity, Kashmir is heavily dependent on imports from other states and Kashmiris have business interests across the country. While reports of Kashmiri students being targeted in campuses have increased in frequency, businessmen speak of a different experience. Stray incidents of discrimination are part of life, Kashmiri businessmen in other parts of the country say, but matters never escalated as they did in Mussoorie.
Ubaid Punjoo and Hannan Darial, both Kashmiri businessman in their mid-20s, set up a wholesale business dealing Kashmiri shawls and suits in South Delhi in 2013. “We have faced no problem at all, neither have we heard [of other traders in the city being harassed],” said Punjoo. “Sometimes, during unrest situations, we get mocked but that is all in a light vein.”
Fayaz War, who travels to Delhi and Kolkata to sell shawls, agreed. War also owns residential apartments in both cities. “Whatever happens with Kashmiri students outside, we have never seen such harassment with us,” he said.
According to Sameer Darail, who heads Azhan Beverages, which sells bottled water, Kashmiri businessmen fell victim to stereotypes across the country. Taking his product to markets in other states was not easy, he said. Investors are not too keen on doing business with them, Darail said, especially after the national press had created a negative image of Kashmiris over the last three years. “It was difficult to take that out of their [investors’] minds”. “People outside Kashmir think if we invest Rs 10 crore in a Kashmiri business, one crore goes to stone pelters,” he said.
But doing business at home is far more difficult than doing doing business outside, Darail said. He had left his job in the United Kingdom to start his own business in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district. But this was undermined by an “unsupportive government” that did not make things easy for entrepreneurs.
“We have the worst government for business,” he said, ruing a lack of a clear policy to encourage entrepreneurs in the state.