On March 7, videos spreading rapidly across social media showed saffron-clad men assaulting two dry fruit sellers at the busy Daliganj bridge in Lucknow. The mob asks them for their Aadhaar cards, which are produced, but to no avail. A passerby asks the attackers, who reportedly belong to a Hindutva group called the Vishwa Hindu Dal, why they were beating the two men up. They reply that the vendors were Kashmiri.
The dry fruit sellers are Mohammmed Afzal Naik and Abdul Salaam, from Kulgam district in South Kashmir. Another video, released by the local police, shows them being questioned. They say that that police did well to arrest the people who beat them up, and that they had met “SSP saab”, the senior superintendent of police, who had said “hum tumhare saath hai”, we are with you. Four people have been arrested so far.
But the attackers had also forced the Kashmiri men to shut shop, which in their case consisted of only a few boxes of walnuts and dried figs laid out on the street and a couple of bags probably filled with more dry fruit. The local police have reportedly encouraged them to return to business, with assurances that they will be protected.
For many other Kashmiri traders in Lucknow, this is cold comfort. “When they come and beat us up, there is no one present,” said Mudasir Malik, who also sells dry fruit in the Uttar Pradesh capital. Malik said he was near Daliganj bridge when the attack took place. On March 8, his bags were packed and he had tickets to Delhi booked for that evening. From there, he would take a bus to Kashmir, where he would board a taxi to his home in Sangam in Pulwama district. At least five other Kashmiri traders were also preparing to leave, he said.
“For Rs 100-200, I cannot risk my life,” said Malik.
‘A question of livelihood’
The suicide attack in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district on February 14, which killed 40 security personnel, triggered a wave of hate across the country, as mobs in Indian cities bore down on Kashmiris studying and working there. Hundreds of Kashmiris fled back home in panic. If things had slowly been returning to normal, the Lucknow attack, which took place on March 6 and was video recorded by the saffron-clad gang, has set off a fresh flood of panic.
“When I go out in the evenings, people point and say ‘Kashmiri, Kashmiri,’” Malik recounted. “I fear they will attack me. Even yesterday, someone said it.”
According to Bahadur Khan, head of the dry fruit sellers’ association in Kashmir, the Lucknow attack could prove even more costly for its victims. “Yeh rozi roti ki baat hai,” he said. This is about their livelihood.
Every year, boxes packed with walnuts, almonds, apricots, figs and other dry fruit travel out of the Valley in trucks and into every major city in India. More prosperous businessmen will sell 100 to 200 boxes of dry fruit each season, said Khan, who also sends his produce out. Other Kashmiri traders have set up shop in many of these cities, dealing in shawls as well as dry fruit.
At the other end of the spectrum are poor traders like Naik and Salaam, who sell maybe five to 10 boxes, said Khan. They usually come from rural areas such as Pahalgam in the south and Kupwara in the north, Khan said. The boxes of dry fruit they hawk are usually taken on credit. “These are little people, poor people, who go out to make a living,” said Khan.
Some take the dry fruit on credit from bigger traders such as Samir Bilal, who deals in shawls and dry fruit. Originally from Srinagar’s downtown area, he has run a shop in Lucknow’s Baradari area for five years. “They live on what they earn during the day,” he said. “They take goods on credit, sell them and pay us back. What is left, they keep.”
Malik, who sets up stalls in exhibitions when he can find them and peddles his goods on the pavement at other times, places orders with traders based in the Valley. These orders are also placed on credit.
The winter months are good for business. Usually, on walnuts worth Rs 10,000, he would make a profit of Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000. “When the the season is good, it can go above Rs 5,000,” Malik said.
Now he will go back to Kashmir and look for employment as a labourer. But work has also dried up in the Valley, roiled by protests and violence over the last couple of years. In the Sangam area, there is work to be found in the fruit-packing business. But that is seasonal labour, usually starting in September, when fruit is harvested.
A brother, who is also in the same business, has stayed back in Kashmir after the attacks started.
The income from trade in Lucknow was the mainstay of Malik’s family of five. But since the Lucknow attack, he has been getting worried calls from his family, asking him to return home.
‘People are avoiding Kashmiris’
It’s not just small traders, life has grown harder even for those with more prosperous businesses.
After the attack on February 14, business took a hit, said Samir Bilal. “These goons of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad], if they know we are Kashmiri, they will probably beat us up,” he said. “People are avoiding Kashmiris. They said they would not go to Kashmiris – they pelt stones. I shut shop for five to six days. When I reopened my shop, for six to seven days, no one came. After a couple of days, two or three people started coming.”
Winter is the season for brisk business even for those with permanent shops. Last year, Samir Bilal said, he made Rs 7 lakh to Rs 8 lakh in the winter. This year, he is yet to count the total loss, but has not made any profit.
Before he settled down in Lucknow, Bilal travelled to cities across India selling shawls and dry fruit. “I have been everywhere,” he said. “I never faced any problem in South India or Bengal. Whenever I faced problems, it was North India – in UP, Bihar and Delhi.”
But the North is also where their goods are in great demand, so Lucknow it was where Bilal set up shop.
‘Under house arrest’
In Delhi, the annual rhythms of shawl traders who come down from the Valley each year have also been disrupted. Twenty-five-year-old Ishfaq Majeed, from Mattan town in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, sells shawls and dry fruit in Bengaluru and Delhi in the winter. He goes to Bengaluru in October, returns home, and then spends the rest of the winter in Delhi. Business is done by visiting customers door-to-door. Over the years, he has built up a bank of loyal customers. Most years, he goes back to Kashmir on February 25. This year, he is stuck.
Since February 14, he is afraid to venture out of his rooms in Daryaganj in Old Delhi. “We were under house arrest for about 15 days,” Majid said. “When I finally went out, they caught me in some places. I apologised and managed to save myself.”
Most of the time, people shout out insults, Majeed said. Once, he narrowly escaped a beating when an “aged person” intervened. “Mostly, it is the younger generation which tortures us, calls us names, tries to beat us up,” he said.
Public transport like buses no longer feels safe. They pay for more expensive auto-rickshaws, which will drop them to the doorstep so they do not have to walk through the streets. Familiar places have suddenly turned hostile.
Majid described a failed visit to a customer’s house in Govindpuri in South Delhi. “I have been going there for 10 years, everybody knows me,” he said. This time, local residents became so menacing that he paid Rs 500 for the auto to turn back and take him to Daryaganj. “Sometimes I feel as if I have actually done something to be ashamed of, that is why this is happening to me.”
Not being able to visit customers means he cannot collect the money he is owed. “I have about Rs 1.5 lakh stuck with customers,” Majid said. “They are ready to pay and keep asking me to go but I am afraid to step out.”
Most years, he makes Rs 3 lakh to Rs 4 lakh over the winter. This year, if he recovers all the money owed to him, he may make Rs 2.5 lakh. Some Kashmiri vendors had taken goods from him on credit but fled a day or two after the violence began, and have not been able to pay him back. Losses here will trickle back home, holding up salaries for the craftsmen who work for them.
Once Majid leaves Delhi, he does not know when he will be back and the visits to Bengaluru might stop as well. Karnataka was one of the first places where attacks on Kashmiris were reported, he recalled.
‘They told us not to fear’
While many Kashmiri traders feel under siege, there are some exceptions. Yawar Bilal, for instance, has owned a shop in Hyderabad for years. After the Pulwama attack, he said, he was surrounded by reassurances.
“People are supportive,” he said. “Our known customers, both Hindu and Muslim, told us ‘do not fear’. So we never feared.”