New Delhi: “Apna desh samaj ke ate hain. Lekin who hume apne desh ka nahi mante. Kehte hain Kashmir inka hai. Lekin, pehle Kashmir ke logo ko toh apnao (We come here thinking it’s also our country. However, they don’t consider us their own. They say Kashmir is theirs. First, they should treat the people of Kashmir as their own),” said Ishtiyaq Dar, expressing dismay over another unpleasant experience in Lucknow.
Dar is a Kashmiri dry fruit vendor in Uttar Pradesh’s capital city.
On November 25, Lucknow Municipal Corporation officials allegedly removed Kashmiri vendors who had spread their wares on the roadside near the Gomti River area. This was done to prevent disruption of traffic flow caused by vendors, as customers passing by the area often halt their vehicles to purchase dry fruits from them.
A video of the municipal corporation team haranguing the distraught Kashmiri vendors was widely shared on social media. The vendors said the officials confiscated their dry fruits and only returned them after they signed an undertaking promising they would not sell dry fruits at these locations or on the roadside.
“If you are seen here again, we will break your legs and not return your goods,” warned the officials, according to a vendor, Tanveer Ahmad.
According to the Lucknow Municipal Corporation, the area from where the officials removed the vendors falls under a no-vending zone.
The civic body said the action was taken to check illegal encroachment and ensure smooth flow of traffic on the road, which is close to the political power centre of the city.
However, the move has hit the Kashmiri vendors, who come all the way from the valley at the onset of winter every year to sell dry fruits and earn a livelihood.
This was the fourth incident since 2019 in which the business of Kashmiri vendors was obstructed either by the police and municipal corporations or by right-wing vigilante groups.
Given that they come from so far, yet offer good quality dry fruits at rates cheaper than those available in the markets, they feel the administration should be more compassionate towards them. They want the administration to allot them designated places to sell their products, so that the local authorities don’t exploit or intimidate them.
“We are clean people and sit [on the roadside] like open books. For two to three months, we adorn the roads of Lucknow with a variety of dry fruits,” Dar told The Wire.
Dar is a resident of the Kulgam district in Jammu and Kashmir, and for the past 15 to 16 years, he has been visiting Lucknow to sell dry fruits and other items, including almonds, raisins, pistachios, cashews, apricots, figs and saffron. The business in the valley is disrupted in the winter months due to heavy snowfall, and markets in other cities, like Delhi, are saturated. These Kashmiri vendors find Lucknow, which is known for its composite culture and peaceful atmosphere, an ideal place for business.
“This is our path. We have no other option. Otherwise, why would we tolerate such insults every time?” asked Dar.
In December 2019, Dar was among a group of Kashmiri dry fruit traders who alleged that the UP police harassed them and did not allow them to sell their products on the roadside in Lucknow. They also accused the police of snatching their Aadhaar cards without offering any explanation, and confiscating their products.
The police had said that these vendors were selling their products in a no-vending zone and that the restrictions had been imposed due to security arrangements made during the New Year’s period.
In March 2019, two Kashmiri vendors were assaulted by saffron-clad men at Lucknow’s Daliganj bridge, where vendors set up stalls to sell vegetables, fruits and other items. The vendors – Abdus Salam and Mohammad Afzal Naik – were slapped, beaten up with sticks and also subjected to verbal abuses and anti-Kashmiri remarks. The men called them “terrorists” and “stone-pelters”. They also recorded the incident on their phones and circulated the videos on social media.
The incident led to widespread outrage, following which the police arrested four persons associated with a lesser-known right-wing group, Vishwa Hindu Dal Trust.
Such an incident was unheard of in Lucknow, and even the UP police took cognizance of it at the highest level and issued an alert in the state to ensure that it was not repeated.
The incident had happened despite the Supreme Court’s directions to all states and Union territories to ensure the safety of Kashmiris, amid reports of them being targeted in the wake of the February 2019 Pulwama attack, in which more than 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed.
‘They say they want Kashmir, but they don’t seem to like Kashmiris’
Earlier this year, in February, some persons who were allegedly staff of the municipal corporation misbehaved with a group of Kashmiri vendors and threw their bags into the Gomti river.
Ahmad said he is still rattled by the unruly manner in which the municipality officials bundled up their goods into their vehicles, on Saturday, from the Samtamulak Crossing. Since the vendors, who were scared due to such bad experience, thought they would lose all their goods, they insisted that the officials allow them to travel with the confiscated goods.
“If they really don’t want to allow us to do business here, they should have put up a notice saying ‘Kashmiris cannot sell things at this location.’ Why [are they] harassing us now when for the past month we have been selling our things at the same place, quietly?” asked Ahmad.
A day after the incident, these Kashmiris chose to stay put in their rented apartments rather than risk having their goods confiscated.
Since the administration didn’t inform them about a ‘vending zone’ where they can sell their goods, they are confused and worried. They came to Lucknow with the hope that they would be able to exhaust their items and earn a decent income before returning to their native place.
“We have goods worth several lakh rupees. If we don’t sell them, we stand to lose both them and the money we spent on transporting them here, along with the costs of rent and GST. We don’t know where to go,” said Ahmad.
Ahmad, who belongs to Kulgam in South Kashmir, one of the worst conflict-affected districts in the region for the last few years, said the lack of livelihood opportunities and shortage of private jobs push young men like him to travel outside and earn a living as hawkers and vendors.
“We don’t like it when we get abused here. We also have self-respect. But we are helpless,” he said. “They say they like and want Kashmir. But they don’t seem to like Kashmiris.”
Dar said that although he never faced such harassment in the past, it had become a routine over the past five to six years, coinciding with the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state. However, the Kashmiri vendors said that they receive a lot of support from the local population, with whom they have built a relationship over the years.
What did the authorities say?
The J&K Students Association, a group that raises issues of young Kashmiris studying or working in other parts of India, have expressed concern over the latest incident. Its national convenor, Nasir Khuehami, said that the municipal authorities had been seizing dry fruits daily, arbitrarily loading them onto vehicles and returning only a fraction of the goods. “This recurring act has led to substantial financial losses for the sellers, who are already grappling with the challenges of earning a livelihood away from home,” he said.
The Association raised the matter with the office of chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Khuehami urged Awanish Awasthi, the chief advisor of Adityanath, for urgent intervention.
The Association said that Awasthi had assured them of full cooperation and informed them that all vendors would need permission from the municipal authorities in the near future.
However, Lucknow mayor Sushma Kharakwal claimed that there wasn’t any controversy over the Kashmiri vendors not being allowed to spread their wares on the roadside.
“They were asked to go from there because a fleet (of VVIP cars) was passing by that way. The chief minister and the governor travel from that route and sitting on the road and selling items is not allowed for anyone,” Kharakwal told The Wire.
She said the laws against encroachment are the same for everyone, whether they are Kashmiris or locals. When asked if the municipality corporation would arrange a designated vending zone for the vendors, as desired by them, Kharakwal did not provide a clear response.