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Met With Outrage, J&K Official Who Said Officer Wearing Pheran Looked Like a 'Shepherd' Apologises

The officer also issued a second order that his “inadvertent remarks” should be “expunged from the records” of the government.
Representative image of a pheran.

New Delhi: A senior officer in Jammu and Kashmir’s forest department has landed in trouble for using the word ‘shepherd’ in a derogatory manner against a lower-rung official who was suspended for allegedly wearing pheran, a traditional winter garment, while on duty.

Aehzaz Ahmad Pajwari, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of north Kashmir’s Langate who is at the centre of the controversy, has apologised for his remarks which he claimed had “crept” into the suspension order issued by him.

The officer also issued a second order that his “inadvertent remarks” should be “expunged from the records” of the government.

However, the “casteist” remark has triggered a row, with a community of shepherds in central Kashmir’s Budgam district staging a protest and Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti asking Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha to take action against the officer.

According to officials, the DFO carried out a “surprise inspection” of a forest checkpoint in Langate area of north Kashmir on February 17 during which a forest official identified as Bashir Ahmad Dobhi was found wearing a pheran, a traditional, cloak-type garment used by Kashmiris to keep themselves warm in winter.

The officer, who was recently posted in Langate, later set up a departmental inquiry against Dobhi, a forest guard, while placing him under suspension for “looking like a shepherd”. “The territorial forest officials are part of a disciplined force and are always duty bound to wear proper dress code while performing their duties at sensitive postings,” the suspension order issued by Pajwari, a copy of which is with The Wire, said.

“The Range Officer Mawar shall make an internal arrangements in place of the suspended official till suitable staff is posted in the said check-post,” the order added.

The use of the word “shepherd” in an allegedly derogatory and racist manner by the senior officer triggered outrage in Kashmir. Amid snowfall, a group of shepherds staged a protest in central Kashmir’s Budgam district to denounce the “humiliating behaviour” of the forest officer.

“They visit our homes and also break bread with us. Should he have humiliated us in this way? Shame on him,” a shepherd protester can be heard saying in a video which was shared on X, formerly Twitter, and other social media platforms.

With the controversy refusing to die, the officer later issued a second order, withdrawing his remarks, “The word shepherd inadvertently crept (into the first order) is hereby expunged from the records. Further Range Officer Mawar is directed to expedite his enquiry report in the matter within five Divisional Forest Officer, Langate Forest Division, Langate,” the second order said.

However, former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti

demanded action against the officer. “The subsequent order smacks of prejudice towards our traditions by deriding him for ‘looking like a shepherd’. Are shepherds sub human? Insensitive & arrogant. Hope local admin takes action immediately,” she said on X, tagging Lieutenant Governor Sinha in her post.

Speaking with The Wire, Pajwari said that he was “full of regret” and apologised for hurting the sentiments of the shepherd community. “I apologise for my remarks. I come from a backward caste myself. I don’t make distinctions between people on the basis of caste, creed or colour. I smell a political or departmental conspiracy in this issue,” he said.

This is not the first time that the traditional cloak, which is believed to have been introduced in the Valley by the Mughal emperor Akbar, has triggered a controversy in Kashmir.

In 2021, the Bajrang Dal had called for imposing a ban on pherans after two J&K Police personnel were shot from point blank range in Srinagar. The attack was caught on camera and the attacker, believed to be a Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militant, had concealed an assault rifle under his pheran while moving towards the victims.

In 2018, a government order prohibiting officials from wearing pherans in official functions in north Kashmir was withdrawn following an uproar. Interestingly, the order was also issued by an officer of the education department in the same Langate area where the fresh row has broken out.

In 2014, the Army had asked the media not to wear pherans to press conferences for “security reasons” which had also triggered outrage in Kashmir Valley.

A pheran is a quintessential garment in Kashmiri wardrobes during winters when the temperature drops to sub-zero levels, with December 21 unofficially celebrated in the Valley as ‘International Pheran Day’ to mark the arrival of Chilai Kalan, the 40-day harshest winter period.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi donned a pheren during his first visit to Kashmir as the PM in 2015 while Rahul Gandhi was also seen in a pheran when the Bharat Jodo Yatra arrived in Kashmir last year.

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