Anchar in Srinagar’s Soura locality is being held up by certain sections of the press as some kind of heroic last resistance to the Indian State. Others see it as a Jihadi hive, the new epicentre of Kashmir’s anger. Like all stories, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Many Indians first heard of or saw Soura in a viral BBC video after the Narendra Modi government scrapped Article 370. In the video, an upscale Srinagar neighbourhood is seen breaking into protests. Reportedly, several Kashmiris were injured in the clashes.
So, I set out on a fact-finding trip last week to see the pellet gun victims for myself. My first stop in Srinagar had to be Anchar – a sub-locality of Soura. But we have to first understand the place.
Understanding the bastion
The main clan in Anchar is the Tiploo. They are married into almost every family there and control the “sentiment” of the area. For a long time, their livelihoods depended on the nearby Anchar lake where they harvested lotus stems and fished. Others sold goods at the Jenab Sahib mosque, where relics of Prophet Mohammad’s four companions are kept.
Soura used to be a National Conference bastion, fiercely loyal to Sheikh Abdullah with a reputation of being his “shock troops”.
In the late 1980s, the destruction of the Anchar ecosystem began with the rapid drying up of the lake (it is now one-third of what it was in 1971). By 1990, the colony had decisively turned towards the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). The Tiploos felt that they weren’t adequately rewarded for their loyalty to the Abdullahs. This was compounded by the jealousy of Anchar residents towards Soura for transforming from an agricultural backwater to the new downtown, as population pressure forced the downtown elites to move out. One road (the 90-foot road) in Soura, for example, now houses some of the poshest properties in Srinagar.
Up the garden path
Arriving at Anchar, I was amazed by the nonchalance of security forces dispersed across the locality. They were relaxed and there were no checks. People moved freely in and out.
When I walked up to the barricade of the “liberated zone”, I encountered a group of three feisty women coming out. They were not wearing a burkha and were happy to talk to a stranger. When we started talking, some men joined in. They claimed that security forces had tried to enter Anchar two days prior, resulting in stone-pelting and pellet gunfire. First, they said the number of people hit by pellet guns were 40, but it rapidly increased to 200.
Despite the warnings of my driver to stay away (“Sir they beat up a TV crew here last week”), I decided to approach the “gatekeeper”, who controlled entry through the stockade. I insisted that I wanted to see the victims of pellet guns and assess their wounds. The gatekeeper told a little child to “shut the shops”. (I don’t speak Kashmiri, but my driver quietly translated in my ear. He was too scared to come in).
As we walked up to the Jenab Sahib grounds, he suddenly told me: “If you want to see fresh pellet victims, you’ll have to go to Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS).” I terminated the tour abruptly, much to the annoyance of my host, after all, I was there to look at verifiable injuries, not listen to narratives. I headed out to SKIMS, possibly Srinagar’s largest and best-equipped hospital. It was jam-packed, but I found just one pellet victim there – a 12-year-old boy who suffered superficial wounds to the back of his head and was being released that day. I was restricted from entering his room, but I had the freedom to walk around the other wards, none of which had pellet gun victims.
Disappointed, I walked out and started talking to a visibly distraught local, whose father-in-law asked me not to disturb her. He told me that they were from Nubra, and had come to Srinagar for treatment after his son had a stroke. He told me he had received “first-class” treatment and experienced no shortages. But the crowd (and a crowd gathers almost immediately everywhere you try to interview someone) pushed him aside and insisted that there were severe shortages.
I decided to walk with a man, he had a prescription with him, to a nearby pharmacy just 20 metres away. Every single drug on the prescription was available. (The medical supervisor I had interviewed before had told me as much, having dealt with long shutdowns in 2010, 2014 and 2016. The hospitals, it seems, have developed a very good stocking and distribution mechanism).
Searching for victims
I went back to the gatekeeper in Anchar and complained that he had led me up the garden path. Profusely apologetic, he told me that the victims have been taken to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital, a full eight kilometres away. I was immediately suspicious as to why someone would be taken that far away, when Anchar is closer to SKIMS. But the intent here was never to challenge, only to verify, so off I went.
Again, there was no police presence and I was free to roam the wards. Doctors are barred from talking publicly, but one doctor led me to his room. He confirmed that there were no medicine shortages and that there were three people with pellet injuries, one of whom I was allowed to see but not photograph. None were from Anchar/Soura.
A woman, who was a relative of one of the pellet victims, turned up to get a signature from my doctor. A quick rapid unintelligible chat later they giggled and she left. When I played the recording to my driver and three others much later, they all confirmed that the doctor challenged her, asking incredulously, “Sure he was one of those innocent boys who headed out shopping right?”. This was followed by giggles.
Again, I headed back to Anchar. It was already three in the afternoon, verifying a single story. I was met by a different gatekeeper who told me: “We don’t send our victims to the hospital, we get doctors over at home to avoid prosecution”.
Exasperated, I again asked to meet some of them and he took me to see some victims whose wounds were clearly quite old, possibly months. My insistence that I be shown recent victims was met by “well, we don’t know who you are and we want to avoid an MLC (medical legal case)”.
On my way back, the women of Anchar told me their stories of victimhood. Unanswered during this entire day were several questions: If troops aren’t allowed into Anchar, how exactly did this pelting-pelleting (with 40-200 injuries) happen? Where are the victims?
Driving out, I decided to interview the CRPF troops on the main road. They told me that they’ve not been in Anchar and couldn’t be bothered to go in there because it was too unimportant for them. Higher-ups gave a different perspective, saying their main worry was the collateral damage, given that “these people are more than capable of setting fire to the Jenab Sahib mosque with disproportionate consequences for the Valley”.
Unseen till the end remained the mysterious pellet gun victims of the 12 September clashes. The Ancharese, however, are intensely likeable rebels, clearly prone to severe exaggeration, aimed at nurturing the “liberated zone resistance” myth. But boy do they know how to spin a yarn and market it.
In short, Anchar is definitely not a jihadi hive, but their “liberated zone” has less to do with their spirit and more to do with marketing and using Jenab Sahib Mosque as a hostage.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.
This is the first part of a series by the author based on his recent Kashmir visit. Read the second part here.