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Army ops in Kashmir pitting taxi drivers against militants

The drivers fear that their vehicles are being used for counter-insurgency operations in the district.   | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

The spate of recent killings by unidentified gunmen in north Kashmir has left taxi drivers in Baramulla district running scared.

The reason: each night they are required to send one vehicle to the 29 Rashtriya Rifles camp for use by the Army. The drivers fear that their vehicles are being used for counter-insurgency operations, making them suspects in the eyes of militants. The drivers get their vehicles back only the next evening. They say the Army does not pay them.

“It is nothing but begar [forced labour]. They give us only one litre of fuel for every 10 km they travel. We don’t want to give our vehicles but we have no choice,” Mohammad Shahid (name changed), a 43-year-old driver at the Kreeri Taxi Stand told The Hindu. “We don’t know what happens in our vehicles as they don’t want the driver with the vehicle.” Pasted on the wall of a small office at the taxi stands of Kreeri and Wagoora is a roster, available with The Hindu, that details the schedule of vehicles to report for Army duty.

Army denies commandeering J&K taxis, but says vehicles paid for

The Army in Jammu and Kashmir said it was not aware of the practice of requisitioning commercial taxis by the army camps here and said whenever it needs vehicles, it puts out advertisements in the paper.

“I need to investigate the matter with the concerned camp as I don’t know if such a thing is happening,” Army spokesperson, Lt Col N.N. Joshi, told The Hindu, responding to reports from taxi drivers at Wagoora and Kreeri Taxi stands that they were required to send a vehicle to the 29 Rashtriya Rifles camp here every evening and had been doing so for several years now.

Reporter warned

Soon after the Army was contacted for comment, a senior officer from the Wattergam camp urged this reporter to refrain from reporting on the practice and said while the army used vehicles from taxi stands, they also paid the drivers – a claim denied by the drivers.

“I cannot, however, tell you how much money we pay them or why we use their cars, as this is not an interview. I would suggest you don’t write this story,” the officer said.

Following The Hindu’s queries, the drivers at the Wagoora and Kreeri Taxi stands told this reporter that Army men visited them on Saturday afternoon and asked them to sign a no objection certificate, which they refused.

Services on roster

More than 20 drivers told The Hindu that the practice has been going on for the past 13 years. The drivers are made to sign on ‘a form’ or put their ‘thumb impression’ when they get their vehicles.

In a small office in the taxi stands of Kreeri and Wagoora villages, a chart is pasted on the wall. It is a roster that details the schedule of vehicles to report for Army duty.

“Most of us have bought the taxis on loan and for no fault of ours, we cannot earn our livelihood on a given day. Why should we give even one day’s income to the Army? They are not poor and have massive resources,” another driver Yaqoob Ahmad Najar (name changed) said. “The Army refused to give a day’s salary for flood relief in Kashmir, why should we do it every month?”

Unwitting targets

Mushtaq Ahmad (name changed), a driver at the Wagoora taxi stand that also provides vehicles to the Wattargam Army camp, said he is scared to step out of his house after a newspaper published pictures of some of their vehicles, including his, at the site of a gunbattle in Hardshura village last year.

“Sometimes we see our Tata Sumos ferrying seven to eight people dressed in phirans and then they go for night-raids in our own neighbourhood or an adjacent village and pick up people,” said Ahmad. “We just want to earn a living by driving our cars, not get killed on the road for being associated with night raids and operations.”

Last year in a protest, all the drivers parked their vehicles outside the Kreeri police station but the drivers said the police refused to help.

“We even met the local MLA Basharat Bukhari (who is at present the Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs) who advised us not to confront the Army. He said he would speak to the DC who would take the matter forward,” a driver said.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 2:38:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/army-operations-in-kashmir-pitting-taxi-drivers-against-militants/article7313527.ece

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