Just A Non-Census
- Rashtriya Rifles has been conducting a “census” in Sopore, when the government’s official census is already complete
- The two-page census forms have 40-odd questions—names of family members, their age, qualification, occupation, marital status and phone numbers
- There are questions for ex-militants, who have also been asked to provide photographs. Traders too have been photographed.
It has all the potential to disturb the fragile peace in the Kashmir Valley. The so-called ‘census’ by the security forces in Sopore, north Kashmir, has been the cause of much resentment among the local population. Over the past four weeks, soldiers of the 22 Rashtriya Rifles have been spreading themselves across Sopore town’s City Colony, Noorbagh, Chinkipora, Batpora, Baghat and Shalimar Colony areas, summoning the mohalla elders, handing them ‘census forms’ and giving orders to return them filled. The two-page, multi-column computerised forms have about 40 questions that include names of family members, their age, qualification, occupation, marital status and phone numbers. There are special questions for former militants, who are asked to provide their photographs as well. Traders too are under the scanner in this apple town—the army has visited various markets and photographed shopkeepers.
The exercise has evoked anger and fear among the residents for obvious reasons. They fear that details like phone numbers could be misused. “We can’t dare to refuse to cooperate with the soldiers,” says a local journalist, Mushtaq Ahmad. Some residents who chose to speak to Outlook described the “army census” as an intrusion into their privacy. Says Sopore Bar Association president Mohammad Maqbool Mir, “I am at a loss to understand who authorised the soldiers to conduct this census. Is it their job? This is sheer harassment. Our youth are scared.”
Sopore has been one of the epicentres of the Kashmiri separatist struggle. It’s where hardline Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani hails from. The town has enjoyed the burdensome distinction of being the important psychological symbol of the Kashmiri insurgents during the heyday of militancy; it was their Jaffna. Sopore opened and shut at the orders of Afghan militant Akbar Bhai, a former bodyguard of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In 1991-92, the army had to bring in armoured tanks to flush out hundreds of militants who had seized control of the town.
Many locals regard the army’s move to hold a parallel census operation with scepticism, especially because Kashmiris had wholeheartedly cooperated with the civil administration in the official census. The two-phased government census has just ended on a successful note. It was, in fact, completed after the separatists, realising the importance of the exercise, made passionate calls to the people to participate in it.
The so-called census by the soldiers is a PR disaster for another reason. For, thousands of young Kashmiris—the number of unemployed educated youth is officially pegged at around six lakh—have recently been making a beeline for enlisting in the army. That’s a far cry from the past when most Kashmiris shied away from recruitment drives.
J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah says the government will find out the truth behind the army census in Sopore town. “I don’t base things on newspaper stories. I’ll find out what the facts are and make my own assessment,” he said. The army’s Srinagar-based spokesman, Lt Col J.S. Brar, feigned ignorance about the census. “It’s not the army’s job to hold a census. Somebody else might be involved,” he told Outlook. Who is it?