Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown

Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown
Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - NEW DELHI: There is no crackdown on a traditional Kashmiri robe, officials told Arab News on Monday, amid claims that people wearing it are being rounded up and frisked in response to two policemen being killed by someone alleged to have hidden a gun under his robe.

The pheran is worn by Kashmiris as an extra layer of protective clothing during the harsh winter months, and residents of the valley have said that security forces are discouraging them from wearing the garment.

The unarmed officers were killed in a busy market in Srinagar on Feb. 19, and the attack came two days after the owner of a popular eatery was murdered in the city. The assailant in this incident was also wearing a pheran.

Police and paramilitary troops have been carrying out checks in the market, with similar exercises reported from other parts of the valley.

However, Divisional Commissioner Pandurang K. Pole denied there was a crackdown or ban on Kashmiri item of clothing.

“There is no written order from any government authorities to ban the pheran,” he told Arab News. “See the markets and tourist places. They are full of the public, and there is no crackdown as such. What crackdown are you referring to?” 

But residents said security forces were asking people to “keep the pheran in hand.”

“The pheran is our traditional dress, and it protects us from winter,” Srinagar-based businessman Aijaz Ahmad told Arab News. “By asking people not to wear the pheran and keep it in hand, the government expresses distrust toward people. How can you expect to normalize the region by constantly attacking people’s sensitivities?”

Everything came to a standstill and people got stuck for hours when security forces launched a crackdown, said Khurshid Ahmed Shah, who is president of the Maharaj Market Association of Srinagar.

“Market is already down, and such moves further drive people away from the market,” he told Arab News. “They hesitate to come out. You understand how hurt people feel when you ask them not to carry pheran, or you suspect pheran-wearing people. It’s like we are going back to the old days of the 1990s, when such crackdowns and disapproval for wearing the pheran were pervasive.”

People’s worries about an anti-pheran campaign have increased since a right-wing group associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called on the government to ban the garment.

“The militants have carried out most of the attacks in Kashmir while wearing phiran, which should be banned in public places and government functions,” Rakesh Bajrangi, a leader of the Bajrang Dal group in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, said on Feb. 21.

Bajrangi did not deny his statement when contacted by Arab News, but refused to elaborate on the topic.

However Srinagar-based BJP spokesperson Manzoor Bhat justified the security response. “Who invited the crackdown?” he told Arab News. “Who killed the policemen? If you don’t allow the situation to stabilize, then the crackdown is bound to happen to bring peace in the region.” 

He said that Kashmiri police were trained and kept people’s sensitivities in mind but, when someone was frisked, security personnel would also check pherans.

Student activist Nasir Khuehani was last week travelling from Bandipora district to Sopore town in the valley when he was stopped at eight places in the 40-kilometer long journey.

He was asked to step out of the car, remove his pheran and walk a distance at each stop.

“I had all the identity cards,” he told Arab News. “I have good contacts in the region. Still, I was frisked this way. Imagine what would have been happening to local people.”

The valley’s top security officials were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News.

The situation in Kashmir has been volatile since Aug. 5 2019, when New Delhi scrapped the region’s constitutional autonomy and withdrew exclusive territorial rights for Kashmiris.

Despite the lifting of the lockdown that followed for several months and the restoration of internet services in the region, the area remains heavily militarized. Daily activities are curtailed due to security restrictions.

“Post-August 5, there has been a massive crackdown on life as a whole,” a spokesperson for the valley-based pro-India People’s Democratic Party, Syed Suhail Bukhari, told Arab News. “The recent crackdown in the valley goes back to the old days of the 1990s, when such a crackdown was normal in the name of curbing militancy. The larger question is not about the pheran, but the pervasive sense of distrust that Kashmiris have developed toward the government. The distrust keeps on multiplying with each order of the government. People see that they are being disempowered every day.”

Srinagar-based political analyst Zareef Ahmad Zareef said the government was not making “any efforts” to win people’s trust. “You cannot have peace unless you reach out to the people,” he added.

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