Gun­men wait in or­chards, in shadow of Red De­li­cious

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Times Nation - [email protected] times­

Shopian: Barely vis­i­ble through the dense fo­liage of the Septem­ber blos­som in the or­chards spread all over the hills in Shopian district, south Kash­mir, the lowhang­ing ap­ples with a tinge of red, cov­ered in dust, await a shower of rain to ripen into juicy ‘De­li­cious’.

Also wait­ing, hid­den among ap­ple trees laden with fruit, are ter­ror­ists, coun­terin­sur­gency of­fi­cials fear.

Po­lice in Shopian said they are un­able to pro­vide a sense of se­cu­rity to traders be­cause the dense fo­liage of the or­chards pro­vides mil­i­tants a safe hide­out. Vis­i­bil­ity is low dur­ing har­vest sea­son, from Au­gust to Oc­to­ber. Ap­ples, in a way, shield the mil­i­tants. “They can eas­ily hide, feed them­selves on fruit — peaches, plums, ap­ples and pears, and re­main un­no­ticed dur­ing this sea­son. His­tor­i­cally, there have been no coun­terin­sur­gency op­er­a­tions in these three months in the district,” a south Kash­mir counter-in­sur­gency of­fi­cial said.

Po­lice sources said last year 44 ter­ror­ists were killed in the district. “Fif­teen ter­ror­ists were killed in Novem­ber alone. That’s be­cause the bare­ness of the place re­duces hide­out op­tions,” a po­lice of­fi­cial said. Though this year, un­til now, 38 mil­i­tants have been killed, sources said there are around 25 Re­gard­less of the pause in busi­ness af­ter the Ar­ti­cle 370 ab­ro­ga­tion, or­chard own­ers in Shopian are qui­etly stack­ing up wooden boxes in the front­yards of their houses, pre­par­ing to sell them next month

lo­cal Hizb and three Jaish ter­ror­ists still in the district.

Hor­ti­cul­ture, espe­cially ap­ples, is one of Kash­mir’s econ­omy’s ma­jor life­lines, sus­tain­ing around 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple. Shopian or­chards pro­duce nearly 2 lakh tons of ap­ples ev­ery year, with three pop­u­lar va­ri­eties — Golden, Red De­li­cious and Ma­haraji.

On Au­gust 5, just as the har­vest sea­son was get­ting un­der way, the Cen­tre re­voked J&K’s spe­cial sta­tus. Fear­ing vi­o­lent protests and ter­ror at­tacks, it im­posed re­stric­tions on the move­ment of peo­ple and snapped mo­bile and in­ter­net ser­vices.

The Shopian fruit mar­ket, spread over 30 kanals of land, which in nor­mal times is abuzz with ac­tiv­ity —huge trucks load­ing ap­ple boxes — beginning late Au­gust, has been closed too. In the mid­dle of Septem­ber, ap­ples grown in or­chards across south

Kash­mir are trans­ported to the Shopian mandi where traders from across the coun­try pur­chase the pro­duce.

Re­gard­less, or­chard own­ers and their fam­ily mem­bers are qui­etly stack­ing up wooden boxes in the front yards of their houses, pre­par­ing to sell them next month. “The har­vest time for Red De­li­cious is ap­proach­ing but there are no signs of the mar­ket open­ing,” Shafi, owner of a 7kanal Shopian or­chard, said.

Though the Cen­tre has an­nounced that it will buy ap­ples di­rectly from traders, no­body in Shopian is talk­ing about it. The mil­i­tants in the ap­ple bowl of Kash­mir have is­sued a dik­tat ask­ing or­chard own­ers and traders not to pluck ap­ples and send the pro­duce out of the Val­ley. “The scare has si­lenced all of us,” Na­jeeb, a trader, told TOI.

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