From restive Pulwama to frontier Gurez, the quilt-makers from Bihar are busy turning old dresses into mattresses. But their job and presence in some volatile areas perceptively qualify them above the roaming workforce.
Behind the resurgent rebellion marked with frequent gunfights, hell-fired houses, multiple funerals and stone pelting, the Kashmir’s Pulwama lately threw a startling surprise.
A group of incensed men showed up in a Pulwama village where some quilt-makers from Bihar were camping. They straightaway grilled those migrant workers: Is there a chip in your machine? Do you fit chips in the mattresses you make?
“We opened our machine and showed them that it only has a blade,” said Mohammad Sulaiman, a quilt-maker from Bihar. “We told them that they can also check our mattresses too. We were very scared that day.”
The chip was supposedly there to track the insurgents.
Behind this looming suspicion, many believe, is the multiplying informer-counter insurgent nexus on the ground. As one after another insurgent is falling to the frequent gunfights, many Southies sense that there are moles in their lives.
To confirm this ‘chip theory’, I visited Pulwama where everything for the day was hunky dory. At a stone’s throw from the township, the district police chief’s office was witnessing a footfall of local delegations, officers, and some anonymous persons cloaked with anonymous identities.
Meeting these men inside his buzzing room was the SP Pulwama, Mohammad Aslam.
“Rumours spread very fast in Kashmir,” SP Aslam dismissed the ‘chip theory’ from the word go.
“People here are very sensitive. They get moulded very easily. Recently, people destroyed some 3000 odd LED bulbs in Tral, fearing a chip inside them.” Not a single chip was found, he said, talking intermittently between phone calls. “How can anyone in the first place do such a thing?”
There was a rumour doing rounds during demonetization, he pointed out — as a motley group of men inside the room turned attentive — “that the new Rs 2000 note had a chip in it. Can the government afford that? How much will be the cost of that note then?” The remark broke some instant smirks in the room.
But the world outside the walls and boundaries of the SP office thinks differently. Some of them equated the presence of these roaming mattress-makers with those non-native beggars of eighties who in the name of beggary would storm houses to reportedly snoop around.
Was it some kind of reincarnation of that tribe? With these thoughts, I bumped into Mohammad Naushad, not far from the town. The Bihari mattress-maker was carrying an expensive quilt-making machine with him. A native of Bihar’s Saharsa province, Naushad was aware how the frequent fireworks make this part of Kashmir an apparent forbidden area for many—but, not for his fearless tribe.
“Why should I be scared?” said Naushad with straight face. “Insaan tou paida hota hai marne kay liye” (Human is born to die.)
In South Kashmir, these quilt-makers are in battalions. Apart from restive Pulwama, they are in almost every district of the valley—including the frontier Gurez—with a hope to “earn good money”.
Camping in Pulwama from last three months now, Naushad presently knows the province—its paddy fields, its people, its hillocks and its brooks—at the back of his hand. Along with his two co-workers, he works by setting up their Rs 40 thousand worth mattress-making machine on sidewalks.
“This machine can turn your jeans into cotton within minutes and then, we use that to make the bedding,” he said. “We purchased the machine on loan and are yet to repay it.”
These men use old or used clothes as raw material for their machine to make quilts. But given how they are disposing off the town’s old robes makes them a ‘jest talk’: “Pulwamik saari makeir palaw te zatche kare yemaw saaf” (These people disposed off all the old clothes and rags of Pulwama.)
But as insurgents are increasingly being cordoned off and subsequently killed in encounters, their presence has become a subject of scrutiny. Does that bother them?
“Of course, not,” said Sulaiman.
“We know what people think of us. But we are poor people, who are here to earn bread. That’s it.” Of late, he said, some people implanted a news story about them in Press, called them a cause of pollution.
But such nitpicking coupled with a sense of being in the thick of the war-ravaged territory hardly discourages his ilk from going South.
For them, Srinagar is out of bounds, because of its ‘different lifestyle’ and market consumption. Their messy and dusty job, said Mohammad Qurbaan, Sulaiman’s co-worker, doesn’t match with the City’s “standards”.
“Even if we get space to work in City,” Qurbaan said, “we don’t get space to stay.” However, there’s another reason why Srinagar is out-of-the-way for them: its severe shutdowns.
“Even if the situation remains bad for a week in Pulwama,” said Mohammad Bhola, another quilt-maker, “we are still able to work unlike in Srinagar.”
Many of Bhola’s co-workers (mostly Muslims doing this line of work) came to the Valley recently after their ‘contact’ told them that there is a lot of scope of work in Kashmir.
“One guy came. He worked and sensed great scope. Then he spread the word. Many started to pour in. That’s why, you see a lot of people here doing this work,” Bhola said.
But before coming to Kashmir, many of these men were making mattresses in Himachal Pradesh. Once they ran out of work there, they visited the Valley, en-masse. “It will happen here, too,” he said. “And eventually we will move on to a other place.” This makes them a different kind of gypsies, roving from place to place in search of living.
However, despite ‘meaning their business’, their presence in Kashmir’s volatile zone remains their worry.
Inside Pulwama’s SP office, police acknowledged their presence than profiling. “See,” SP Aslam continued, “we go for their background check by contacting their native police stations only after their employers or landlords inform us.” But people are reluctant of sharing such information with the police, he said.
“People are our eyes and ears. It’s they who will tell us to verify a particular person. We cannot go to every home or orchid and check who is working there.”
One time, the police called all the factory owners of the Pulwama Industrial Complex, he said, and asked them to provide details of their workers. “We can get it done in a Complex not in homes,” the Pulwama police chief said.
But these labourers can’t be the informer material, said a police officer anonymously.
“They won’t do it as they fear forces and know the risks involved. They just want to do their job and earn money.” Instead, it’s the ‘peace loving citizens’—dubbed as ‘sources’—he said, who provide police information, and not these ‘non-entity’ migrant workers.
“How will we come to know that a militant is travelling in a particular cab? These are all peace loving civilians who happily spill the beans for the sake of society’s peace, safety and harmony,” he said. “Unlike sources, they don’t do it for any personal or monetary benefit. It’s a bond between hearts. So in that way, to call them sources, is wrong, derogatory.”
Some of these mattress-makers, however, do get involved in petty crimes like thefts, the officer said. “But we don’t feel they are working for militants. Neither do we engage them as informers.”
Amid all this, the bazaar gossip — that the government-sponsored Ujala LED bulbs contain a militant-tracking chip — might have fizzled out. But after those Pulwama men tried unearthing a chip in a mattress recently, a stark reminder was apparently served: the perpetual conflict does make some people paranoid about anything, everything.
Afshan Rashid contributed in this story.