BBC News – I am 70: The shopkeeper who lived through Kashmir’s wars

Athmuqam, Azad Kashmir (POK), 17 August 2017. As India and Pakistan celebrate 70 years since their creation as sovereign states, the BBC’s M Ilyas Khan meets a Kashmiri shopkeeper who was born at the same time as Pakistan.

The story of Mohammad Younus Butt is the story of Neelum Valley, a narrow river valley in north-western Kashmir.

Mr Butt’s father died three months before his birth, leaving a widow, three more sons, a daughter and a two-acre farm.

He was born in Athmuqam, then a tiny, obscure village. A that time the former princely state of Kashmir was threatened with division and a newly-created Pakistan was about to launch its first proxy invasion to annex it.

He has since lived through two more conflicts, and alternating spells of peace and confrontation.

“My mother told me that I was born in the month of Inqilab (revolution),” he says, using the term many Kashmiris use for partition.

“She told me it was just before the Hindu families in Keran and Tethwal started to flee across the (Neelum) river. The panic was caused by waves of armed Pathan tribal fighters who came up the river from Muzaffarabad.”

These tribesmen were part of a larger tribal militia raised and armed by Pakistan that was to descend on Srinagar, the region’s major city, from the north.

A year later, the fighting was over and Kashmir was effectively divided. Athmuqam, which fell on the Pakistani side, was left to carry on with its isolated pastoral existence.

Mr Butt’s earliest memories are of a place where there was not much else to do beyond tending cattle or playing hide and seek on terraced farmlands.

“There was no school in the village, and hardly a literate person. If someone received a letter, they would take it to Keran (12km away), where there was a post office and they could find a clerk to read it for them.”

If someone wanted to send a telegram, they had to travel to Teethwal, 50km away, where the only tele-printer in the entire valley was installed.

There was no road in the region and no transport. People used to travel on foot or on mules.

When he was about seven years old, his mother sent him to school. The primary school was 8km away and the middle school 4km beyond that.

“Life then was all about walking to school, walking back home, tending to cattle, helping on the farm, and finding time to play.”

He left school when he failed grade seven. “But I had learned to read and write. I was among the first literate people in my village,” he said.

Adulthood arrived with a bump in 1962, when several things happened.

That year, he got married to his cousin, then his mother gave him money to set up a grocery shop, only to die a few months later.

“She gave me 520 rupees to start the shop – it was the third shop in Athmuqam.”

In those days the road from Muzaffarabad came only as far as Nauseri, about 65km away. It was the nearest wholesale market.

“I brought six pony-loads of groceries on my first trip. We would walk the entire day from dawn to dusk to reach Nauseri. And it would take us two days to get home because the ponies needed to be rested.”

He started to get involved in local politics, and was influenced by K H Khurshid, a respected politician appointed president of Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 1959 who was seen as a champion of Kashmiri rights.

But Mr Khurshid’s career was short-lived, ending in 1964 when he fell out with the Pakistani establishment over the constitutional status of Kashmir, meaning the end of Mr Butt’s political activism.

But 1964 was also the year Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru died, and preparations for the second “tribal invasion” of Kashmir came, this time with local Kashmiris instead of tribal Pathans leading the guard, recruited by Pakistan. Pakistan’s military has never officially confirmed it ever commissioned such a force.

“The policemen went from village to village recruiting Kashmiri youth. People would fall in line, and the chief police officer would walk down the queue, sizing up each individual. He would touch those he chose on the shoulder and ask them to step into a separate line.”

The chief policeman patted Mr Butt on the shoulder.

“I told him I had a shop. He said all you need to do is accept the rifle and stay at home. I took the rifle. But weeks later they came and asked me to shut my shop and join training.”

He and his fellow recruits spent three months training in Muzaffarabad’s Nisar Camp. Most of them then infiltrated into Indian Kashmir, but some who could read and write were kept behind for clerical work at supply depots.

“I was posted at a camp in Athmuqam where I kept records of equipment and supplies. I was there until our forces were defeated in Kashmir, and India attacked Pakistan (on 6 September 1965).”

After the two countries signed a peace agreement in January 1966, the force was disbanded.

“Those who wanted to stay in the army stayed on, while the rest of us handed in our rifles and came home. I came home to my shop. It was still locked and there was merchandise in it.”

After the war, people in Athmuqam discovered that Indian forces had moved closer and set up permanent posts on high ground opposite their village.

“Until then, our shepherds had always considered those areas our land. The same thing happened in several places down the valley.”

For a while, peace prevailed. The road was gradually extended from Nauseri to Athmuqam, and further on. It was little better than the mule tracks it replaced, but it did bring transport and lifestyle changes for the area’s growing population.

Athmuqam emerged as the main town in Neelum Valley. A general hospital and several schools were built, bank branches opened and a telephone exchange was set up.

“We built a new house, and all of my children – a boy and two girls – went to university,” Mr Butt said.

But more conflict was to come, with the 1989 insurgency in Srinagar. Fresh hordes of private militiamen started to descend on Neelum Valley. This time the proxies were Islamic militants, organized by the Pakistani military to infiltrate Indian Kashmir.

The Indians, having occupied the valley’s high ground in 1965, had the settlements in their rifle sights. As the conflict intensified, so did retaliatory fire from the Indians.

“I can’t recall a worse time for Athmuqam. Everything that was built in 20 years was turned to rubble in 15 years of hostilities,” he said.

The hospital was destroyed, and so were schools and colleges. Farming activity became impossible. Nearly all the population moved to safer areas, such as Muzaffarabad, or to gullies higher up which were not exposed to direct fire.

Only a handful of people remained to look after their own properties. Mr Butt was one of them.

“Athmuqam was a lonely place then. You couldn’t find a soul to talk to. My brothers went away with their families, leaving their belongings in my care.

“In this neighbourhood only three households stayed behind. Our houses were damaged. We would eat and sleep in bunkers we had dug. Our orchards were destroyed.

“No children went to schools in those years. A whole generation missed out on education.”

Over the last 14 years, since the 2003 ceasefire, much of the infrastructure has been rebuilt. A generation of educated young people are now adults and the government is trying to promote the area as a tourist destination.

But peace is brittle. One incident of cross-border fire during the season scares the tourists away for months.

“Life has revived, but the danger is there all the time,” he says.

Mr Butt says his “innings” is nearing its end. He has had three operations so far, two of them during the last three years.

But he is glad that business has grown, and Athmuqam has grown.

“I’m lucky to have been born in freedom, and I hope our future generations will guard this freedom as a precious gift of God.”

Advertisements – Buddhists remove holy scripture of SGGS from Gurdwara Dangmaar Sahib in Sikkim

Sikh24 Editors

Sikkem, India, 22 August 2017. Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and other religious articles from within Gurdwara Guru Dangmaar Sahib (Sikkim) was removed from the Gurdwara Sahib premises by local Buddhists and villagers after local authorities decreed that the Gurdwara Sahib will be converted for alternative uses.

Situated at an altitude of 18000 feet at Indo-Tibetan border, Gurdwara Dangmaar Sahib was established in 1971 by and for Sikh army men.

Bhai Yadwinder Singh, who is serving as a ‘Granthi’ in the Gurdwara Sahib, revealed that some local Buddhists and other people had brought the Holy Scripture and other religious articles of Gurdwara Sahib to handover over to him but he refused to accept them as it was a forced upon him.

“At this, the Buddhists ran away and placed the Holy Scripture and whole religious articles on road,” he added.

Bhai Yadwinder Singh further shared that he then respectfully again installed the Holy Scripture of Sri Guru Granth Sahib in Gurdwara Sahib with the help of other Sikhs.

SGPC members S. Sukhdev Singh Bhaur, S. Rajinder Singh Mehta, Colonel Davinder Singh Grewal had immediately arrived on spot as soon as news of the incident became apparent.

Speaking to Sikh24, Colonel Davinder Singh Grewal said that some fanatics had earlier also tried to take over possession of this Gurdwara Sahib and the then SGPC President Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra was apprised about it at that time.

He added that Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra had forced the then Defense Minister George Fernandez to intervene, resulting the matter being resolved.

Colonel Davinder Singh further said that these miscreants had deliberately removed the Sri Nishan Sahib from Gurdwara premises and had tried to convert it into a prayer place of all religions by placing statues of Hindu and Buddhists prophets.

SGPC President Professor Kirpal Singh Badungar has expressed deep concern over this unfortunate incident. He said that he would take up the matter with Union government of India to sort the matter at the earliest.

Capelle aan de IJssel Gurdwara

Capelle aan de IJssel Gurdwara
16 July 2017

Entry to the Gurdwara



Gurbani Kirtan
Singing of hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib

Gurbani Kirtan
Singing of hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib

Sardar Jarnail Singh behind the Guru Granth Sahib

To see all my pictures:

More Netherlands pictures to be published
Harjinder Singh
Man in Blue

Runnymede Trust – Race Matters – How is caste discrimination different from racism?

Published 18 August 2017 by CasteWatchUK in Culture, Employment, Equality, Equalities Legislation, Featured, Global, History, Identity, Racism

While the caste system, and the discrimination it engenders, originated in South Asia, it is very much present in the UK. Here Castewatch UK reports on the effects of caste discrimination.

An elderly woman reported receiving poor quality of care from a medical professional who, on learning of her caste, considered her to be unclean and refused to touch her.

This is just one of the experiences of caste discrimination taking place today in the UK, which has been reported to us at Castewatch.

Caste is associated primarily with cultures of the Indian sub-continent. According to those who practise and promote it, Caste is determined by birth and cannot be changed. Each Caste continues in a state of social paralysis, antagonistic and hostile towards the others’ interests, with inter-marriage discouraged if not prohibited.

Whereas, in a class-based system there is the possibility of vertical mobility, this is denied in a Caste-based system.

There are four categories, each ranked differently in terms of social honour. Below these groupings are those in the lowest position of all: Dalits, who were previously known as ‘untouchables’.

Although the practice of ‘untouchability’ is legally prohibited in India, those from the Dalit community continue to be shunned socially and economically.

Yet caste discrimination is not limited to South Asian countries. In March 2017, the Government Equalities Office opened a public consultation regarding caste-based discrimination in Great Britain. The consultation seeks public views on what measure(s) the UK Government should take to outlaw caste-based discrimination.

UK law does not specifically protect against caste discrimination, however Section 9 of the Equality Act 2010 provides for caste to be made an ‘aspect of race’, as mandated under The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (alongside the already protected characteristics of colour, nationality and ethnic/national origins).

This provision would benefit those who may be affected by caste discrimination in employment, provision of goods and services and public functions, by providing them with a clear route for legal recourse.

The notion that the Dalit community is by nature ‘impure’ and therefore inherently bound to servitude continues to create social divisions across South Asia.

Although Dalits are the most severely affected group, caste-based discrimination in the UK is pervasive, affecting all communities among the South Asian diaspora because of the entrenchment of caste as a social paradigm.

Discrimination based on one’s caste holds similarities to discrimination based on one’s ethnic background or race; members of one group hold prejudice and exercise discrimination towards the group that they deem to be inferior.
However, it is important to note that while the discrimination experienced can be similar to racism, caste is different from race.

While ‘race’ (as a social construct) may be understood as a way of classifying people in to groups based on physical traits, ‘caste’ is a system of social stratification, where groups are assigned a way of life defined primarily by occupation.

Caste has no distinguishable physical feature and members of the same ‘race’ group may be of several different caste groups. In Britain, Dalits have progressed economically and do not follow their traditional occupations of cleaning toilets and skinning dead animals, but caste-based discrimination can be encountered in social interactions.

Unlike race discrimination, caste discrimination is intra-racial and is practised among those of the same nationality, ethnic origin and/or cultural background.

According to Census data, the British South Asian community in the UK is numbered at more than 3 million. Findings of a 2010 study led by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (pdf) suggest that caste discrimination is occurring in Britain in places of work, places of worship and in the provision of goods and services.

The same study estimated that there are between 50,000 and 200,000 people in diaspora communities that may be experiencing caste discrimination.

Our research and outreach activities have led to a number of people approaching Castewatch UK with their own experiences of caste discrimination, as in the case of the elderly woman above. In another example, a man in his fifties was subjected to regular humiliation and bullying in the workplace.

A colleague even verbally abused him using language designed to degrade him on the basis of his caste. This occurred in front of other colleagues, who did not know how to react. When approaching both his supervisor and local union representative, the victim received no help or interest in his complaint.

We also have cases of children being subjected to caste-based bullying in schools. In another report we had, a man recalled that he was subject to caste discrimination since his school years, where being called an “untouchable” was commonplace.

As a young musician, he and others would play instruments at South Asian weddings. He recalled that some would comment that tips should not be given to him as he was a ‘beggar,’ which was in reference to his caste.

Caste discrimination can also be present in everyday, often overlooked, interactions.

One person described to us how discriminatory treatment towards him in his shop has now become normalised: “I was serving a customer at my shop and this customer was of a so-called high caste background who constantly questioned me about my caste. This lady refuses to put money in my hand, like I am an untouchable.”

Those opposed to any legislation to combat this prejudice argue that it is unnecessary. Some say that making caste discrimination illegal will adversely affect community cohesion among diaspora communities or that it would open a ‘Pandora’s box’ of litigious action.

It is important to acknowledge that these arguments are not new to legal debates in the UK. Similar arguments were cited as a cause for concern by those opposed to the establishment of The Race Relations Act 1976.

We at Castewatch UK argue that the proposed amendment to the Equality Act 2010 is an important step to furthering anti-discrimination measures in the UK.

We urge those interested to get involved and respond to the consultation, guidelines for which can be found at The deadline for submissions to the consultation has recently been extended to 18 September 2017.

For more information on Castewatch UK, follow the link above or email

Dawn – America’s flawed plan for Afghanistan

Zahid Hussain

Op/Ed, 23 August 2017. There is nothing in the new US policy laid out by President Donald Trump that can bring the 16-year-long Afghan war to an end. The much-awaited strategy that links Afghanistan with the US South Asia policy is likely to only deepen regional tensions.

The toughening stance on Pakistan may have serious repercussions for an already troubled relationship between Islamabad and Washington.

Although Trump has said that US troops would not stay in Afghanistan for long, there is certainly no clear exit plan. As in the past, the emphasis is on the military solution that may keep the US involved in the Afghan war forever.

Trump has not specified the number of additional US forces being deployed there, but he has already given the Pentagon approval for 3,900 soldiers thus bringing the total American troop presence in the country close to 10,000.

This marks a complete turnaround in Trump’s election promise to pull out US troops from Afghanistan. He seems to be getting the US more deeply engaged in what he had earlier described as a futile war.

It is apparent that he has given in to the pressure from the American military establishment, though one tends to agree with him that complete military withdrawal would have disastrous consequences for regional security.

Most US defence analysts agree that a surge in troops can only help in maintaining the existing stalemate. The new American strategy has come at a time when the Afghan Taliban insurgents have expanded their influence to over 40 per cent of the country that is plagued by rising internal political discord.

There still seems to be no realisation in the Trump administration about the seriousness of the Afghan situation. It will not be easy for the US forces to contain the Taliban advance and to maintain the status quo for a longer period.

What is most alarming is the spread of the insurgency even to regions in north Afghanistan that were previously considered secure.

Diplomacy and political options are clearly not a priority for the Trump administration.

It has been the bloodiest year in Afghanistan in terms of civil and military casualties since the US invasion in 2001. The rising spectre of the militant Islamic State group and daring terrorist attacks, claimed by the network, have worsened the security situation.

The surge in US troops is not likely to shift the balance in the war significantly. The surge is more of a patchwork effort than a serious attempt at exploring the possibility of a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

Diplomacy and political options are clearly not a priority for the Trump administration, though there has been a fleeting mention of the administration’s willingness to begin talks with the Afghan Taliban insurgents.

There is certainly no road map for peace. Like his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump has made it clear that the United States will not be engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan.

But there is also no plan to stabilise the political and economic situation in Afghanistan. The danger is that a confused and flawed policy may push the United States much deeper into the Afghan quagmire and fuel regional tensions.

While assigning India a greater role, there is no plan to engage other neighbouring and surrounding countries in the effort to resolve the Afghan conflict.

Not surprisingly, Trump reserved his strongest criticism for Pakistan. While acknowledging Pakistan’s sacrifices and its efforts in fighting terrorism, he declared this country a part of the problem too.

It is perhaps for the first time that a US president has, publicly, warned Pakistan of severe consequences if the country does not take effective action against the alleged terrorist sanctuaries along its borders.

It is not clear what kind of military and economic actions the US administration has been considering. But such threats would not help win Pakistan’s support unless Islamabad’s own national security concerns are addressed.

Like the previous administrations, the Trump administration too believes in unquestioned cooperation, ignoring Islamabad’s interests completely.

What has made the situation for Pakistan more complicated is Trump’s policy of getting India more deeply engaged in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s concerns about India’s economic and strategic cooperation with Kabul may be exaggerated, but the previous US administrations were careful not to encourage Delhi to expand its role in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials contend that the Trump administration has crossed the red line by making India a part of its Afghan strategy, though the Indian authorities may not be too pleased by Trump’s remarks about their country getting trade benefits from the US and not sharing the burden.

Interestingly, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi a few hours before Trump’s speech to convey a more nuanced message to alleviate Pakistan’s concerns. But there are still lots of questions about the new American policy of lumping South Asia with Afghanistan.

There is the implicit US threat of expanding action against the Afghan Taliban insurgents to the Pakistani border regions. There is also a possibility of drone strikes targeting alleged terrorist hideouts in the settled areas close to the tribal areas.

That will surely make things difficult for Pakistani authorities to win public support for cooperation with the United States.

Indeed, one must not gloss over our own policy debacle and not getting our concerns heard in Washington, and not putting our own house in order. It is a huge foreign policy failure that during the past seven months we could not establish meaningful contacts with the Trump administration.

It also shows a crisis of leadership both in civil and military spheres that we could never formulate a clear Afghan policy.

Our Afghan policy has largely been reactive and based on duplicity. We lost the opportunity to improve relations with President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul.

There is still no clarity on how we intend to deal with the new challenges arising from the toughening American stance. The political instability in the country has added to our foreign policy and national security problems.

Trump has declared that the US will strive for an ‘honourable’ resolution to the Afghan war. But his strategy can neither win the war nor result in peace.

The writer is an author and journalist.