Several hundred Kashmiris have settled down in Kochi grateful for the peace and the acceptance of the people
By Shevlin Sebastian
Kashmiri businessman Gulshan Khatai, 62, who has lived in Kochi for 43 years, is used to the peaceful nature of Malayalis. But one day he was stunned when, through his glass-paned curio shop on Mahatma Gandhi Road, he saw a man slap another. He rushed out to enquire, but the local auto-rickshaw drivers said, “Sir, there is nothing to worry. Those men are from Mangalore.” Khatai laughs heartily at the memory.
Javed Ahmed, 22, who is from Sopore, also likes the peaceful nature of Malayalis. “If you ask for directions, they guide us with a lot of love,” says the salesman who works in a shop on Princess Street in Fort Kochi.
A regular visitor to a mosque in Pattalam, he befriended two Malayali youths, Feroze and Anwar. Last year, when Ahmed was going home, they asked whether they could come along. The Kashmiri agreed.
“People in my village were very happy to see Malayalis for the first time,” says Ahmed. Subsequently, he took the duo all over Kashmir before returning to Fort Kochi.
Standing next to Ahmed is the energetic Mohammed Amin, 20. “My parents told me to leave Kashmir because they feared I would fall into the wrong company,” he says. A Class 8 dropout, he had spent days idly wandering about with his friends in Kunzer in Baramula district.
“The best thing about coming to Fort Kochi is that I have learnt to speak English,” he says. He gained fluency in the language by interacting with the tourists.
It is, indeed, a peaceful life for the Kashmiris but they went through a period of uncertainty when a Kashmiri, Altaf Ahmed Khan, was arrested in Idukki district in January for his alleged links with the Pakistan-based terror outfit, Hizb-ul Mujahideen.
“I did feel nervous when I read the news,” says Shabbir Hussain, 38, a shop owner. Pervez Bhatt, 26, another owner, says, “You cannot stop the people from thinking that all Kashmiris in Kochi are terrorists. So, I was scared. The police questioned us several times. It was a tense period.” However, Khan was subsequently released on bail. Kochi Commissioner of Police Manoj Abraham describes him as a ‘former militant’.
Despite the devastation wrought by militancy, for all Kashmiris in Kochi, Kashmir is Jannat (heaven), although a sardonic Bhatt says, “The heaven has now become a hell. But things have improved a lot.” Ahmed says that, God willing, one day peace will come to Kashmir and they can all go back permanently.
But till that happens, a growing number is settling down in Fort Kochi. Several own shops which sell Kashmiri shawls, clothes, carpets and jewellery. The Kashmiri business success and greater presence is sparking resentment.
An auto rickshaw driver, Jaison Xavier, who has worked in Fort Kochi for 26 years, says, “I feel uneasy about the way they are buying property and the increasing number of Kashmiris who are settling here.”
Local businessman, Rajeev Menon, 50, says there is not much business in Fort Kochi. “Whenever you look at these Kashmiri shops, there are no customers and the workers are just sitting around doing nothing for days on end. Sure, you can sell an Rs 50 item for Rs 500, but since the tourist season lasts only for a few months, how can you earn so much?” he says. “The other shops are not earning that much.”
Menon suspects the Kashmiris are dealing in fake currency with which they are buying land and buildings at three to four times the market rate. Recently, he says, a Kashmiri bought a piece of land for Rs 50 lakh.
“I feel that in future, Fort Kochi will become a terrorist haven,” he says. “The police may be aware of all this but they seem to have been bought off. The government should conduct an in-depth investigation.”
Commissioner Abraham says the police have done the necessary verification and confirms that the Kashmiris are leading normal, peaceful lives. “Till now, we have not received any report of them indulging in crime or an anti-national activity,” he says.
Meanwhile, Derson Antony, 33, secretary of the Carnival Paithrukha Samakshana Forum, says that Kashmiris have sexually attacked foreigners who have come to their shops and spoilt the image of the city. “We have also noticed that in the shops only Kashmiris are hired as salesmen,” he says.
Khatai, the president of the Kashmiri Cultural Association, frankly says that the Malayali is not a good salesman. He also gives an unusual explanation for the sex harassment charges.
“I put the blame on the foreign women,” he says. “They walk around semi-nude and that can excite any young man. There should be a code for dressing. In the West, they can roam around like that, but not in India.”
Katai, an intense and passionate man, continues to answer the other charges. “If we are using fake currency, don’t you think we will get caught?” he says. As for the complaint that Kashmiris have paid higher prices for land than the locals, Khatai says, “They should be happy. If there is a piece of land worth Rs 1 lakh and the seller is getting Rs 4 lakh for it, what is the cause for complaint?”
As to how Kashmiris can pay Rs 50 lakh to buy property, he says, several are well established and have shops all over the country and abroad. “There is a Kashmiri businessman in Kochi who has 600 shops worldwide, including five in Kochi, with a turnover of Rs 3000 crore,” he says. “If there is any illegality, surely the CID will know about it? They are very much aware of all that is happening here.”
Khatai puts down the leveling of complaints to professional envy. “The traders were sleeping in Fort Kochi but ever since the Kashmiris have arrived, they have been forced to be on their toes,” he says.
He pauses and says, “What is the hullabaloo all about? After all, we are all Indians.”
(Some names have been changed)
(Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express)