SOPORE, India — In the disputed Kashmir Valley, a new battlefront has emerged: the apple orchard.

A tense standoff between the Indian government and anti-
India militants has ensnared apple farmers, whose crops represent a $2 billion business crucial to Kashmir’s economy and supply more than 60 percent of India’s apples. The resulting fear has left fruit trees across the state bent with ripe, unpicked apples. 

The frustrations began on Aug. 5, when India revoked Kashmir’s autonomy and implemented a widespread crackdown. In protest, locals have shuttered shops. In the apple belt, militant groups have ratcheted up tensions by threatening orchard owners with violence if they harvest and sell their crop. And Indian authorities have pressured farmers to pick apples and conduct business as usual at local markets.

AD
AD

“We have been caught in the crossfire,” said 47-year-old Ramzan Dar, who grows and sells Kashmiri apples in the town of Sopore, home to one of the largest wholesale fruit markets in Asia. As chairman of the local fruit market association, Dar tried to appease both sides by operating the market only under the cover of darkness. But earlier this month, the militants found him.

For the valley’s apple industry, the timing of India’s move could not have been worse. Across Kashmir, orchards are loaded with ripe fruit waiting to be picked. But business has come to a halt — out of fear of the militants but also because of anger over the government’s action. Even for those willing to risk the possible repercussions, blocked mobile and Internet connections and a labor shortage have made it difficult to operate.

At the wholesale fruit market this month in Sopore, 35 truck drivers from the neighboring state of Punjab, who had arrived two weeks earlier to transport shipments to other parts of India, were still waiting. 

AD
AD

Jaspal Singh has been driving trucks full of apples from Kashmir for more than 20 years and said things have never been this bad. “The market is empty right now,” he said. “Normally, there would not be an inch of space to walk.” 

The Indian government announced on Sept. 12 that it would buy apples directly from growers in Kashmir in a bid to stem their losses. The government would effectively act as a middleman, offering a fixed price to any willing farmer and then distributing the apples for sale across the country. But even after the announcement, the wholesale market in Sopore remained deserted except for a few staff and security.

Ayaz Ahmed Natnoo, an official overseeing the program in the Sopore market, said that only four growers had registered for the plan in its first three days.

AD

Similar scenes are playing out across Kashmir’s apple-growing region. Mohammad Ramzan, 78, an apple grower in the Pulwama district of south Kashmir, has been coming to the local wholesale fruit market every other day, only to find its metal gate padlocked.

AD

“My fruits are ready,” he said. “But nothing is going out, and no trader from outside wants to come to Kashmir to buy.” Ramzan said he would rather bury his crop in a ditch than sell to the government. 

To avoid selling their fruit openly or to the government, some growers are coming together in improvised private markets. In Anantnag district, small trucks dot narrow lanes next to orchards where trees are laden with varieties of apples such as Crimson and Red Delicious. Many growers have put up plastic sheets to shield what they are doing: packing fruit to sell outside the state.

At one such private market, tensions ran high. Most growers and traders refused to say anything and urged reporters for The Washington Post to leave. They feared reprisals from militant groups, which India accuses Pakistan of supporting. Fayaz, a grower who shared only his first name, said that what little fruit he was able to sell was going at half the normal price. The rate the government is offering is marginally better, but he said he won’t sell to the government as a mark of protest.

In south Kashmir, a hub of militant activity, a poster signed by the local commander of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen praised orchard owners who are ready to “sacrifice” their apple crop. “They told us that they will not betray the blood of martyrs,” the poster read. “We salute their courage, and they will find us with them at every step.”

AD
AD

The fear of possible violence by militants runs deep. The attack on Dar, the official with the local fruit association, and another on the family of prominent apple trader Hamidullah Rather in Sopore this month put the risks of the business in the spotlight.

On the night of Sept. 6, as Dar was driving home with his wife and cousin, two masked gunmen approached the car, he said. One pointed a gun at Dar, got into the car and asked him why the fruit market was open. The gunmen allowed Dar’s wife to get out of the car, then told him to drive to Rather’s house.

Once they reached the house, Dar and his cousin were pushed into one room, he said, while the gunmen went to look for Rather. Rather’s son Arshad, daughter-in-law Tahira and 6-year-old granddaughter Aasima were at home. The gunmen beat up Rather’s family members before returning to shoot Dar and his cousin in the legs.

AD
AD

One of the gunmen shouted, “Now, let’s see how you go to the fruit market!” Tahira recalled in an interview. 

As Dar collapsed, he heard more gunshots. There was “chaos,” Tahira said, as gunmen fired at their legs multiple times. Both Aasima and her father were shot, Tahira said.

Dar, his cousin and Aasima are recovering in a Srinagar hospital. Aasima has undergone two operations. Her mother says she sleeps little and cries often. A week after the shooting, police authorities claimed to have killed a militant responsible for the attack.

The Sopore fruit market remains shut. Even in his hospital bed, Dar’s main worry is his business. He took out bank loans to pay advances to growers for their crop. Now, anticipating losses of over $400,000, Dar says he is ruined. He wonders, “How will I recover?”

Slater reported from New Delhi.

AD
AD