The white Ambassador, ferrying the government officials pulled off the road for its red beacon to be removed.
“Aage Sopore hai. Idhar ke log bade pyaar se patthar phekte hain sarkaar ki gaadi pe,” (Sopore lies ahead. People here can’t resist throwing stones at government vehicles) the driver smirked.
What should have been a sleepy town in the Kashmir Valley — Sopore — is often described as ‘a highly politicised hotbed of separatist activity with frequent, spontaneous protests and strikes.’
The prosperous town surrounded by apple orchards 55km from Srinagar emerged as the nerve centre of militant groups in the 90’s, given its proximity to the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and is also home to Hurriyat hawk SAS Geelani.
A horrific past of uprisings, encounters, killings of terrorist-sympathisers, police informers and most wretchedly, the innocent hangs in the air as most of the town shut down, demanding Afzal Guru’s remains, a local hanged in February for 2001 Parliament attack.
Locals look at the government cars with suspicion and fear, as they dash on the main road.
An encounter in July 2011 wiped out the terrorists but Sopore is still fertile for militant-secessionist activity, housing some ISI sleeper cells.
However, police say radical activity is waning. “There was some disturbance after Guru’s hanging. But given Sopore’s history, it can be termed insignificant,” says an official.
Locals are also pining for change. “Why ask only about Afzal Guru? Sopore is famous for its apples too,” Samina Kauser (40), a teacher, replies with a smile.
On the town’s outer fringe is Himayat centre — a government’s skills and jobs initiative catering to Sopore’s youth, whose predecessors took to guns and grenades in the turbulent past.
“I wouldn’t know if there was any disturbance in town today,” said 23-year-old Mohsin Qadir, who after three months of training, now works as a marketing executive, earning Rs.5000 per month.
“A few of these youth might have taken part in protests at some point before. I’m glad we have such programmes which show these youngsters the right direction,” says Imtiaz Hussain, SP, Sopore.
Sopore is yearning for a change but the government seems to be falling back in catching up. “The anti-establishment stance has kept the government away but this is the time to bridge the development deficit,” a local official says.
Perhaps, the State could begin the process by completing the by-pass bridge connecting Sopore to Srinagar that is “in-construction” for about 25 years.