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"Maharaj" and "Delicious" want to fly

From what was called "mini-Pakistan", apple trade across the Line of Control was suspended last week. Kashmir's apple wants to dream big and move away from politics. But politics won't let go. A report by Neelesh Misra. Special coverage

india Updated: Nov 25, 2008 19:37 IST
Neelesh Misra
Neelesh Misra
Hindustan Times

The two Kolkata men seemed hopelessly out of place in the room with tunic-clad elderly local traders -- in the dusty Kashmir town with no hotel.

They had come for the legendary Kashmiri apple to Sopore, famous for one more name -- secessionism icon Syed Ali Shah Geelani. One man, 42-year-old Bimlesh Kumar Gupta, had come for the first time just one day ago. The other, 50-year-old Mohammed Naushad, has been returning repeatedly for a quarter century.

"I deal in apples from China, Australia, America and New Zealand. But Sopore's apples are the best, the best in the world," said Naushad.

When the insurgency was raging in January 1990, Naushad was cooped up in the town's only hotel for 22 days of curfew. Subsequent years were worse.

But he was a regular visitor to the hotel until 2001, when a huge fire there killed 17 people, mostly apple traders from outside. Now he rents a room.

With the decade militancy easing off, others are coming for the famous apples as well.

So the Kashmiri apple wants to dream the big dream. The fruit traders who were at the forefront of the bitter anti-India protests this summer across Kashmir want to set politics aside even amid simmering discontent.

"We have nothing to do with politics. We are traders. We want to do business and earn profits," said Haji Bashir Ahmed Beg, 60, president of the apple growers association in Sopore town.

"Why can't we sell in other countries? Why doesn't the government help us do it?" Beg said, standing near rows of trucks waiting to leave for hundreds of Indian cities.

Other traders in pherans (tunics) clamoured over their own problems. Pesticides and fertilizers are ineffective. The road leading to the wholesale market is narrow and potholed.

The apple is one of the tenuous links between restive Kashmir and the rest of India.

"People in Tamil Nadu like our slightly tangy "Maharaj"; people in Mumbai love "Delicious", a sweet variety; Punjabis love the big-size apples, and Bihar loves the tiny ones," Beg said.

In August, however, the apple was driving the politics.

Massive anti-India protests across the Kashmir Valley following a dispute over the Amarnath shrine land received a new boost from Sopore. Its apple traders said that Jammu's roads had been blocked for their fruit, and they would instead go to sell it in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

So tens of thousands of people began the "Muzaffarabad March", which did not reach its destination but was followed by the resumption of cross-border trade. A dozen-odd trucks began to roll down across the border every week, going up to frontier towns to be unloaded.

Then politics caught up on both sides.

"We want to go to Muzaffarabad to find partners, find out what the customers like, and then do business," Beg said. "But we have not been allowed to go so far."

In keeping with the separatist sentiment in the region, many traders were reluctant to apply for Indian passports and Pakistan won't allow them with their certificates that show they are "state subjects".

Kashmiris cannot make phone calls to Pakistan. Traders here have no idea what happened to their apples once they crossed the border.

So the apple trade to Muzaffarabad was suspended a week ago.

Geelani stands for a Shariah-ruled Kashmir. But apple-based Hindu-Muslim friendships have never been suspended here – despite the recent Jammu versus Kashmir confrontation that threatened to acquire a religious colour.

"Hindu traders from all over India come and stay with me for two months, three months. When I go out to Kolkata, Delhi, anywhere, I stay with them," said veteran apple trader Bashir Ahmed Mir.

"I love Kashmiri people. I have travelled to 50 villages, my misconceptions have been cleared hundred per cent," said Gupta, who ignored his family's orders not to travel to Kashmir.

"These apples are the bridge between Kashmir and India," he said. "India is incomplete without them."

First Published: Nov 20, 2008 18:05 IST