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On the edge in Kishtwar


Tuesday 19 August 2003, by SWAMI*Praveen

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 17, August 16 - 29, 2003.

In rural Jammu, terrorism fuels communal tensions, deepening the social divide. The recent events in Kishtwar are a case in point.

IT was a little like a Deepavali night in New Delhi, except that these firecrackers were meant to kill.

Through the night of August 8, rocket-propelled grenades rained down on Doda, fired by a terrorist group hiding in the hills above the mountain town. Army machine guns opened up in response, bullets shooting into a night illuminated by parachute flares. The only target of any value hit by the grenades was a long-abandoned truck, but the bombardment made its point. Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s `healing touch’ policies might have brought tourists to Srinagar, but much of rural Jammu remains mired in an ugly and seemingly endless war. Terrorism, worst of all, is fuelling a communal war that threatens to inflict more damage than any number of rocket-propelled grenades.

At the end of July, a group of some 250 refugees made their way to the town of Kishtwar, after terrorist threats led them to leave the remote village of Pullar. The group demanded that the small picket protecting their village, manned only by quasi-volunteer Special Police Officers (SPOs), be upgraded with regular troops. On July 31, negotiations with the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Kishtwar, Mohammad Aslam Hamdani, led to a compromise. Hamdani agreed to post more SPOs in the village if the refugees agreed to return home. Matters seemed settled, until local Bharatiya Janata Party leader Hukam Chand stepped in. "I told the villagers," he says, "that the promises made by the government were worth nothing. They needed hard guarantees, which would only be made if they were willing to agitate." The BJP now called for a strike, to press the villagers’ demand for troops to be posted in Pullar.

True to form, Hindu shopkeepers downed shutters on the morning of August 1, while Muslim shopkeepers did not. This, however, seems to have been acceptable to all concerned. However, a dispute arose over the decision of the local government college to shut for the day. The college management said that the decision was made in pursuance of policy designed to prevent communal clashes amongst students. Hamdani, however, insisted that it had no right to endorse political protests. Hindu students and the SDM began an argument, which escalated into a brawl. The students joined the procession of Pullar refugees, which was making its way through Kishtwar’s main market. What happened next is disputed. The protesters say Hamdani abused and hit a protester; other witnesses claim that the protesters first began throwing stones at Muslim-owned shops.

Muslim communal groups in the town had prepared themselves for precisely this eventuality. Led by People’s Democratic Party leader Mushtaq Haq, named in some half-a-dozen First Information Reports filed during past riots in Kishtwar, a Muslim mob attacked Hindu-owned businesses. Twelve Hindu-owned shops, including a liquor store and a computer-training centre, were set on fire. The targets were carefully chosen. "They threw out our goods and set them on fire," says hardware store owner Bhushan Parihar, "but did not touch our shop, knowing we rent the property from a Muslim friend." Central Reserve Police Force personnel stood by, refusing to intervene until they had orders. A week after the violence, the police were yet to arrest anyone. The FIR filed against the rioters named several figures perceived close to the PDP and the BJP, and the local administration wishes to antagonise neither. A local police officer said: "We cannot arrest Hindus unless we arrest Muslims, and we can’t arrest Muslims unless we arrest Hindus. Since they are all well connected, we have orders to arrest no one at all."

BY all-India standards, the violence in Kishtwar would not really count as a riot: no one was killed, and the few dozen wounded mostly suffered minor injuries. However, communal violence in Kishtwar has great political significance. Since the mid-1990s, both Islamists and the Pakistani establishment have been pushing the case for an eventual partitioning of Jammu and Kashmir along its constituent ethnic-communal lines. The idea of a partition, first proposed by United Nations mediator Owen Dixon, has been backed by figures ranging from Jamaat-e-Islami politician Syed Ali Shah Geelani to the Prime Minister of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, Sikander Hayat Khan. Jan Sangh leader Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, in a variant of the idea, supported sundering Hindu-majority Jammu from Kashmir as a fallback option.

During the Kargil war, India’s back-channel negotiator R.K. Mishra is believed to have discussed the idea with his counterpart Niaz Naik. In a recent interview, Naik claimed that the idea was "being considered seriously by the White House".

Doda sits on the faultline that partition-enthusiasts seek to convert into a border, the Chenab river. The areas to the north of the Chenab in Doda tehsil have a Muslim majority; and those to its south are mainly Hindus. Kishtwar tehsil is again dissected by the Chenab, with the northern valley systems of Marwah and Wadwan populated by Muslim majorities. To the south, the Macchel valley system, and the tehsil of Bhaderwah, are Hindu-dominated. Many of the worst communal massacres executed by terrorists in Kishtwar have taken place along the Chenab, a fact of obvious significance. Yet, there has historically been no communal divide in the district. Muslims are divided by community, with groups like the Rajputs and Pirs sharing more culturally with their Hindu neighbours than ethnic-Kashmiri communities. Similarly, Hindus are divided along the lines of caste and clan. Mosques and temples often share space in village squares, a sign of the syncretic traditions, which bound the peoples of the region together for centuries.

Yet, competition between elites over the past two decades has been ripping the region’s cultural fabric apart. Until the 1970s, business and trade in Kishtwar was dominated by Hindus. "In the whole of the town," recalls shop-owner Parihar, "there was not even one Muslim-owned shop." During that decade, however, the Muslim elite began to leverage their political influence to secure lucrative forest and road-construction contracts. The National Conference, which housed much of this emerging elite, gained legitimacy by portraying itself as a representative of Muslim community interests. Increasingly stripped of their traditional privileges, the Hindu business class in Kishtwar turned to the BJP in the late 1990s. "All the contracts for the Dul-Hasti Hydroelectric Project went to Muslims," says Parihar, clutching a sheaf of petitions addressed to Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and Union Minister of State for Defence Chaman Lal Gupta. Like their Muslim counterparts, the Hindu elite claimed that the survival of their religious community was in peril.

Low-intensity communal friction exploded after the rise of terrorism. In 1994, terrorists shot dead 16 Hindu bus passengers at Sarthal village, near Kishtwar, sparking off anti-Muslim riots in the town. Protests and violence took place in the wake of a succession of subsequent communal killings in other parts of Doda district, which claimed 131 lives between 1996 and 2000. Finally, between May and August 2001, terrorists carried out a series of four massacres around Kishtwar, in which 32 Hindus were killed. This time, incensed Hindus, many of them armed members of Village Defence Committees (VDCs) that have been set up to protect vulnerable communities from terrorist attacks, tried to storm a mosque in Atholi. The attack came in the wake of rumours that terrorists had built a bunker in the Atholi Masjid, evidently sparked off by repairs being conducted in the mosque’s basement. Mainly to placate Hindu communal sentiment, the State and Union governments agreed to impose the Disturbed Areas Act in Doda, and promised to upgrade security.

BUT one key question remains about the latest round of violence: this time around, there was no massacre, or even sporadic killing, to set off the communal bloodletting. Terrorist killings of both Hindus and Muslims have been declining fairly steadily since the 2001 Doda killings. Indeed, killings of Hindus even in that year were lower than during previous times; critically, more Muslims than Hindus were killed in every year except 1995.

This declining pattern of violence is evident throughout the Jammu province. Between January and June-end in 2002, 210 civilians had been killed by terrorists in all of Jammu; in the same period this year, 124 have been murdered. One possible answer is that the decline in the killings has not been mirrored by a decline in the levels of threat from terrorists. Correctly or otherwise, both security experts and many of Doda’s citizens believe that the lull is temporary, a gesture of deference to a flawed India-Pakistan detente process.

Perceptions such as these are born out of experience. Hindu communities regularly leave their homes after terrorist threats. Even as the villagers from Pullar reached Kishtwar, for example, some 117 Hindu families fled their homes in the Sumbar mountain belt in Ramban tehsil, on the western end of Doda district. The Sumbar refugees fled after two members of their VDC were killed. Over a dozen Hindu-owned houses were also set on fire in the attacks. Attacks on Hindus are now regularly fought off by the VDCs. Just days after the Pullar refugees fled their home, for example, the VDC fought off a major attack by a Lashkar-e-Toiba unit. Muslims perceived as even mildly pro-establishment face similar problems. Aslam Mantoo, the sarpanch of Sarthal village, rarely spends the night in his home because of terrorist threats, and instead lives in relatively safe Kishtwar.

Underlying this fact is the unwillingness of both the Union and State governments to act upon their words. Despite the imposition of the Disturbed Areas Act, the actual numbers of troops committed to Doda has not grown. Just 57 companies of all forces are charged with the task of fighting terrorism in a district sprawling over some 11,500 square kilometres, an area almost as large as the entire Kashmir valley. Given that the Central Reserve Police Force and Jammu Kashmir Armed Police are assigned static, defensive duties, offensive counter-terrorism work is assigned to some 2,800 men of the 4, 8, 10, 11 and 26 Rashtriya Rifles battalions.

KISHTWAR tehsil, which makes up two-thirds of Doda’s area, makes do with just eight Rashtriya Rifles companies, of the 11 and 26 battalions (Doda SFs). Instead, the task of securing Doda has been left to SPOs, hired at a salary of just Rs.1,500 a month, and to the VDCs, each of which has three paid SPOs, whose salary is shared amongst the group. Salaries are often paid late, forcing VDC members to leave the group and find work; some 40 SPOs, who were denied long-promised salaries and permanent jobs, recently deserted en masse at Thatri, near Doda.

Politics, it can be argued, lies at the bottom of this appallingly casual security management. Much of the impetus for the recruitment of SPOs came from Chaman Lal Gupta, and the 8,000-odd people who were hired in Doda are often referred to as his private army. The imputation may be unfair - the VDCs did little to help the BJP in the recent Assembly elections - but the fact is that the scheme has helped the Hindu Right generate a state-subsidised cadre.

Politics, too, is at the heart of recent events in Kishtwar. The death of N.C. patriarch, Bashir Ahmad Kitchlew before the elections generated something of a political vacuum. Although his son Sajjad Ahmad Kitchlew retained the Kishtwar seat, the Congress(I) made significant inroads. In recent times, there has been a scramble for political space. Even the Left succeeded in developing a strong constituency, after a long and bitter struggle by trade union leader Javed Zargar for wages for casual workers employed at Dul-Hasti. It is no coincidence that the recent riots were led by figures affiliated to the BJP and the PDP, parties with no real presence but considerable ambitions in Kishtwar.

Where do events go from here? The hamlet of Bhacchi is connected to the world by a small rope bridge, strung a hundred feet over the thundering Chenab. Food for the long Kishtwar winter must cross this bridge, as must people on their way to work, schoolchildren, or the ailing. Some years ago, the villagers decided to recruit god to the defence of their bridge. A mosque was built where it joins the village; adjoining it the villagers constructed a temple, identical in size and similar in shape. The bridge across the Chenab, a metaphor for Kishtwar’s besieged culture, must somehow survive the onslaught from those determined to tear it apart.


Pic1:Bhacchi village, which is connected to the outside world by a small rope bridge. This hamlet is on the way to Kishtwar from Doda off the highway. Its residents have built a mosque and a temple at the foot of the bridge.

Pic3: V.V.Krishnan : Children rummage through the remains of a bookstore burnt down in the recent riots in Kishtwar town. Twelve shops owned by Hindus were set on fire by miscreants.

Pic4:Special Police Officers at a camp in Doda. Salaries are often paid late, forcing the SPOs to leave the job.

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