Reign of Fear

Kishtwar violence may just be the sign of things to come

Deaths, injuries, arson, curfew are occurrences that make headlines every day in Jammu and Kashmir. Yet, the blood that spilled on August 9 in the Kishtwar district of the Jammu division of the state was of a different kind. Innocent blood for sure, but the cause was neither terrorism nor separatism. It was the age-old Indian malaise: communal violence. The Eid-ul-Fitr day aligned Kishtwar with the rest of the country in a manner Kashmiris would have never thought possible.

A rioting mob, frighteningly led by a child, in Kishtwar

What exactly happened on that fateful day, the one-man judicial commission of retired Justice R.C Gandhi (of J&K high court) appointed by the state government on August 24 with a month’s deadline would probably tell, but the most common version goes something like this: A group of Muslim worshippers headed towards the Eidgah for Eid prayers. Along the way more people joined in and the group turned into a procession. Probably, some mischief-makers came along too and started shouting anti-India and pro-azadi slogans. The few Hindu passers-by got rattled and started throwing stones. The procession retaliated and the situation quickly went out of hand. There are a few variations to this story in terms of details, about who threw the first stone etc, but broadly the ostensible reason was the clash between nationalism and separatism.

According to a Kashmiri local, this is strange; because both streams of nationalism and separatism have co-existed in mutual accommodation in the state since Independence. “There are always some people who shout anti-India slogans on special occasions, but it has never led to a violent clash before,” he says. But things have certainly changed. And the change is evident in the comment of one Jammu shop-keeper. He says, “I believe in communal harmony, but if somebody burns my national flag I cannot remain quiet, even if it’s my own neighbour.”

In India, a communal riot always takes the local administration and the government by surprise. Never mind the history of religious polarisation in certain areas of the country and never mind the usual post-riot leaks by the intelligence agencies about tip-offs that they had shared with the government before the breakout of violence.

And so it was in Kishtwar, the administration was caught off-guard and responded well after the marauding mobs on both sides had run amuck in the streets. The final toll stood at three dead, around 30 injured and over a 100 shops burnt; nobody was dislocated and no refugee camps were built. These were relatively mild figures given the statistics during communal violence in other parts of the country. In fact, an almost inconsequential figure, given that over a 100 had to die in the Valley in 2010 before the government of India could drag itself to respond. Of course, there was one more casualty of the riots: The J&K minister for home, Sajjad Ahmed Kitchloo had to resign under pressure.

Yet, ironically, the curfew in Kishtwar continued for about 13 days. As prevention, curfew was also imposed in other districts of the Jammu division, including the Jammu town. To assuage the grievances of both communities, an all-party delegation led by J&K minister for medical education, Taj Mohiuddin and comprising members from National Conference-Congress alliance, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Nationalist Congress Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Shiromani Akali Dal and Panthers’ Party went to Kishtwar on August 20. They met with the representatives of both communities and brokered peace. For good measure, Taj Mohiuddin led a peace march with members of both communities following him through the streets of Kishtwar. Reassured by this, the government lifted the curfew; hopefully the daily life would fall back in the routine. But what routine will that be?

To those who keep track of communal clashes in India, the Kishtwar violence was almost a non-event. Last July-August, during the Bodo-Muslim riots in Assam, intermittent violence continued for nearly four weeks, by the end of which over 70 people had died, and nearly five lakh had fled their villages ending up in refugee camps. According to independent observers like Harsh Mander of Aman Biradari, this was the largest exodus of people since Partition. No two riots are similar and they must not be compared. Yet, is it possible that the government of India over-reacted in the case of Kishtwar?

On the surface the answer would be yes. But scratch a bit deeper and the answer would change. Far from over-reacting, the government of India reacted a bit too late. Maybe, a decade too late.

Kishtwar is a quaint place, which till a few years ago was part of the Doda district, represented in Parliament by the Union minister for health and family welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad. Renowned for sapphire mines and saffron cultivation, old-timers get nostalgic about its lush valleys, beautiful low hills and the syncretic culture of the place, which geographically links the Jammu and the Kashmir divisions. A few days after the communal clash, articles appeared in the media about the history of communal harmony in Kishtwar. Some wrote how Hindus maintain the Muslim shrines of the district and how Muslims organise Hindu pilgrimages. The trouble with this nostalgia is that it dates back to at least a generation ago if not two. Today’s reality bears no resemblance to that. And as far as Hindus and Muslims organising each other’s religious events is concerned, these are commercial activities. They can be a measure of mutual co-existence, but not of mutual love or respect.

In the early to mid-Nineties when the situation in the Valley deteriorated, the effects were felt in areas like Kishtwar and Doda. Given the topography and the terrain of the region, the militants started crossing the Pir Panjal mountain range to look for safe houses in this belt. These safe houses were inadvertently the Muslim houses. Whether out of fear or sympathy, Muslim villagers housed resting militants. Since the police and the army presence were negligible in those years, it was commonplace for gun-toting militants to roam the land, striking fear in the hearts of the Hindu minority. Add to this the targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, and the Hindus of the Doda region became extremely insecure. The memories of Kashmir piled upon the memories of Punjab. The gentle balance between the communities, whatever the shared history, was disturbed.

It was around this time that the government decided to create village defence committees (VDCs) in this area. According to a senior J&K police officer, when the plan of VDCs was floated, it was open to both Hindus and Muslims of Doda. “But Muslims refused to take arms,” he says. “They drew more security by remaining unarmed and in the good books of the militants.” As a result, despite Hindus being in minority in the district, they formed a majority in the VDCs.

In response to a RTI (Right to Information) application, the government of J&K has recently said that in Kishtwar district, of a total of 3,287 VDC members, 3,174 are Hindus. Of the total, 865 are paid as VDC or special police officers (SPO), and of these, only 21 are Muslims.

While the institution of VDCs itself is questionable (because of the arming of civilian population and abdication of State’s responsibility of providing them with security), the government has repeatedly taken recourse to it in all states suffering from insurgencies or terrorism. From the Northeast to Punjab; even the Salwa Judum of Chhattisgarh was a variation of the VDC, except that there the tribal people were dislocated from their natural habitat and forced to live in camps, where they were easy targets.

That said, the J&K police official insists that the VDCs worked very well in the 10 districts of Jammu. “You have to see it as the interplay between the two communities. Whether by chance or by design, the Muslims of these areas were seen to be drawing strength from the armed militants; once the Hindus had weapons too, their confidence was restored in the state. Though there were killings here despite the VDCs and several VDC members were targeted, there was no exodus of the people because they felt they had weapons to protect themselves. And to some extent this confidence was not misplaced, even though they were given the antiquated .303 rifles. Not only were the VDCs successful in protecting their people to a large extent, they also helped the police and the other forces in turning the tide.”

However, the balance that the VDCs sought to restore was tilted over the years as armed militancy waned. With the increase in counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism operations by the Indian Army (which created Rashtriya Rifles’ Delta force division in Doda) and the state police, Kishtwar was no longer a safe haven. And by 2012, even the last vestiges of militancy had been removed from the region. The equation between the two communities changed once again. Now Hindus held weapons (howsoever unusable), which they brandished at the first opportunity and Muslims had no fall-back mechanism. Hence, the unease with the VDCs started.

But this was not the only change taking place in the region. The religious radicalisation that was sweeping through the Valley started seeping into the Kishtwar-Doda region too. The mildness of Sufism started to get replaced by the harshness of puritan Islam imported from Saudi Arabia via Pakistan. Along with this, the Separatist groups of the Valley were also reaching out to the Muslims of the Jammu region in an effort to expand their turf.

J&K minister Taj Mohiuddin (second from right) leads a peace march in Kishtwar

Last summer, during one of its visits to the Valley, FORCE spent an afternoon with a liberal Separatist leader. In the course of the conversation, when FORCE alleged that the Separatists’ reach was limited to only certain pockets in the Valley and the people of both Jammu and Ladakh regions do not heed them, he had exclaimed, “But this is no longer true. Today, the Muslim of the Jammu region will raise his voice with his brothers in the Valley. They live there, but their sentiments are with us.”

If incidents of the last few years are anything to go by, where certain acts of terror on mainland India have been traced to Kishtwar/ Doda, then probably it was not an empty boast. Incidentally, barring a few districts in the Jammu division, the Muslims are a majority (howsoever slim) in most of them. By making inroads amongst them through religion, the Separatists would like to enhance their scope, so that whenever resolution talks happen, they will have more numbers on their side.

On the other side of the divide, the Hindu radical outfits like the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have also been moving in to claim their numbers. Though the sister political party, Bharatiya Janata Party, has not been able to make much electoral headway, the other two, along with the umbrella Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), have been working diligently in the region to convert Hindus towards their kind of hard-line thinking.

Since Partition, Kashmir has been a battleground for the RSS and its political offshoot, first the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and now the BJP. From founder of BJS, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee’s attempt to enter Kashmir in 1953 to senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi’s Ekta Yatra in 2001, president of BJP’s youth wing Anurag Thakur’s Rashtriya Ekta Yatra in 2011, the right-wing Hindu party has always raised the Kashmir issue to rub-in its nationalistic credentials and also to increase its support-base in the state. In fact, within a day of the Kishtwar clash, BJP leader Arun Jaitley flew to Jammu in an effort to go to Kishtwar, but was stopped by the state government. A day later, alluding to the massacre in Gujarat in 2002, which is a BJP-ruled state, chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted: ‘Would Jaitley be so kind as to inform Parliament whether the Gujarat Home Minister or MoS Home resigned or even offered to in 2002!’

While BJP is a political party, outfits like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal are loose cannons, with notoriety preceding them. Not only their top leadership makes provocative statements, their cadre is known to operate with the mob during riots. Says the Kashmiri police official, “The RSS, Bajrang Dal and the VHP are deeply entrenched in the Jammu region. Because of the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage, a lot of their cadre including the local recruits work as volunteers.”

Just as when all else fails, patriotism works, politicians of all hues encourage religious polarisation by fuelling the insecurities of both the majority and the minority communities for electoral gains. After all, if there is one lesson from the British Raj that the Indian politicians have perfected over the years, it is divide and rule. However, in a state like Jammu and Kashmir, where all sorts of socio-religious experiments are already happening courtesy both India and Pakistan, a deeply divided population on religious lines would be the recipe for disaster. And Kishtwar may just be the beginning.


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