Kishtwar Riots What Lies Beneath Communal Violence
Peace in Jammu and Kashmir is fragile and a small incident could well turn into a major conflagration. The violence that suddenly erupted in Kishtwar during Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations on 9 August and soon took communal overtones is testimony to the brittle nature of peace that prevails in these areas. The violence unleashed in Kishtwar soon spilled over to the neighbouring districts of Udhampur, Samba, Kathua, Reasi, Rajourie and Doda. Curfew imposed in Kishtwar following the violence continued for 12 days, until lifted on 21 August 2013.
What caused the violence? As per local media reports, a group of villagers from Hullar, raising anti-India slogans, were going to the Eidgah to join Eid prayers at the Chowgan ground. This group got into an altercation with a few youth from the other community at Kuleed. At this time, some police personnel, said to be Personnel Security Officers (PSOs) of a local leader, opened fire in air. They were allegedly joined by some Village Defence Committee (VDC) members, who opened fire from their houses. The government version of the events stated, “Some anti-social elements picked up a fight in Kishtwar which turned violent and caused further disturbance to the large gathering on the occasion of Eid festival. As a result of rumour mongering the incident spread to other parts of the city where anti-social elements looted shops and indulged in arson”. The tensions were also heightened if not entirely induced by the killing of five Indian soldiers in cross LoC firing.
Though incidents of violence continue to occur sporadically, it must not be forgotten that Jammu and Kashmir has a rich history of peaceful coexistence between diverse religious communities and ethnic groups. There is no historical basis for animosity between different sections of society, which therefore lends credence to the view that violence is more often than not provoked. To that extent, the threat lies within. Two causative factors merit consideration. First, there are vested political interests who want to perpetuate the tension and chaos in the region. Second, the peace process in J&K cannot be achieved without addressing the intrastate dimensions of the conflict. Jammu and Ladakh do not necessarily identify with the Kashmir nationalism. The latter has its roots in the Praja Parishad Agitation of 1953, which exemplifies the intra state differences that exist within J&K and are often used as a tool by politicians to divide people on communal lines.
Sheikh Abdullah, when elected as the leader of the State Assembly in 1951 launched the ‘New Kashmir Manifesto’, which advocated agrarian reforms, women’s empowerment and employment. This found resonance amongst the progressive elements of Kashmir. However, his unwillingness to ratify the Delhi agreement of 1951 caused unease in the Centre about the regime it had set up in Srinagar. Though the National Conference made secular claims, its policies aimed to secure Muslim votes in the valley of Kashmir. This struck a negative chord amongst the majority Hindu population in Jammu that found itself at the receiving end of these policies as well as an unfamiliar repression. Thereafter, the Hindu majority joined the violent agitation launched by local Praja Parishad Party and the newly formed Jan Sangh (presided over by Dr. Shyam Prasad Mookerjee) against Sheikh Abdullah. They campaigned for revoking the special status accorded to the state of Jammu and Kashmir and demanded its total accession to India. The slogan, “Ek Desh mein do Nishan, Ek Desh mein do Vidhan, Ek Desh mein do Pradhan – Nahin Chalenge, Nahin Chalenge” echoed in the Jammu region.
Ram Chandra Guha, in his book India after Gandhi mentioned that, “The popular movement led by Dr. Mukherjee planted the seed of independence in Sheikh Abdullah’s mind; the outcry following his death only seems to have nurtured it”. Abdullah assumed that he could seek American help to carve out an independent nation of Kashmir, something like the “Switzerland of the East”. The unfortunate death of Dr. Shyam Prasad Mukherjee sparked an anti Nehru (who for a long time was indifferent to the chaos in the state) and most importantly an anti Abdullah sentiment across Jammu. Consequently, in 1953 Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed replaced Sheikh Abdullah as the Prime Minister of J&K. He adopted a constitution without any reference to referendum and pushed forward the integration of J&K within India. This incident sowed seeds of factionalism between the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the effect of which exists till date.
Amarnath Land Row of 2008
In 2008, the Centre and the State Government in Jammu and Kashmir agreed upon a land transfer of 99 acres to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board to construct shelters for Hindu pilgrims in the Kashmir Valley. This sparked a strong reaction in the Kashmir Valley forcing revocation of the proposal. Consequently, protests erupted in Jammu where Hindus and Muslims joined hands against the appeasement of Kashmiris and the fear of political marginalisation. The incident acquired a political tone when fresh elections were declared to be held in J&K later in the year with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad , Bajrang Dal and Bhartiya Janta Party joining the agitation. The agitation fetched votes for BJP, which increased its seat share to 11 from the earlier eight seats held in Jammu. The National Conference and Congress won the election and came to power.
Mehbooba Mufti (President-PDP) while representing the perspective of people in Kashmir said, “People have seen that New Delhi succumbs to communal forces and passes unilateral orders in Kashmir. Kashmiris feel totally alienated and think the Government in Delhi is ready to bend backwards to satisfy the communal forces.” The regional tensions have continued ever since and have made the Kashmir problem intractable.
To give a communal colour to the Kishtwar violence would be a blunder as this area has historically been free from communal violence. However, its proximity to Kashmir is what makes it a “fertile ground” for Kashmiri separatists and their rivals to widen the communal divide. Kishtwar has a Muslim to Hindu population of 60:40 where both the communities have been known to have lived peacefully before the advent of militancy and Village Defence Committees in the area. Kashmiri nationalism has made no inroads into Jammu and Ladakh. While Kashmiris state that they are being given step motherly treatment by the Centre, people in Jammu and Ladakh feel that they are given a step motherly treatment because the Kashmiris dominate the socio-political set up of the state. Muslims in Jammu and Ladakh area also do not identify with the political aspirations of Kashmiris.
In addition, the national and local media is often instrumental in widening the gulf and fanning tension between the two communities. During the Kishtwar riots, people also engaged in a virtual war over social media websites and this too contributed to the spread of violence. The social media is a powerful tool today and efforts need to be made to spread truth and stop rumour mongering through this all-pervasive means of information sharing.
The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is volatile and politicians often play the communal card in an attempt to divert the attention from the mal-administration that has plagued the region for several years. The developmental issues are hardly addressed. Kishtwar has a literacy rate of seventy percent but is still counted amongst the most under developed districts in the region. It makes news only for the wrong reasons .Villages near the LoC region are seldom highlighted in the media except for ceasefire violation or a war like situation. Mohar Ban, a village near Poonch district comprising of three hundred and fifty destitute is enveloped in darkness during the night. The State had received Rs eight hundred and twenty crore under Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyuktikaran Yojana through which thirty lakh houses had to be illuminated. After spending sixty percent of the amount, only twenty nine thousand seven hundred and forty two villages have received electricity. Several villages share the same story as Mohar Ban.
The health infrastructure in the region also represents a dismal picture. Given the absence of opportunities to support themselves and several years of political turmoil a new trend is emerging in Kashmir where young, educated and disillusioned people from the Valley are being drawn towards militancy.“We are not scared of death, we are just scared of detention of our families”, said Shakeel Ahmed , a 24 year old pharmaceutical representative, before returning to throw stones at the police. “The level of militancy is low now, but it will rise, God willing”. This phenomenon signals towards a lurking shadow of militancy beneath the declining trend in insurgency in the past few years
Elections are scheduled in the State in 2014. In their, urge to gain power, some political parties might go to any extent to sow seeds of violence and communalism in the fragile State. However, one can only hope that good sense will prevail in the region and welfare of the common man would be given top most priority. Few recommendations that merit consideration are as under:
■ Intra State difference is the core issue, which often stalls the peace process in J&K. A dialogue amongst all the factions including the Central and the State Government is not only necessary but also vital.
■ National and local media should be instrumental in providing an analytical and unbiased overview of such events in future, especially the ones potent of creating communal rifts.
■ Education, employment, health and other development concerns should be given the top most priority. These channels have the potential to mitigate conflict.
By Pratibha Singh
(The author originally wrote this for The Centre for Land Warfare Studies where she is a Research Assistant)