January 01, 2014

India: How village defense committees in the name of counterinsurgency, has ensured the religious polarization in Kashmir

India Ink Blog - The New York Times, August 14, 2013

The Flames of Kishtwar

Strdel/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A policeman firing a tear gas shell during a clash with protesters in Jammu city, Jammu and Kashmir, on Saturday.

JAMMU – Chowgan, a sprawling ground in the heart of the mountainous town of Kishtwar, offers one of the most picturesque views in Indian-administered-Kashmir. Tall poplars line the roads and magnanimous chinar trees provide immense shade.

How did this mesmerizingly beautiful place turn into a battlefield of venomous hatred on Aug. 9 when Muslims had begun assembling for Eid prayers? Within minutes, it turned into an arena of stone pelting and gunfire, the flames spreading out to the rest of the town and beyond, with Hindu and Muslim mobs trying to beat up each other and burn down each other’s properties in the mad frenzy that suddenly overtook them, as a mute administration watched or responded feebly. Several police officers occasionally fired their guns and charged with their sticks but ultimately only added to the animosity and uncontrollable rage.

The destruction continued until 7 in the evening, when curfew was finally imposed and the Indian Army was called out. By then, the fires of the unrest had spread, raging northward to Padder, southwards to Jammu, the winter capital of Indian-administered-Kashmir and its suburbs. A day later, the violence spread to Reasi and Rajouri areas in the region. In Kishtwar, two were killed, 30 injured; over 150 shops and four houses were torched in the first day. Another person died a day later, and casualties and losses were suffered by both sides.

How did it all start and who was first remains mired in mystery, with the facts made murky by myths, fiction, imagination and rumors. All we have left are our versions and narratives with no way to test their authenticity. Yet they lend some insights into the reconstruction of the events of the day starting 10 a.m., when Muslims from Kishtwar and surrounding villages began assembling for the Eid prayers. As a group of over 200 people from the neighboring villages reached Char Chinar Chowk on their way to the Chowgan ground, the stone pelting started, followed by guns.

Both the Hindus and Muslims now say the other side was the one who started throwing stones. The narratives from both sides are sketchy and lack details. “Some Muslims started raising slogans when the Hindus fired from the Kuleed village side,” say some. It is neither clear what the slogans were (for some it was Islamic slogans, for the others slogans for Kashmiri independence) or whether the firing preceded the stone pelting or the other way around. “Two scooter-borne youth who whizzed past started raising the slogans,” says one version of the story. Another mentions two youth from different communities on two separate bikes entering into a confrontation which led to the conflagration.

Others aver that there was no sloganeering – instead, they say the Muslims had just assembled for the Eid prayers when the Hindus became provoked and started throwing stones and shooting, to which the Muslims also responded. And as mobs on both sides went on a rampage in the adjoining market areas and across the town, the Muslim youth broke into an arms shop and looted all the guns and ammunition to match the gunfire from the other side.

That the gunfire started from the villages reveals the role of the village defense committee members, civilians, mostly Hindus, who have been armed for almost two decades in the name of fighting militants. One such member from Kuleed village says, “We were on the alert as the police had told us to be vigilant the night before. When they began raising objectionable slogans, we sensed troubled and opened firing.”

Eventually, it may be immaterial to probe more deeply into how it started. All these narratives, with whatever degree of authenticity, will become footnotes when this chapter will be written down in the history of Kishtwar or of the entire Jammu region, where this unrest was quick to spread, fueled by petty politicking, the flow of half-baked, unverified information, the administration’s complacency and the media’s over-zealousness to succumb to the divisiveness of the situation and to take sides, adding to the madness.

Not to be forgotten would be the role of Jammu’s politicians, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological affiliates, which began fanning the fires before noon with an unbridled propaganda machinery let loose while projecting the Kishtwar situation as an attack on the Hindus. An influential body of businessmen in Jammu, the Jammu traders and Chamber of Commerce, claimed that the Hindu traders had suffered losses, even though both Muslim and Hindu had lost their shops.

Whether or not the entire conflagration was inspired by vote bank politics, it has played a potential role in fueling the flames. Both the B.J.P., whose vote bank has risen in the region in the last two decades since religious divisions began to erupt, and to a lesser extent the National Conference, which rules the Indian-administered-Kashmir in a coalition with the Congress Party. Sajjad Ahmed Kichloo, a National Conference minister in the state government, who represents the Kishtwar area in the state legislature, has cashed in on Muslims votes through virtual control of the Islamic religious institutions in the area. Mr. Kitchloo has resigned his position as a minister in the state government.

The present situation also needs to be analyzed in the context of the armed conflict, both within and on the borders. Kishtwar’s history of religious polarization is as recent as the eruption of the militancy. In a district with 60 percent Muslims and 40 percent Hindus, containing both an insurgency that selectively kills based on religion and a counterinsurgency with selective persecution, has provided a fertile ground for whipping up religious tensions.

The creation of the village defense committees, with over 95 percent of their members drawn exclusively from the Hindu community, holding official licenses to kill in the name of counterinsurgency, has ensured the religious polarization. In the ugly incident this Eid, even if the village defense committee members didn’t start the violence, they had a major role in heightening the tensions.

The committees have a close liaison with the local police and with the B.J.P. It was during the B.J.P.-led national government that these committees multiplied, particularly in the Doda region. The role of the local police in this region has been equally dubious, demonstrated by the recent arrest of an inspector, Shiv Kumar Sharma, who is suspected of having conducted extrajudicial killings and became a terror among the Muslims, on charges of running a militant module.

Such complexities of the political-police-village defense committee-militant connections form the ideal conditions for what happened in Kishtwar last week, exacerbated by the tensions sparked by the killings of four Muslim boys in Gool by Indian paramilitaries and the police during Ramadan and the recent killings of five Indian soldiers at the Line of Control.

Whatever is the immediate spark, the poison of hatred and religious animosity has gone down too deep, too fast, in a short span of two decades, in a land of beauty that did not only inspire poets and produce great leaders but also is known for its pacifist Sufi influence. Here lies the dargah of Hazrat Shah Asraruddin Baghdadi, a saint who continues to be revered by both communities. This is the land where tales of the greatness of the 17th century king Keerat Singh, who himself converted to a Muslim while his brother remained a Hindu in a bid to quell some religious tensions during his tenure, are still orally narrated with a great sense of pride.

Even now amid these fiery tensions, resonate stories like one Facebook status: “In a communally sensitive kishtwar, my family remains safe in a Muslim dominated area (15 Hindu families, surrounded by more than 1000 muslim families).” Despite such moments of human solidarity, the region remains volatile and a little spark can set the house on fire.

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is the Executive Editor of The Kashmir Times based in Jammu.