A summer of massacres

Print edition : August 15, 1998

The killings at Kishtwar, followed by the massacres in Poonch, mark the escalation of the communal war in the Jammu region.

VIDYA DEVI first saw the group of armed terrorists, dressed in combat fatigues, moving through the dense Keshwan forests near Kishtwar early in the evening of July 27. The sight of such groups was common around her village, Sarwan, so she and other villagers paid little attention. Inaccessible by road and several hours' walk from the nearest security force picket, villagers in the area had arrived at a quiet truce with terrorists, providing them food and shelter.

But this particular evening, things were to go badly wrong. The terrorist group moved on to Thakrain-Hor village, reaching there at 8-30 p.m. Villagers were dragged out of their homes and lined up. Eight of them were shot dead, including three women who attempted to save their husbands. After stopping for three hours to loot cash and jewellery, the terrorists returned to Sarwan at 3-00 a.m. "They shouted 'we are from the army, come out'," recalls Vidya Devi. Her husband and brother-in-law complied. They were among the nine killed at Sarwan.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The killings at Kishtwar followed by the massacres in the Kalaban forests in Chamba and Saliayan village in Poonch, mark the escalation of the communal war in the Jammu region. The bodies of the dead people from Sarwan and Thakrain were brought to Kishtwar in a militant procession, led by local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers. Within Kishtwar town, the chances of a communal battle were high. After 16 bus passengers were killed near the town on August 14, 1993, a full-scale riot broke out. Further trouble was averted thanks to police action. "We arrived just before the procession reached the town," says Deputy Inspector-General of Police Ram Lubhaya. "A truck full of timber was passing by, and we used that to cremate the dead then and there."

If this intervention ended the effort to turn the cremation procession into the vanguard of a riot, Kishtwar town remained under curfew for the best part of a week. Outside, tensions remained high. Muslims from the Bhandaarkot area, for example, reported receiving death threats from Village Defence Committees (VDCs), state-armed vigilante groups set up in areas with a vulnerable Hindu population.

INDEED, the VDCs have become a key point of tension between Doda's communities at war. Rhetoric on the issue is often surreal. "The VDCs," asserts Hurriyat Conference-affiliated civil rights activist Abdul Qayoom Zargar, "are part of project to change the demographic character of this area." "The Army cooperates with the VDCs in killing innocent Muslims. In fact, there is reason to believe that the recent massacres have not been executed by the terrorist, but by agents of the government."

Hindus respond to accusations of misbehaviour by VDCs with equal unreason. "There is a conspiracy here involving the police and the State Government to drive out Hindus from Doda," says Bharatiya Janata Party youth worker Anil Parihar. "The VDCs are our only defence against this plot." What is clear, however, is that there is an undisputed case for better control over the functioning of VDCs, and their eventual incorporation within the conventional police structure. Moves to recruit at least four VDC members from each village as Special Police Officers are already in place.

Bodies of road construction workers gunned down by militants in the Kalaban forests in Himachal Pradesh's Chamba district.-

Significantly, the Kishtwar killings have been linked to the murder of four family members of the deputy commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen in Doda, Mohammad Qasim, alias Abid, on June 19, allegedly by Army-backed vigilantes. Qasim's brother Mohammad Husain, his wife Sakeena, 17-year-old daughter Shaheena and elder sister-in-law Saleema were shot at their farm home at Machlal village by masked gunmen. Most Muslims in Doda blame the killings on the Army.

Qasim's surviving brother Mohammad Shafi told Frontline that one of the six gunmen spoke broken Kashmiri, and the others Urdu. "I cannot say who they were," he said, "but they did not sound like soldiers." Shafi said he was trying to persuade Qasim to surrender, rendering plausible claims that the killings were carried out by terrorists. At the same time, past attacks on Shafi, including the burning of his home at Ganika village, make it entirely possible that the Machlal killings were the result of a botched security force operation.

JUST as the killings have added to Hindu bitterness in Doda, state complicity in atrocities against Muslims has helped harden communal positions. On April 19, Abdul Qayoom, Ghulam Qadir, Abdul Ghani and Ghulam Mustafa were beaten to death by an RSS-led mob at Karara, near Doda, on National Highway 1. The four, residents of Kothi Pain village, were killed inside the local Border Security Force camp in reprisal for the killing of a BJP activist two days earlier. In January, nine unarmed villagers were killed when Rashtriya Rifles personnel used automatic weapons to disperse a stone-throwing mob at Qadrana, Kishtwar.

Politicians, for their part, have done little to build a political consensus against terrorism and communal violence. No National Conference politician of consequence visited Sarwan and Thakrain after the killings, or intervened in Kishtwar's tensions. Representation of the region's Hindus was thus vested in the RSS-BJP. On one recent occasion, the Doda MLA chose to share a platform with the Jamaat-e-Islami's Ataullah Suhrawardy, an action inexplicable other than as rank communal opportunism.

Could the killings in Kishtwar have been averted? It is evident that the killings were enabled by the Government's failure to move in additional forces after Chapnari. "We had a picket in the area until the day before the killings," says the 9 Sector Rashtriya Rifles' Brigadier Satish Behl. "Unfortunately, I have just three battalions to guard an enormous area, with Kashmir on one side and Himachal Pradesh on the other. We can't be everywhere." Behl's troops withdrew from the Sarwan-Thakrain area, moving further up in search of terrorist groups, just before the massacre. Some 150 Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police personnel and two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) companies have been withdrawn from operational work to protect the Amarnath Yatra at Banihal. Further CRPF and Special Operations Group companies are to protect three more yatras - the Mani Mahesh from Bhaderwah and Gandoh into Himachal Pradesh, the Macchal Yatra from Kishtwar and Bhaderwah and the Kailash Yatra to Kailash Kund beginning in mid-August. Doda Senior Superintendent of Police Munir Khan is blunt: "We just don't have the people we need to do our job."

Worst of all, the Government's commitment to fight the communal war is far from clear. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's promises to deploy additional troops in the wake of the Chapnari massacre have remained unkept, while the effective counter-terrorist force level has declined through July. Neither have State Government promises to recruit 2,000 additional short-term Special Police Officers been kept.

Interestingly, Doda district, spread over 11,000 sq km of some of the most rugged mountain terrain in India, some four times the area of the Kashmir Valley, has fewer troops than a single Valley district of Baramulla. The appalling level of the telecommunications facilities, which means that officials in Doda cannot easily contact Bhaderwah and Kishtwar, as well as poor roads cut off for months on end by landslips, makes effective counter-terrorist work near-impossible. Cynics might be forgiven for concluding that if terrorists and their fascist political sponsors have an obvious vested interest in butchering the region's Hindus, the right-wing BJP-led coalition is also in no hurry to put an early end to the processes of violence that are driving communal polarisation through Jammu.

THE addition of Chamba to the list of areas in which terrorists are active was inevitable in this context. Before dawn on August 3, terrorists believed to belong to the same Lashkar-e-Toiba faction that was responsible for the Kishtwar killings surrounded tents housing road construction workers at the Khroey Bei outpost in the Kalaban woods, 10 km from the Doda border. The 12 terrorists lined up the workers in three rows before opening fire with assault rifles, killing 26 persons and injuring 11. Women and children, separated in a group, watched the butchery. As the dead and the injured lay on the ground, the terrorists robbed the tents of cash, valuables and gelignite sticks and detonators used for road building. Two of the injured, Dhyan Singh and Beli Ram, bleeding from their bullet injuries, managed to make their way to the Mansa police post, 8 km away. Even as Beli Ram and Dhyan Singh were making their way to the police post, a second terrorist group struck at Satrundi village. Residents of the village were again made to line up, and this time eight people were killed and three were injured.

Officials believe that though the time gap between the two incidents made it impossible for the killers to have made their way from Kalaban to Satrundi, the organisation involved in the killings was identical. Interestingly, though Union Home Minister L.K. Advani promptly announced that 30 companies of the Punjab Armed Police would be moved into the area, there has been no explanation as to why this was not done despite warnings of terrorist activity in the area. Four people from a Himachal Pradesh village who strayed into Doda searching for medicinal herbs and honey were shot by terrorists. Their mutilated bodies were recovered on July 7. Late last year, a group of 23 village people were robbed in the Baju ka Bagh forests in Doda by a large group of terrorists. "Just a month back," says the Rashtriya Rifles' Behl, "we had found a terrorist dump inside Himachal Pradesh, with supplies for a large group." Although measures had been taken to prevent terrorists from crossing the State border, force levels were inadequate to secure key routes, such as the Malur Pass in Kishtwar.

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It seems that such massacres will continue, but signs that large-scale collective reprisals authored by the State are being engineered have also begun to emerge. The latest of these was after midnight on August 3, when 19 members of top Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami terrorist Imtiaz Sheikh were shot dead by unidentified gunmen. Sheikh's father Lassa Sheikh, his brothers Hussain Mohammad and Ahmad Din, their wives, and 14 children, including 11 girls, appeared to have been lined up outside their home in Salian village, and shot with automatic weapons. Although no evidence has emerged that the families were shot by security personnel, rumours that this was the case was enough to push dozens of Muslim families to take refuge in nearby Surankote town. The killings followed the murder of a key source of the 9 Para Commando Regiment, an Army unit with a formidable reputation in northeastern of India. The source, Zakir Husain, was killed by terrorists earlier the same day, after being dragged off a passenger bus.

What makes official claims that the Saliyan killings were the result of feuds among terrorist groups suspect is their context. Although terrorists from Jammu and Kashmir have been less than happy about the influx of Pakistan-backed mercenaries, and have on occasion supplied information to security forces about their movements, there is no evidence of disputes between far-right organisations themselves. The Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami is a front organisation of the fascist Harkat-ul-Ansar, which in turn has close ideological affinities with the other fundamentalist group involved in the recent massacres, the Muridke, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba. "The Hizbul Mujahideen and others have had their problems with the Harkat and Lashkar-e-Toiba," one intelligence official told Frontline, "but if these two are having a dispute, it's news to me." Neither has any indication emerged of what objective the killing of Imtiaz Sheikh's family by another terrorist group would have served. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that in a charged and violent atmosphere, such killings could easily provide legitimacy to reprisals against Hindus by terrorist organisations.

What shape events will take in Jammu province is clear, but whether there is the will to address the crises driving the violence remains to be seen. For one, there appears to be no commitment bar the token to providing the armed forces, the paramilitary organisations and the State police the resources they desperately need. The contrast between Advani's dramatic proclamations and reality are only too evident.

More important, the task of building a political consensus against terrorism and communalism has been ignored. An evidently embarrassed BJP has retreated into a shell, with its State leadership blaming the National Conference Government for all the problems of the region. The Congress(I), for its part, has been demanding that Doda be declared a Disturbed Area, a demand it had resisted when the BJP put it forward in 1995. The N.C., which knows that in each year bar 1995, the Muslims of Doda have been numerically the principal victims of terrorists, has instead chosen to consort with chauvinist elements in the region.

It may well be possible to end the violence in Jammu province through armed force: but will the communal scars heal?

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