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Turning the snow red

Print edition : Aug 19, 2000 T+T-
PRAVEEN SWAMI

ON the morning of August 4, Alamgari bazaar, Srinagar's largest labour mandi (market), was packed with the desperate poor of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Just two days after the worst communal carnage, which claimed almost a 100 lives, migran t workers to relatively affluent Jammu and Kashmir had gathered hoping labour contractors would pick them up for a day's work. No policemen was present at the bazaar, and no Border Security Force (BSF) pickets protected the crowd from assault. "I can't a fford to be scared. If I leave here now, I'll starve," said Sant Ram of Bilaspur in Madhya Pradesh.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and a delegation of parliamentarians flew to Pahalgam on August 3 to express their sympathies to the families of 22 Amarnath pilgrims who were killed by the insurgents on August 1. But no politician found time to visit the migrant workers who were gunned down the following day. No demands were made that the vulnerable migrants and isolated village communities receive more protection from the State. The massacres of August 1 and 2 have made transparent, yet again, the barbaric ideological positions of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other far-Right terrorist groups operating in the State. But they have also brought to the surface other kinds of narratives set in place by such massacres: of class, power and communal politics.

Given the scale and precision of the mass killings of August 1, there was little sign that such violence was imminent. Army Signals intelligence picked up no intercepts of the kind that preceded the massacres of February 19 last year, on the eve of Vajpa yee's bus journey to Pakistan. The sole meaningful interception, from Lashkar-e-Taiba control to units in the Kashmir Valley on July 30, only asked cadre to prepare a series of new 'fidayeen' suicide attacks. Nor did State intelligence have any in puts bar the general stream of reports warning of escalating violence in the wake of the Hizbul Mujahideen's ceasefire offer. Intelligence Bureau (I.B.)Reports were sent out in mid-July, warning of lax security in Pahalgam and the movement of five Lashka r cadre in Aroo, above Pahalgam, but not of generalised carnage.

Pahalgam heard the first shots of the night at 6-45 p.m. Several pilgrims were making their way across a small wooden bridge on the Lidder, near a row of tents where religious organisations served meals. Two Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists had mingled with th e crowd coming across the bridge from the bazaar, and opened fire on the crowd. As people dived for cover, the personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) opened fire in the general direction of the shots. There is little doubt that at least som e of the fire was misdirected, for the bullets ended up as far away as the meal tents. Allegations that the CRPF went berserk have surfaced, and Pahalgam claim at least four persons were later killed in cold blood.

South of Pahalgam, the carnage proceeded apace. At Yumo village, near Acchabal in Anantnag, migrant workers from Bilaspur had just gone to sleep when three Urdu-speaking men knocked on their doors. Their truck, the men said, had broken down, and needed s ome pushing to get it going. The workers obliged. Nine of them died when they made it to the road. Then, at 10 p.m. 19 workers were butchered in near-identical style, at Qazigund, an hour's drive away. Here, suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba personnel, wearing c amouflage fatigues, called the brick kiln workers out, again claiming their truck had broken down. It is still unclear whether the same Lashkar unit was involved in both attacks.

Doda, the scene of many communal massacres in the past, was the Lashkar-e-Taiba's second major target. Twin groups attacked Kunda Pogal at 9-30 p.m., killing nine men in the hamlet. From there, the group split up, and attacked Kharwan and Hasraj. Four me n were butchered in each village. Finally, members of the Village Defence Committee (VDC) at Keyar in the Dachan area of Doda were attacked. Eight members of the VDC, self-defence organisations set up to protect isolated hamlets from such assaults, were killed in the course of fire. Muslims fighting against terrorism were not spared either. An hour-and-half before the Keyar killings, the entire family of Mushtaq Ahmed Ganai, a member of a counter-terrorist militia, was killed in Kalaroos in Kupwara.

It is true, but not particularly enlightening, to point out that the killings were designed to sabotage the peace talks between the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Centre. The attacks succeeded not only in disrupting the negotiations, but also in deepening com munal fissures across the State and the rest of India. Even as riots spread through Surat, alienating ordinary Muslims who had no sympathy for the attacks, Jammu city had to be placed under curfew to prevent mobs from turning violent. Promptly afterwards , the town of Ranbir Singh Pora had to be shut down by the police when a cow's head was found outside a temple. Sadly, few Hindu politicians in Jammu were able to take a clear-cut stand against communalism, rather than just Islamic revanchism.

National and state politicians did little better. Neither Vajpayee nor the other politicians who accompanied him to Pahalgam for example, visited Ganai's family, who were just as much the victims of Right-wing terror as the pilgrims killed on August 1. N one saw fit, either, to spend time with the survivors of the massacres in Doda and at the brick kilns of Anantnag. If the bodies of the Pahalgam victims were, as they were entitled, flown back to their homes, the migrant workers had to cremate their dead where they fell. Although this is the third major massacre of migrant workers, the first having taken place near Srinagar in 1996 and the second at Sandu near Anantnag, there is no institutional support structure in place. Migrant workers, unlike Jammu and Kashmir residents killed or injured in terrorist acts, are not entitled to employment compensation; they just get cash relief.

Nor have Congress(I)-led demands for an inquiry into the Pahalgam killings been constructive. That the CRPF did respond in panic, its fire killing perhaps a quarter of the pilgrims who died at the site and all of the 11 Muslim dead, is not surprising. Se venteen empty Kalashnikov magazines, each capable of firing up to 30 rounds, were recovered from the two terrorists killed in the exchange. What has escaped notice is that the problems in the area are an outcome of poor management, in turn the result of Hindu chauvinist pressure. The State government's efforts to regulate numbers in Pahalgam have been criticised as communal, making effective crowd control near-impossible. Hindu communal groups active in the Amarnath yatra, in turn, attacked the State po lice as somehow anti-national. This chaotic, communally-charged atmosphere does little for efficient policing.

Sadly, political point scoring and the making of communal capital from death is not new in the State's politics. At an all-Hindu public meeting in Premnagar, held to protest the July 19, 1998 killings at Chapnari in Doda, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 's Jammu chief, D.K. Kotwal, claimed that the killings were intended "to drive out patriots from Doda". What he meant by "patriots" was left in no doubt, since banners at the meeting called on Home Minister L.K. Advani to "save the Hindus". National Conf erence (N.C.) member of the Legislative Assembly, Khalid Suhrawardy, evidently motivated by the desire to keep his communal credentials intact, chose to share a platform at an earlier meeting with the Jamaat-e-Islami's Sayyidullah Tantrey. Then, as now, the predominantly Muslim Jammu and Kashmir Police has been made a target in the communal game.

THE massacres should surprise nobody, for the Lashkar-E-Taiba has traditionally used such violence to sabotage peace initiatives. Seven people were killed at Bal Jalaran in Rajouri on the eve of Vajpayee's visit to Lahore in February 1999, through the Wa gah border, in the first of three communal massacres that night. Another family of four was killed at the Mohra Fata hamlet of Khorbani, which like Bal Jalaran is a remote village in Rajouri district. Nine members of a family, three of them infants, were killed the same night at Barhyana in neighbouring Udhampur district. Signals intelligence personnel listening in on frequencies used by the Lashkar-e-Taiba heard controllers telling field units to "turn the snow red". The hamlets, which dot the hills of the Jammu province, are almost impossible to defend in strength.

In the wake of the Pokhran II nuclear tests in 1998, the Lashkar-e-Taiba used communal killings with good effect to signal the group's determination to use the new de facto parity between India and Pakistan to escalate violence. On July 27 that ye ar, 17 villagers were lined up and shot dead at Sarwan and Thakrain Hor villages in Kishtwar, Doda. Jewellery and cash were looted from the dead. The same group murdered 26 construction workers and injured 11 persons on August 3, 1998, at Kalaban, some 1 0 km across the State border into Himachal Pradesh's Chamba area. Again, the victims' tents were systematically searched for cash, valuables and gelignite sticks and detonators used for road building.

Finally, on March 20 this year, 35 Sikh men were shot dead at Chattisinghpora near Anantnag, in a massacre designed to draw attention to the kashmir issue during United States President Bill Clinton's visit to India. Mohammad Yakub Wagray, a minor Hizbul Mujahideen operative, who guided the Lashkar-e-Taiba hit squad to Chattisinghpora, told the State police that the killings had been carried out on instructions to generate as much violence as possible during Clinton's visit. On the night of the killings , Wagray said, he had travelled with the Lashkar-e-Taiba's Anantnag area commander, a Pakistani national code-named Abu Maaz. Maaz was accompanied by Lashkar members whom Wagray knew by their code-names, Shahid, Babar, Tipu Khan and Maqsood. Five Kashmir i Hizbul Mujahideen members, led by Saifullah, possibly the codename for local operative Ghulam Rasool Wani, also came along.

Each communal massacre in the State has been met by Hindu communal mobilisation. Critics have pointed out that both the Hindu and Islamic Right feed off communal massacres. As mass killings provoke migrations, Hindus and Muslims tend to consolidate into ethnic ghettos, a development that obviously serves communal politicians well. Each backlash against the massacres, in turn, deepens the fissures between communities. For the first time in the State's troubled decade of violence, however, the Hindu Right has chosen fields outside the State to launch collective reprisals against Muslims for the crimes of terrorists they have no sympathy for, and even less to do with. Tragically, few mainstream political organisations have chosen to respond to the communa l onslaught.