Blood on the Chenab

Print edition : April 11, 1998

The killing of four Muslims in Karara village in Doda district points to a "creeping communalisation" of the security forces and to the failure of the National Conference to confront Hindu communalism.

IT was almost dusk when Yoginder Kaul finally discovered the trail of blood, covered up with a thin layer of grit. It led past a Border Security Force (BSF) machine-gun post and the troops' barracks and on to the main road. The rocks on the way had dried blood, skin and hair on them. The trail ended on the banks of the Chenab, near a cremation ground. The Indian Police Service probationer was shaken to the core, but what he did not immediately realise the import of the evidence before him. Later it emerged that the blood was that of four men who were killed in a communal reprisal inspired by local politicians affiliated to a Hindu extremist organisation.

At 10.15 a.m. on March 19, the Doda Police had responded to a distress call from Karara village, along National Highway 1B from Doda to Kishtwar. The caller said that five Muslims had been killed by a Hindu mob and that their bodies had been thrown into the Chenab. The claim seemed improbable, for Karara was guarded not only by a platoon of the BSF's 75 Battalion, but also by a company of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), brought in for the Udhampur Lok Sabha election held a day earlier. But trouble could not be ruled out, for Karara was where Suresh Kumar, who was beaten to death by Muslim villagers at Panasa village for allegedly molesting a local girl on March 17, was to be cremated. The local unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party claimed that Suresh Kumar was a BJP worker, and his death in hospital the next day generated tension in the Doda-Kishtwar belt.

When an Assistant Sub-Inspector of Police reached Karara at 11.30 a.m., he found nothing amiss. A crowd proceeded with Suresh Kumar's cremation, but all else seemed peaceful. BSF officials whom the ASI spoke to insisted that there had been no trouble. The police officer reported his findings to the police headquarters at Doda. But the anonymous caller who had reported the incident phoned again, insisting that he was telling the truth. This time, Senior Superintendent of Police Farooq Khan drove down to Karara and ordered a search. Yet, until the dried blood was found in the evening, the personnel of neither the BSF nor the ITBP volunteered to explain just had happened. The trail of blood, which was found to begin near the ITBP Company Commander's forest hut, move down to the National Highway, and then split into two before ending on the river bank, remained unexplained. It was only the next morning, when villagers who stood by and watched the killings were questioned, that the truth began to emerge.

Suresh Kumar was, according to the police, a badmaash, the archetypal rural lumpen, with a history of minor crime and violent behaviour. For Hindu residents in Panasa, he was something of a hero, a defender of the faith against terrorists in particular and Muslims in general. It is unlikely that the beating he received on March 17 was intended to kill, for when he was moved to hospital that evening he showed few signs of life-threatening external injury.

The political deployment of the assault was prompt. Chaman Lal Gupta, BJP candidate from Udhampur who was widely tipped to become an MP, promptly let it be known that Suresh Kumar was to have acted as a polling agent for his party the next day. "The National Conference," he insists, "engineered the incident to intimidate our voters and ensure that they did not come out to the polling booths. The area's Hindu villagers evidently agreed, although there is no evidence that any of those who assaulted Suresh Kumar had any political links.

Suresh Kumar died in hospital of internal haemorrhage on March 18: the internal injuries were diagnosed too late for the limited medical facilities on offer to deal with. Under other circumstances, the cremation should have been heavily policed. "Our problem," says Farooq Khan, "was that all our people were busy with moving ballot boxes and securing their storage. We assumed that since there was a large presence of the BSF around the cremation site, nothing much could go wrong."

And so, on the morning of the cremation, people from several villages on the mountains above the highway began to make their way down to the cremation ground at Karara, located just 50 metres from the BSF barrack's last machine-gun post. There were no signs of a murder in the making. No speeches had been made, no calls for vengeance given. Yet the assumption of the police that all would remain peaceful, although reasonable, was soon to be proved wrong.

EIGHT Muslim villagers from Kothi Pain, three women and one old man, were unfortunate enough to choose that morning to make their way down to the highway using a bridle-path cut through the hillside. At Thalela village, they encountered mourners from nearby villages. Surrounded, the group of Muslims was abused and threatened. The women were told that they would be raped; the men were told to prepare themselves for death. A large group of villagers assembled near the BSF bunker on the heights above the road to witness the spectacle. As the eight Muslims were marched down towards the forest hut, beating began. It is possible that the mourners expected a prompt response from the BSF troopers, for they let the women go, and the beating was in the beginning hesitant. But the BSF did nothing. The crowd read this as a signal that it could do what it wished.

The aged Rahman Malik was the first target. Severely beaten and bleeding, he was pushed down the steep slope along the path into a rocky mountain stream. Amazingly, he survived the fall. Malik dragged himself across the stream and fled. Today he is a key witness to the sequence of events. From his position, he could see that the crowd had chosen not to follow him for it had turned its attention to the four young men. They were beaten with sticks and pelted with rocks until they reached the highway. There, Abdul Qayoom attempted to run to the safety of the ITBP camp to his left. One group of mourners followed him along the camp, and the beating continued. The path beside the camp ended abruptly; ahead lay a precipice facing the Chenab. Police sources said that Qayoom was still alive when he was thrown into the fast-flowing water. None in the ITBP intervened to end the violence.

The second group of mourners frog-marched Ghulam Qadir, Abdul Ghani and Ghulam Mustafa down the highway. They headed for the cremation ground, walking past the 75 Battalion's barracks, past a machine-gun post. Although the blood trail makes it clear that the beating must have continued through this stretch, there was again no intervention, not even a single warning shot. The last group of three was beaten to death next to the Chenab and, like Abdul Qayoom, thrown into its waters. The purpose of this last set of murders was to make clear that the killing was collective reprisal for Suresh Kumar's death. Suresh Kumar's body was cremated just a few metres from where the three were killed.

Its work done, the mob set about covering its tracks. The pools of blood that had formed were covered with grit from a stone-crushing unit. By 9.15 a.m., just half an hour after the beatings had begun, all was quiet again.

The killings provoked surprisingly little outrage and were not reported at all, at least not in the national media. The State police, however, promptly recorded a first information report and commenced an investigation. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah then weighed in, bluntly condemning the inaction of the BSF and the ITBP. "Unfortunately," he told Frontline, "there has been a creeping communalisation of a section of the security forces. I blame it squarely on politicians who have turned Hindus against Muslims and Muslims against Hindus." Abdullah ordered strict action against those involved, and 18 persons, including local activists of the RSS, were arrested. The BSF, for its part, has offered no meaningful explanation of its conduct, other than to offer the bizarre proposition that maintaining law and order is not its job.

Chaman Lal Gupta is wholly unrepentant. "What happened in Doda was wrong," he says, "but why investigate only this killing? Has anyone investigated the killings of dozens of Hindus and punished the guilty?"

The Hindu right-wing's obliteration of the distinction between killings by terrorists and during communal violence serves both its electoral and ideological interests in the Jammu region as a whole. Disturbingly, growing sections of the BSF, in particular, have come to see themselves as defenders not of citizens but of a religious community. Days after the January 1996 massacre of 15 Hindus at Barshalla, nine Muslims of a single family were killed in a BSF action ( Frontline, February 23, 1996). The BSF had evidently been led by members of a local Village Defence Committee (VDC), predominantly Hindu vigilante groups set up to help villagers defend themselves against terrorist attacks, into believing that two visitors to the Muslims' home were terrorists. They turned out, along with their seven relatives, to have been wholly innocent of this charge. On Id day this year, Army troops led by Subedar Major Shankar Singh opened indiscriminate fire on Muslim protesters at Qadrana village in Doda (Frontline, March 6, 1998), an action widely read as reprisal for the earlier massacre of Kashmiri Pandits at Wandhama in the Kashmir Valley (Frontline, February 20, 1998).

Successive massacres of Hindus, adroitly exploited by Hindutva forces, have helped harden the divide. More disturbingly, there are signs that communal fractures are deepening in the Rajouri-Poonch belt, as terrorists expand their operations in that region. In August 1997, Manzoor Hussain, a Gujjar Muslim schoolteacher posted at Sewari Buddal village, married a Hindu girl, Rita Kumari. The girl came from an impoverished home, and the two evidently married with the blessings of her mother. Hindu communal reaction was prompt. Tension built up and the couple were arrested at Reasi on the charge that the girl had been abducted. Released, they married again at a civil court in Jammu and returned home. This time, the authorities refused to intervene. Three dominant feudal Rajput Hindu families in the village stepped in to enforce tradition and punish the couple's rebellion. Rita Kumari was abducted and taken to a women's home in New Delhi. Both Hussain and his mother-in-law were severely beaten.

What happened next laid the foundation for resentments that continue to simmer. Hussain, according to police investigators, subsequently approached the Farid Khan group of the Hizbul Mujahideen for help. Vengeance was, indeed, prompt. Eight members of the three families who had organised Rita Kumari's abduction were killed. This, in turn, was used by local Hindu extremists to provoke a communal riot. "Some people ensured that the bodies were not cremated for 36 hours," says Rajouri Superintendent of Police Hemant Lohia, "and the large crowd that assembled for the cremations could have been easily provoked. We had to come down very hard to ensure that no further killings of innocent people took place."

Manzoor Hussain is now in jail, facing charges of conspiracy to murder. Rita Kumari remains in Delhi, in a home run by a Hindu religious group, unable to return because of the threat to her life.

"All this is happening because of these two-bit thugs for hire from Pakistan," says Rajouri MLA Chowdhury Mohammad Hussain bitterly. That is the truth, but only part of it. Hindu communalism in Doda and Rajouri-Poonch is driven by massacres carried out by Muslim terrorists but given form and shape by the activities of Hindu extremist organisations. The representation of Muslims as collective aggressors is central to the Hindu right's propaganda platform.

The National Conference has been reluctant to take on Hindu communalism head on. For some Kashmir Valley politicians, the persistence of Hindu commmunalism is convenient; it reinforces their status as spokespersons for Kashmiri Muslims and diverts attention from their developmental and administrative failures. Terrorist groups, the secessionist All-Party Hurriyat Conference and the Indian state too derive their legitimacy from the atrocities of their opponents. Communalism pays: a few dead bodies of unknown villagers in a forgotten region are no price at all for power.

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