Massacres and mischief

Print edition : May 23, 1998

A SERIES of massacres and riots in Poonch and Doda districts threaten to rip apart the Jammu region's fragile communal peace. The latest bout of violence came on May 6, when terrorists murdered at least 10 persons in separate incidents at Deesa in Doda district and Surankot in Poonch district. The Surankot killings sparked off protests and gun battles between the protesters and the police; they also led to an orgy of arson.

The killings came 18 days after 28 members of four families were butchered by the Lashkar-e-Toiba group at Prankote in Udhampur district. With thousands of Hindu families having left their homes in high-altitude villages, the Bharatiya Janata Party is attempting to capitalise on the growing communal tension by demanding that the Doda-Udhampur belt be declared a disturbed area and handed over to the Army.

The Deesa killings had their background in a gunbattle between members of a village defence committee (VDC) and terrorists at Manchar village on May 5. Four members of the VDC, which is a volunteer militia group formed with the assistance of the State police, died in the shootout, in which several terrorists are believed to have been injured. The VDC members' bodies were removed to Doda town for post-mortem, before being handed over to the families the next day. A large group of mourners took the bodies back to their village late on May 6, against the advice of a police picket at Deesa. In the end, a group of Special Operations Group (SOG) personnel and police officials accompanied the mourners to their village. On the way, terrorists ambushed the procession. In the first moments of the ambush, three SOG troopers and two persons in the crowd were killed. The SOG returned fire, and a full-scale encounter began.

By early next morning, the small group of policemen was running out of ammunition. Desperate messages led senior police officials to ask the Air Force to use helicopters to ferry reinforcements to Deesa, which is several hours' walk from the nearest roadhead. Although the helicopters landed at Doda, reliable sources told Frontline that their pilots refused to fly to Deesa until that area was sanitised. This classic instance of an appalling lack of coordination in military activities in Jammu and Kashmir could have had serious consequences for the small SOG group at Deesa as well as the civilians it was protecting. Fortunately, a back-up SOG unit from Doda and an Army column had begun an eight-hour night march after hearing about the encounter and arrived just in time to prevent a wholesale carnage. Three terrorists were learned to have been shot dead in the encounter, although forces combing the area had not recovered their bodies at the time of writing.

THE massacre in Surankot was as cold-blooded as that at Deesa. Terrorists attacked the home of a retired forest officer, Rattan Lal, injuring him and killing three others. Those shot at point-blank range included an eight-year-old domestic worker employed at Rattan Lal's home, Deepak Kumar. The provocation for the attack was not evident, but Kiran Bala, the wife of one victim, Nirdosh Kumar, said that the family had only recently moved to the town because of threats made against them at Fazlabad where Rattan Lal had been posted earlier. Whatever the truth, the killings were promptly deployed by Hindu right-wingers in Poonch as an excuse to attack government buildings, and the outbreak of arson forced the imposition of curfew.

The cremation of the victims on May 7 passed off peacefully, with a large number of local Muslims in attendance to express solidarity with the victims. Although curfew had been imposed in anticipation of trouble, the peace in Surankot held.

Similar good sense did not prevail in Poonch. Even as BJP member of Parliament Chaman Lal Gupta and party leader D.K. Kotwal described the killings as part of a programme of ethnic cleansing, Poonch erupted again. On May 8, a huge mob gathered during a brief curfew relaxation and attacked police officials. Two constables were injured when a member of the mob opened fire with a 12-bore shotgun. Another constable, Pritam Das, was abducted by the crowd. Government buildings, including those of the Agriculture and Handicrafts Departments, and the homes of officials, were burnt. In the end the police returned fire, killing one protester. The Army was called out to put down the unrest. It seems that the riot was an organised event, coming as it did after claims by local BJP activists that the State police were biased against Hindus and not serious about combating insurgency.

Using the killings to play communal politics will have serious consequences for the region. For one, while the attacks on the State police help the Hindu right-wing discredit the National Conference, such communal slander is grossly irresponsible. At a time when the Jammu and Kashmir Police is slowly emerging into an effective fighting force, the BJP's polemic will only serve to undermine its morale. More important, terrorists are targeting Hindus not out of some mindless programme of ethnic cleansing, but to provoke communal trouble. Interestingly, Muslims have been the target of similar incidents.

On March 4, for example, Mohammad Bashir, his wife and two children were slaughtered at Mendhar, near Poonch. Their murder did not appal the conscience of the local BJP MP, Vaid Vishno Dutt, in the way the Surankot killings did. Just a day before the Surankot killings, Samshada, the teenage daughter of Ramzan Khan, was kidnapped from her Hali-Maidan home near Banihal and later beheaded by terrorists. By encouraging mob violence and communal tension, the BJP is acting as the Islamic fundamentalists' best friend.

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