The Nadimarg outrage

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

The failure of the police to prevent the March 23 killing of 24 Kashmiri Pandits in Nadimarg is part of a larger pattern of security force dysfunction in the State.

in Nadimarg

A SMALL stream runs quietly through Nadimarg. For as long as anyone can remember, Muslims in the village have lived on one side of the stream and Hindu Pandits on the other. Both communities joined together to celebrate festivals, weddings and funerals, in times of grief and joy. Pandits, however, never built homes across the stream. Neither did Muslims. Village myth, passed from generation to generation, has it that the few Muslims who made the short journey in the distant past suffered misfortunes and untimely death. The stream was shared by both communities - it nurtured them, and at once sundered them. Kashmir's rich secular traditions led Mahatma Gandhi to refer to it as "the source of light for this darkness-infested country". Yet, those traditions now seem fragile and frayed, a nostalgic memory unable to sustain itself in the face of the Kalashnikov.

Most of Nadimarg's Pandit community left the village in 1990, as part of the great exodus that began that February. Some, 80 Pandits were murdered in the build-up to the exodus, mainly in urban Kashmir. Some like Sher-e-Kashmir Medical Institute nurse Sarla Bhat, raped and then shot by Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front militants in April, were killed on suspicion of being police informers. Some who stayed on met a similar end, for no reason at all. Srinagar Medical College teacher G.K. Munju left the city for Jammu in March 1990 soon after his family received threats from terrorist groups. His elderly parents, who chose to stay on, were brutally knifed to death in July that year. By the summer of 1990, an estimated 58,000 families had moved to refugee camps in Jammu.

However, in Nadimarg the Pandit community faced no violence or threats. Nonetheless, afraid of what the future would bring, seven of its 11 extended families left in 1991. Some of those who left had some assets and relatives who could support them in Jammu.

Four extended families, comprising some 52 people, stayed on. "They loved their motherland," says Ghulam Rasool, a resident of a nearby village who knew many of the Nadimarg victims intimately. "Our neighbours begged us not to leave," says Pran Nath Bhat, who lost his mother, brother and a nephew in the massacre. "The pain of leaving now is as bad as that of losing those I loved." It is also possible, however, that unsentimental issues had a role in forcing their hand. The Pandit families in Nadimarg owned fertile lands and large fruit orchards, reputed to be among the best in the Pulwama area. Few people were willing to purchase their lands and fields at the market price, hoping as they were to use the Pandits' distress to knock down prices. Many of those who stayed on also had government jobs, and, given the support of their Muslim neighbours, may have seen no reason to sacrifice a relatively affluent life for a difficult existence in a refugee camp. Terrorists did regularly visit Nadimarg, but none posed any threat to the Pandit community until the night of March 23. Twenty-four members of the community, including 11 women and two children, were gunned down by militants that night.

None of the Pandits in the village now seem interested in staying on. Now guarded three to one by police and paramilitary personnel, most Pandits know that the security is illusory. None endorses schemes to rehabilitate them in secure urban areas in Kashmir, either. "All these policemen and politicians did nothing to save us in our time of need," says Chand Kumar Bhat, "and we know they will disappear once Nadimarg is no longer in the newspapers."

Most officials seem to accept the argument. "The fact is, we just do not have the personnel to guard small groups of Pandits," says a senior Jammu and Kashmir Police officer, "and the small pickets we are able to commit find it hard enough to look after themselves."

Official efforts to prevent survivors from leaving were mainly driven by the need to ensure that the ashes of the 24 victims of the massacre, who included two infants, were disposed of in Kashmir. The killings provoked massive protests through the Jammu province, and the prospect of urns containing the victims' ashes being paraded in the city fuelled fears of communal violence. Now that the last rites are complete, officials seem resigned to the prospect of the remaining Pandits leaving for good.

BURNED-OUT shells are all that remain of the homes of the Pandits of Wandhama, a three-hour drive from Nadimarg. In January 1998, a group of 12 terrorists killed all but one of Wandhama's 27 Pandit residents; the sole survivor, teenager Vinod Kumar, was moved to a military school in Nagrota and has never returned. The massacre was carried out on the night of Shab-e-Qadr, the holiest night of the month of Ramzan (Frontline, February 20, 1998). Eight years earlier, government employee Moti Lal had travelled to Jammu to see if Wandhama's Pandit community ought to move there. Put off by the tough living conditions in the refugee camps, he returned and decided to stay on. The Pandits of Wandhama returned home. "Both of Moti Lal's children were married in this village," says his friend Abdul Ahad Kaul.

Then, in 1997, the newly elected National Conference government began to outline plans for the return of Pandits from refugee camps in Jammu and New Delhi. But top Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Hamid Bhat, code-named Hamid Gada, was charged with making sure that the plan failed.

Hamid Bhat died at the hands of the Jammu and Kashmir Police in March 2000. His parents live in Tulmulla, home to the Pandit community's most sacred shrine. For generations, the Bhat family has worked at the shrine where the terrorist's father, Abdul Mohammad Bhat, served as a watchman. His mother, Habla Bhat, along with his uncle Farooq Ahmad, makes the clay lamps which light up the shrine. In 1992, two terrorists arrived in the village, determined to burn down the temple. Hamid Bhat, who had grown up spending time with the itinerant mystics who travelled through the town, acted immediately. He stole their rifles and promptly handed them over to a friend who passed them on to the Central Reserve Police Force. The temple had been saved, but the Bhat family was to pay a heavy price. Hamid Bhat and his mother were kidnapped. The family had to sell its land to pay a ransom of Rs.20,000. Habla Bhat was found naked, badly beaten and incoherent days later. She will not discuss just what happened.

For reasons no one in the family quite understands, Hamid Bhat chose to stay on with his captors. He was, perhaps, unable to face the humiliation of what had happened to his mother. Whatever the truth, the teenager who saved the Tulmulla temple went on to become one of the most feared leaders of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Before his eventual killing, he was charged with over a hundred murders, many of them of Pandits living in the Ganderbal area. On more than one occasion, he tried to persuade his family to sever their links with the temple, but they quietly continued to work there. Their son would often hand out cash to the local poor, for weddings and important festivals. His own family, however, never asked for anything; it refused aid even after its home was dynamited by the Army after a punitive raid in 1996. "Hamid himself never allowed anyone from Tulmulla to join his group, and no one from here became a Mujahid after him," recalls his uncle Farooq Ahmad. "Mein kharab ho gaya hoon," he would say, "I have fallen."

All but four of Tulmulla's 100-odd Pandit families left the village in the exodus of 1991, and its festival celebrations are today made possible by Muslim families who have tied their fate to the shrine for generations. One kind of religion drove Bhat to kill the Pandits of Wandhama, and another kind unites his family with those who died at their son's hands. After that massacre, the largest of Pandits before the Nadimarg incident, it was left to the Muslim residents to arrange the last rites of their friends. The survivor, Vinod Kumar, was too traumatised to play any role in the affair, and it would be at least a day before their relatives arrived from Jammu. "We called a priest from the Border Security Force to carry out the last rites," remembers Kaul, "and then gathered wood and oil for the funeral pyres."

At Nadimarg, Muslim neighbours comforted the victims, helping in the last rites of the dead without a trace of politically correct self-consciousness.

Hindu reactionaries who have sought to make political capital out of the Nadimarg killings ought to have learned some lessons from what they saw there - but have evidently chosen to ignore. The killings, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh in Jammu have claimed, were the outcome of the pro-terrorist policies of the People's Democratic Party-led coalition government. The principal evidence in support of this claim has been that the strength of the Nadimarg police picket was scaled down from 20 to nine. In fact, the decision was made in the run-up to last year's Assembly elections, under the National Conference, a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. One Jammu-based Pandit organisation even claimed that no post-mortem was carried out on the victims, an arrant piece of fiction.

For the Hindu Right, decimated in the recent elections, the massacres have provided an opportunity to find a renewed political voice. Hindu Mahasabha leaders in Himachal Pradesh sent packets of bangles and lipstick to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, while Shiv Sena activists blocked Jammu-bound trains at Kapurthala in Punjab.

At once, the PDP needs to ask itself some hard questions. Speaking in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly on March 25, Finance Minister Muzaffar Beig blamed the police for failing to defend the Nadimarg victims, and warned that further "lapses will not be tolerated".

Frontline found that the nine police officials at the Nadimarg picket were now being investigated for direct complicity in the crime. Two yet-to-be identified terrorists, the Jammu and Kashmir Police have found, had visited the picket regularly over the past six months, often stopping for a meal or staying the night. In recent times, they watched the India-Pakistan World Cup match at the picket, and also stayed there the Friday (March 21) before the killings. On the night of the killings itself, the two terrorists were joined by six others who actually carried out the killings. Constable Abdul Rashid was sent out unaccompanied to call the victims, claiming that the Army had arrived for a search-and-cordon operation. His failure to warn the victims, call for help or even merely escape into the night, has raised suspicion. Head Constable Ghulam Mohammad War had applied for leave on the morning of the killings. It was refused, and War was ordered back to the picket. He never reached there, and has since disappeared. Repeated raids on his Kupwara home have failed to locate him.

While it seems probable that the Nadimarg killings involved the active collusion of police personnel on duty there, the fact remains that their failure is part of a larger pattern of security force dysfunction for which Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed is directly responsible. Also, the failure of the PDP, the Congress(I), and for that matter the National Conference to organise any real mass mobilisation against the killings is a matter of concern. All the major parties joined in a protest strike on March 24, originally called by the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference to protest the war on Iraq. None saw it fit to hold any public rallies to condemn the killings. Nor has there been any meaningful action to assist the victims of terrorist violence. Five families that survived the 1997 massacre of seven Pandits at Sangrampora, the first of its kind, continue to live in homes in Badgam vacated by refugees who left in 1991. They have received no compensation for the homes they had to flee; nor do they have any security of tenure in their new homes since no rent is paid to their original owners. "Two Chief Ministers promised us help," says Ashok Kumar, who spent a year in hospital recovering from the bullet injuries he sustained in the massacre, "but neither has done anything for us".

Perhaps both Hindus and Muslims need to confront their recent history squarely. While popular religion and culture in Kashmir have bound together communities, this century has seen processes tearing apart these syncretic practices.

Like India's national movement, that of Kashmir too had a sometimes problematic communal character. The killings of protesters in Srinagar by the forces of Maharaja Hari Singh on July 1931, widely seen as the beginning of the State's freedom movement, was provoked by the desecration of a copy of the Koran by a policeman in Jammu. Properties of Pandits were attacked after shopkeepers refused to join a Muslim-led strike. While the National Conference often used mosques and religious motifs in its political mobilisations, Pandit leaders frequently allied themselves with Hindu fundamentalist causes to defend their near-monopoly of the bureaucracy and large landholdings.

After 10 years of terrorism, Kashmir's secular culture still survives - but the chasm between its Hindus and Muslims is growing. It will take more than platitudes about Kashmir's shared cultural heritage to address the problem. Real political action to defend secularism is needed, but leaders who could provide it are few and far between.

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