Twin massacres in Jammu

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

The massacres at Dudwar Nagni and Dhandali in Jammu have much to do with the communal polarisation in the region, fuelled by local conflicts that have turned ugly since the redeployment of Army personnel to the Line of Control.

GULSHAN smiles beatifically at visitors, but does not respond to greetings or requests that she tell her name. The five-year-old has not spoken since April 9, the night she watched a group of terrorists murder her mother, aunt and three cousins at their home in the village of Dudwar Nagni, near Gandoh in Doda district of Jammu. The child, injured in the firing along with her 10-year-old sister Fatima, lay among the bodies of the dead until the next morning, when neighbours gathered the courage to help. Now the sisters share a bed at the Jammu Medical College Hospital. In the next ward there are other children and their parents, Hindu victims of the April 7 massacre at the hamlet of Dhandali in Udhampur.

Both massacres came less than a week after Vishwa Hindu Parishad senior vice-president Giriraj Kishore claimed that terrorists were seeking to "terrorise the Hindus of Jammu". The tragic killings of April make it clear that both of the region's religious communities are victims of the Islamic Right's war in Jammu. Hours after the Dudwar Nagni killings, intelligence personnel listening in to a known Hizbul Mujahideen transmission frequency learned that the killings had been carried out "to show everyone what fate informers will meet". Gulshan's father, Ibrahim Gujjar, had been a long-time source of the local Central Intelligence Unit (CIU) of the Army. Late last year he was kidnapped from the house by a Hizbul Mujahideen unit, and was never heard of again.

It is facile, however, to suggest that the killings were the outcome solely of Ibrahim Gujjar being a CIU asset. Local factors also played an important role. In 1999, five Special Police Officers (SPOs) working with the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group (SOG) in Kishtwar defected to the Hizbul Mujahideen. One of these SPOs-turned-terrorists was killed, while two surrendered later. Mohammad Akhtar, one of these surrendered terrorists, began working for the SOG and was assigned a personal security officer. Akhtar spent his nights at the home of his father-in-law Ahmeda Gujjar, who had a long-running land dispute with Noor Din Gujjar, Gulshan's grandfather. Her mother Beeran believed that Ibrahim Gujjar's death had been engineered because of the land dispute. That same land dispute, investigators believe, could have been a motive for the killings.

Akhtar, now in custody, denies having had anything to do with the massacre, but police officers are sceptical. Several 7.62 mm self-loading rifle empties were found at the site of the killing. The weapon is police standard issue, and four such rifles were stolen by Akhtar's group when it first defected to the Hizbul Mujahideen. Beeran's continuing contact with the SOG, which provoked rumours that she was having an affair with one of its operatives, could have provided the Hizbul Mujahideen reason to cooperate with Akhtar. The proposition is borne out by the fact that the killers went to some length to hide their identities. "The first thing they did," recalls Fatima, "was to put out the fire in the hearth. They asked for the men of the house, and when we told them that my grandfather, father and uncle were not there, they started firing."

LOCAL issues may also have had a role in sparking the massacre at Dhandali. The hamlet is one of four that form the village of Dhansal, which lies in a bowl below the Lapri Dhar heights dividing Arnas from Gool. The region, scene of a major terrorist concentration in recent months, is the last Hindu-majority one north of the Chenab river. Terrorist groups, backing Pakistan's efforts to secure a second partition of Jammu and Kashmir by dividing the State along its ethnic-communal lines, have long sought to drive out Hindus from the area. But this issue explains only in part just what happened in the hamlet.

According to residents of the hamlet, between 15 and 20 terrorists surrounded it around 8 p.m., shouting abuses, threats and anti-India slogans. Shortly afterwards, witnesses claim, Shobha Ram (50) was called out of his home by Sadiq Gujjar, a local resident who had accompanied Lashkar-e-Toiba groups in the area for some time. Investigators later learned that another Dhansal resident, Ghulam Ali, was with the group. Shobha Ram was then stabbed. Meanwhile, Village Defence Committee (VDC) members who were holed up in a home at one corner of the village began an exchange of fire with the Lashkar-e-Toiba men. The exchange continued for almost three hours, until the 11 VDC members ran out of the 100 rounds of ammunition that had been issued to each of them. Slowly, the group evacuated its position, covering the escape of villagers from adjoining homes.

The Lashkar-e-Toiba cadre then began moving into the village, setting homes on fire and firing at those who tried to run. Among the first victims were Lal Daia (35) and her daughter Shrishto Devi (4). Her older daughter, Sushma Devi, was injured and later died in hospital. Ganapati Devi (40) was killed soon afterwards, along with her daughter Shindo (6). Purushottam Lal (14) and Shankar Das (55) were unable to escape. Nineteen homes were set on fire in the hamlet. Seven of these, interestingly, were of Muslims. The hamlet, investigators believe, may have been singled out because 35 residents, Hindus and Muslims, had signed up as SPOs to man a permanent defensive picket on the Lapri Dhar heights.

But the Dhansal area has also seen periodic communal friction, the result of fights between the mainly Hindu VDC members and their Muslim neighbours. The disputes are rarely expressly communal, and often centre on land and grazing rights. But the flow of arms into the villages, both to VDCs and through terrorist groups, has transformed the character of these struggles. The fact that Shobha Ram was first called out and then stabbed suggests that the Lashkar-e-Toiba unit, or its guides, had at least some personal dispute with the villager. While it is impossible to disarm vulnerable Hindu communities in the area, some means clearly needs to be found to ensure higher levels of discipline among VDC members, and to prevent their misuse to settle personal scores. If the Dhandali VDC had not been able to fight for three hours, it is possible that many more villagers might have been killed: but it is also possible that the outfit had at least some role in precipitating the tragic events of April 7.

ALTHOUGH such massacres are depressingly routine in Jammu, it is hard to miss the causal relationship between the Dhandali killings and larger developments in Jammu and Kashmir. The massive terrorist build-up around Mahore, Gool and Arnas, for example, is the direct consequence of troop withdrawals for forward deployment in January. The scale of the terrorist presence in the area is evident from the fact that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's helicopter was fired at with a medium machine gun from Lapri Dhar, three days after the killings. Villagers agreed to remain in the area only after the district administration ensured the rapid handing out of compensation and relief, and promised a full-time police picket. This will do little to address the larger issue of the growing terrorist presence in the area, for no one seems to have a clear idea how resources can be gathered for offensive operations along the Lapri Dhar mountains.

This is because most of the Army personnel are committed along the Line of Control. Until January, the 39 Mountain Division was responsible for counter-terrorist operations in the area. Now, however, the troops have been shifted to Reasi town, in reserve for a full-blown war. Border Security Force (BSF) personnel on Lapri, too, have been moved to secure road routes for war-time movements which seem unlikely to take place. The build-up has also ensured that additional troops, promised in the wake of a series of massacres last summer, have not been made available in Doda. The 5 Sikh Light Infantry, which pulled out of Gandoh last April, has not been replaced. The northern valley systems of Wadwan and Marwah are protected by just a single battalion. To the east of Mahore, the police district of Udhampur has just four BSF companies for counter-terrorist operations, with the Army restricting itself to the task of securing the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway.

While the presence of greater numbers of troops is not in itself a guarantee that no major massacres will take place, their absence has deepened local strains. Few observers have noted that much of the killing in rural Jammu has its origin in resource conflicts which have acquired an ethnic-communal character. Buffalo-owning Gujjar Muslim herdsmen, for example, frequently fight with the mainly Hindu shepherds over access to high-altitude meadows. Disputes between ethnic Kashmiri and Rajput Muslim farmers and Gujjars are also common. Such simmering conflict has been fuelled by the presence of terrorist groups. Another important factor is the struggle for power between new elites from these communities, born of wealth from government contracts or remittances from emigrant workers in West Asian countries, and the traditional Hindu trading class in Jammu.

In the coming months, the deepening of communal tensions seems certain. Traditionally Hindu-dominated areas in and around Jammu, such as Bani, Kathua, Bilawar and Nagrota, have seen an influx of Gujjar migrants in recent years. The migration has been fuelled both by the high prices of milk in urban and semi-urban areas and pressure on the community from terrorists. Hundreds of Gujjars have been killed by terrorists over the last decade, often the result of land feuds of the kind that led to the massacre at Gandoh. But the Gujjar influx, in turn, has fuelled communal insecurities in Jammu. Intelligence officials are also disturbed by the coming up of Gujjar hamlets in the area between the Line of Control and the Jammu-Pathankot highway, particularly along infiltration routes on the Basantar, Bein, and Ujh rivers. Terrorist movement in this area has accelerated sharply over the last two years, and is believed to have been enabled at least in part by the use of guides and harbourers recruited from amongst new migrants.

No easy answers exist to address this welter of problems. But if effective counter-terrorist resources are not deployed to limit violence in Jammu, the region's complex ethnic-communal mosaic will most certainly disintegrate - with tragic consequences.

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