Chapnari's terror

Print edition : July 04, 1998

The latest massacre in Doda points once again to a planned bid to transform Kashmir's insurgency into a Hindu-Muslim communal confrontation, a prospect with all-India political consequences.

The man with the long beard opened fire first, and I fell down. Many people fell on top of me. I lay there for a long time, until I was sure they had gone. When I got up, I saw that all the people who had died were lying down, asleep. Only a few woke up.

- 14-year-old Pishori Lal, survivor of the June 19 Chapnari massacre.

CHAPNARI is situated 10 km from Doda, along the poorly maintained and winding mountain road to Bhagwa. Ever since Bhagwa was cut off following a landslip early this year, Chapnari has been the last stop for the occasional bus service from Doda. The more affluent passengers wishing to travel in comfort paid Rs. 15 for a seat on a van owned by an enterprising Doda resident, Vijay Shah. Two tea-stalls met the needs of passengers.

But after 25 members of a marriage procession were butchered there by terrorists on June 19, both the tea shops have been abandoned. Shah's van, hijacked by terrorists to carry out their attack and then escape, has also stopped plying on the route. Pools of dried blood on the road was yet to merge with the dust. Each conversation with a stranger begins with a cautious negotiation of his or her religious identity, and few people will pause to talk for long. The stop on the road has become a metaphor for Doda.

Its status as an icon might account for Chapnari's elevation to one of the most important shrines of pilgrimage for media-savvy politicians now. After Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, along with high officials from New Delhi and Srinagar, flew into Doda in three helicopters, he was driven down the road to Chapnari in a 24-vehicle convoy. Thousands of police and security force personnel had been deployed to sanitise the route to Chapnari, and from there to Advani's public meeting venue at Prem Nagar. The process included three inch-by-inch deep-search mine detection sweeps.

No one will say what the VIP visit cost, but its ironies were evident. Advani was informed that there was no money available for the Village Defence Committees (VDCs), local self-protection groups armed with obsolete .303 Lee Enfield rifles. Some of these rifles were so worn out that they had been locally re-bored to use 7.62 mm cartridges. Special Police Officers (SPOs) hired for counter-terrorist work received just Rs. 1,500 a month to risk their lives; from this money they had to pay for food and uniforms. Long-standing demands for troop and police strength upgradation, and for new weapons, vehicles and communications systems, had been forced on ice for want of money.

The bodies of the victims of the massacre at an army camp at Doda on June 20.-AIJAZ RAHI/AP

WHAT actually happened at Chapnari? The accounts of the shattered survivors from Chapnari are, unsurprisingly, clear only in their broad contours, and the physical descriptions of the terrorists and their weapons vary considerably in detail. Early on the morning of June 19, Om Prakash's wedding procession set out from Kadlal village to Korda, near Prem Nagar, where his bride Bimla Devi waited. Two sets of newly-weds were with the procession. Khem Raj, Bimla Devi's brother, had married Om Prakash's sister Leela Devi at Kadlal a day earlier, and was taking his wife back with him in the traditional doli (palanquin). Sesh Ram, Om Prakash and Leela Devi's brother, and Dugdi Devi whom he had married three days before, also tagged along. The procession was to have been met by a hired bus at Chapnari, from where they were to drive to Prem Nagar, the roadhead to Kadlal. All the families were marginal single-crop maize farmers. The new grooms were wearing plastic slippers, and the procession's sole concession to wedding ostentation was a small village band.

The procession reached Chapnari at 12-30 p.m. For reasons that are not clear, the hired bus had not arrived, and the group was forced to wait. Most of the men made their way to the two tea-stalls, while the two women waited some distance away along with the doli. The only other people at the bus stand were three schoolteachers, two Muslim and one Hindu, as well as the tea-stall employees. Three people on a pilgrimage to the shrine at Vaishno Devi, who had travelled with the wedding party up to Chapnari, negotiated with the driver of Shah's van for a ride to Doda, but were put off by the price he demanded. The van left, only to return a few minutes later. "We only saw it when it took the sharp bend after the tea-stalls," recalls survivor Janak Raj, "and five armed men got out."

The body of a bridegroom being carried away by volunteers for cremation from the district police headquarters in Doda.-AIJAZ RAHI/AP

"There was no time to run. They asked all the baraatis (participants in the wedding procession) to gather on one side and throw their money, identity cards and other possessions on the ground. They then asked the VDC members to step aside, but though I was one, I did not do so. At that time, we thought they would rob us, perhaps beat us, and then let us go."

The women at the doli sensed more serious trouble. Leela Devi has not spoken more than a few words since the killing, but Dugdi Devi told Frontline about the events at the doli. "One man," she said, "who looked like a local, came up and asked us to throw our jewellery on the ground. Then he told us that after they had killed the men they would kill us too. He walked away towards the baraatis, and we readied ourselves to run downhill." Seconds later, gunfire rang out. "A man with a long beard opened fire first," says 14-year-old Pishori Lal, who was drafted in as a band member because one of the regular dhol-drum players had fallen ill. "The gunfire continued for a long time, or at least it seemed like that. They gave no warning before shooting." The women fled downhill, where they remained until they heard police vehicles and Army trucks arriving at Chapnari half an hour later. Most of the survivors had by that time begun to make their way to the Army camp at Bhagwa, taking theinjured with them.

Inside the tea-stall in Chapnari, where members of a wedding party were gunned down by militants.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Some speculation has linked the Chapnari killings to the murder of four Muslims at Karara on March 19 by a group of Hindu villagers, with the connivance of a Border Security Force (BSF) picket ('Blood on the Chenab'', Frontline, April 24). This theory appears implausible for the simple reason that none from Kadlal village were involved in the Karara killings, located some distance away from the roadhead on the opposite side of the river.

Another possible cause is that the VDC in Korda was engaged in exchange of fire with terrorists for three weeks before the Chapnari massacre. One VDC member in adjoining Banol, Paras Ram, was murdered along with his wife Sabhawati Devi. Frustrated by their inability to eliminate resistance at Korda, this theory suggests, the terrorists extracted vengeance at Chapnari. This version of events, however, does not explain why Khem Raj and others travelling with them from Korda were not ambushed on their way to Kadlal.

The most plausible explanation is that the terrorists were simply looking to carry out a communal massacre, and found a soft target. From the van driver's account it is clear that the terrorists made their way down to the road through the Bijarni nallah 2 km from Chapnari. The bend on the road before the terminus ensured that they remained unseen until the last moment, and the arrival of the van saved them the trouble of walking the distance. However, given the fact that three Army camps surround the area, and patrols are frequent, it is unlikely that the terrorists would have waited for more than a day in the area. This suggests that the group had at least some advance information of the baraat's travel plans.

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani at Prem Nagar where he addressed a public meeting.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

In this context, investigators are interested in the testimony of Deep Singh, the band leader. For example, Deep Singh told Frontline that he had seen two men open fire in succession, a somewhat improbable display of courage. Local people claim that the band leader had previously been arrested by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) for aiding terrorists, a charge that he denies.

Brides Leela Devi(left) and Dugdi Devi(right), who lost their husbands in the massacre, with Shanti Devi.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THEN what were the terrorists' motives? Despite Advani's claims that the killings were intended to effect ethnic cleansing, it is unlikely that even the most mindless terrorist would believe that this incident would bring about what the six previous massacres in the region since 1993 have failed to do. Indeed, classified information available with Frontline shows that in each year except in 1995, more Muslims have been killed than Hindus, this year's current post-Chapnari status being a temporary phenomenon (see table). These facts have not prevented some security personnel from seeing themselves as protectors of Hindus alone. (However, since 1993 seven massacres have taken place in Doda district including the Chapnari massacre of June 19. Sixteen bus passengers were killed at Kishtwar on August 14, 1993. In 1996, 15 villagers were massacred at Barshalla on the night of January 5/6; nine people were killed at Kamlari on the night of June 8/9; and 13 were killed at Sarodhar on July 25. In 1997, six members of a village defence committee were killed at Kud Dhar on the night of October 14/15. Two massacres have taken place this year. The first one was on the night of April 5/6. The other one was the Chapnari massacre. In all these incidents, Hindus were the victims.)

On January 30, Id day, 10 unarmed Muslim villagers were shot dead by an Army patrol at Qadrana village in Doda's Kishtwar tehsil, the worst single massacre of its kind since the Bijbehara killings in 1995. And increasingly, Hindu-dominated VDCs are being hijacked by communal tendencies. On June 23, in the latest of a string of such incidents, VDC members at Chilad village beat to death two Muslims and set fire to dozens of homes in reprisal for Hindu homes having been burned down by terrorists a day earlier.

On the contrary, massacres are an enterprise that the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party members, ably aided by their new backer, the National Conference, are complicit in - considering their own role in communalising Doda. At the Prem Nagar public meeting that followed Advani's visit to Chapnari, Jammu BJP 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 Advani to "save Hindus". BJP youth wing leader Anil Parihar justified such rhetoric while speaking to Frontline, claiming that local MLA Khalid Suhrawardy had called for the elimination of "10 Hindus for each Muslim killed at Karara." This is not the truth, but that call was indeed made by Jamaat-e-Islami workers chanting slogans at a post-Karara protest in Doda. Suhrawardy, evidently motivated by the desire to keep his communal credentials intact, chose to share a platform at that meeting with the Jamaat-e-Islami's Sayyidullah Tantrey. Given his party's implacable historic opposition to the Jamaat in Kashmir, this action can only be described as wholly immoral.

BJP-RSS theories have it that the rise of violence in Doda has to do with the withdrawal of Army troops from the region. Deployment data prepared for Advani show that the Army's current strength of nine battalions is higher than its pre-1996 levels, and down by just two battalions from the election period in 1996-1997. More precipitate reductions have come in other forces. The personnel levels of the Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police have fallen from one battalion in August 1995 to two companies today. All six BSF battalions present in 1996, as well as 10 CRPF companies deployed last year, were pulled out.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that Doda's security problems are the outcome not just of reduced numbers, but of operational failures as well. The Chapnari belt, for example, was protected by three Army outposts in a 1.5 km triangle. None responded to the fire by launching search operations, a fact for which there has been no official explanation. One villager who spoke to Advani at Chapnari attributed this to incompetence. He said that the Rashtriya Rifles troopers who replaced Gurkha Rifles personnel this year were simply unfit for the demands of Doda's high-altitude jungle war.

But the most serious problems of all are political. The massacres in Doda since 1993 have had two principal objectives. The first has been to underline the presence and power of the terrorists, despite their inability to hit military and political targets in a significant way. The second, and more important, one has been to transform Kashmir's insurgency into a Hindu-Muslim communal confrontation, a prospect which has all-India political consequences. Troops will do little to prevent this objective from transforming itself into a reality.

Among those who survived Chapnari were the three primary school teachers. The two Muslims among them, not identified for security reasons, successfully begged the terrorists at Chapnari for the life of their Hindu colleague, Raj Bishan, refusing to leave without him. Politicians like the BJP's Kotwal or the National Conference's Suhrawardy seem intent on sabotaging this kind of unity.

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