Terror on the mountains

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

On the politics and practice of massacres in the Jammu region in the wake of the killings in Doda and Udhampur districts.


FOR the most part, the war in the high mountains of Jammu and Kashmir remains invisible. Strung along the banks of the Tawi river in Jammu, if one cares to look, are the makeshift homes of the hundreds of people, Hindu and Muslim, who have fled the Islamist assault that has torn apart communities on the Pir Panjal range. Their stories, though, rarely figure outside of the antiseptic press releases issued by the Jammu and Kashmir Police each evening.

Until, that is, there is a large enough massacre.

Last month, the invisible war once again made its way on to newspaper headlines when 32 Hindu villagers were killed in two separate communal terror strikes in the districts of Doda and Udhampur, northeast of Jammu. Nineteen residents of the mountain hamlets of Kulhand and Tharwa, including an eight-year-old girl, were shot dead outside their homes late on the night of April 30. Also, 13 shepherds were shot dead north of the Lalon Galla, a high-altitude meadow above the town of Basantgarh.

Witnesses say that a group of six terrorists arrived in Kulhand and Tharwa at around 11 p.m. and ordered men from some 40 adjacent buildings to gather at the home of Gopi Chand, the village headman. Once there, the victims were made to form a queue; the terrorists then fired at them with assault rifles at point-blank range until their ammunition was exhausted. Ten people were seriously injured, and survived only because the bodies of others had fallen over them.

Hours before the killing began in Kulhand and Tharwa, another terrorist unit kidnapped two shepherds near Lalon Galla. Mohammad Siraj-ud-Din and his son Rukun-ud-Din were ordered to guide the terrorists to a nearby dhok, or meadow, on which Hindu herdsmen from Basantgarh had set up camp for the summer. Once there, the terrorists marched the 13 men they could find into the forests. Four of the victims were shot near the meadow where they were kidnapped, and the rest, a short distance away.

Neither set of villagers was expecting trouble. Kulhand residents, like many Hindus in Doda, had for long maintained a quiet peace with terrorists operating in the area. When Village Defence Committees (VDCs) were set up in the area after a series of massacres in 1998-1999, local residents refused weapons and training. A police post was set up in the village four years ago, but removed after villagers insisted that its presence was more likely to provoke terrorist retaliation than protect them from harm.

On the night of the massacre, few Kulhand residents anticipated trouble. The men who were marched out of their homes thought the terrorists needed help hauling supplies up the mountains, a task for which they had used villagers at regular intervals. Many could have escaped into the darkness - but saw no reason to do so. The shepherds at Lalon Galla, too, marched willingly into the jungles with the terrorists, perhaps thinking that their labour was needed to build a hideout or bury weapons and ammunition.

What evidence is available so far suggests that the killings were the work of the Lashkar-e-Taiba - the Pakistan-based terrorist group responsible for 16 similar massacres in Jammu and Kashmir since 1993, in which at least 150 civilians have been killed. Notably, Siraj-ud-Din and Rukun-ud-Din identified one of the terrorists who carried out the Lalon Galla killings as Aijaz Ahmad, a long-standing Lashkar operative who hails from Raichak village near Basantgarh.

Intelligence sources told Frontline that they believed both massacres were executed on the orders of `Abu Talha', the Doda-area `divisional commander' of the Lashkar, who is so far identified only by his nom de guerre. Believed to be a Pakistani national, `Abu Talha' narrowly escaped a May 5 encounter which claimed the life of his lieutenant, `Abu Akasha'. The same day, police and Army personnel also made fire-contact with the terrorist group, thought to be responsible for the Udhampur killings, but without success.

What motives might the terrorists who executed the massacres have had? Some are obvious. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was scheduled to meet the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) chairman, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, less than 48 hours after the killings. The Prime Minister was also to hold a round-table conference in Srinagar involving all major political parties later this month. Jehadi organisations, who do not wish to join in the dialogue process, have no interest in its perpetuation.

Terrorist groups, have long used death as an instrument to derail efforts towards dtente. In August 2000, a month after the pro-dialogue Hizb ul-Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar declared a unilateral ceasefire, cadre from his organisation and the Lashkar carried out a series of communal massacres in an effort to sabotage the movement towards peace. In less than 48 hours, starting with the massacre of 30 pilgrims near the shrine of Amarnath, six strikes were carried out in the districts of Anantnag, Doda and Kupwara.

However, communal massacres long predate peace efforts in Jammu and Kashmir. After targeting prominent members of the State's Pandit minority for assassination and intimidation in the first phase of jehadi violence, terrorists began executing large-scale killings from August 1993, when 13 Hindus were massacred at Sarthal, in Doda. Three years later, 16 Hindus were again executed in the Doda village of Barshalla. Local feuds over grazing rights often facilitated the violence.

From 1998, communal massacres gathered momentum and scale. In 1998, 132 civilians died in six massacres across the State and in adjoining Himachal Pradesh. After a lull in 1999, the massacres resumed in 2000. In 2001, 108 people were killed in 11 major incidents, while 83 people were killed in five incidents in 2002. Most of these killings targeted poor communities in the State's more remote mountain regions: the groom whose wedding procession was targeted in Chapnari did not even possess sandals.

Although the scale of communal terror strikes has diminished since 2002 - a fact Bharatiya Janata Party president Rajnath Singh omitted to mention when he called for the imposition of Governor's rule after the killings - periodic attacks continue. Just in October last year, a unit of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen-Pir Panjal Regiment targeted two hamlets in Rajouri's Budhal area for such attacks. While women in the village were ordered to prepare food for the terrorists, eleven Hindu men aged between 18 and 57 had their throats slit one by one.

One motivation for this gruesome campaign has been to bring about large-scale migrations of Hindus from Muslim-majority areas north of the Chenab river. Jehadi groups hope that mass killings, and retaliatory communal terrorism directed at Hindus, would help realise a sundering of Jammu and Kashmir along ethno-religious lines. As such, communal massacres are an instrument to replicate the communal logic on which the Partition of India was based - Pakistan's long-standing aspiration.

Partition-based ideas have emanated, in recent years, from the United States-based Kashmir Study Group and Pakistan's back-channel negotiator during the Kargil war, Niaz Naik. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's recent calls for a division of Jammu and Kashmir into seven separate provinces, although couched in language based on geography rather than religion, would have much the same effect if implemented. Mirwaiz Farooq, interestingly, presented all these ideas to the Prime Minister during their meeting.

Notably, Muslim villagers opposed to Islamist terror groups have also faced savage assault. In 2001, for example, 15 Muslim villagers, including seven children, were executed at the village of Kot Charwal, in Rajouri, for having set up a self-defence group to keep Islamist terrorists out of the area. Muslim VDC members and others hostile to the jehad have regularly been targeted since. In January, for example Rashid Begum and two members of her family were killed in Arnas for campaigning against the Hizb.

Despite the high media impact of communal killings of Hindus, internal Union Home Ministry data exclusively obtained by Frontline makes clear that Muslims are the principal victims of the jehad that Islamist groups are fighting in their name. Last year, for example, just 54 of the 489 civilians killed by terrorists were Hindu. In most years since 1989, less than 15 per cent of the civilian fatalities have been Hindu. Only in 1990 did that figure cross 20 per cent, a figure considerably lower than the Hindu representation in the State's population.

It would be mistaken, moreover, to see communal massacres as a means to an end: in the Lashkar's world view, they are the end. Lashkar ideologues see the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir as a consequence of the fact that, as one of the organisation's articles suggests, "the Hindus have no compassion in their religion". In the world of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the overall head of the Lashkar, "the Hindu is a mean enemy and the proper way to deal with him is the one adopted by our forefathers who crushed them by force".

What political challenge could there be to this language of hate? Jammu's people have responded to the succession of massacres in the region with little other than peace protests - and something approaching stoic resignation. No major riots, for example, have broken out despite the efforts of communal forces to incite violence. However, there is also a communal current underpinning the apparent peace. Massacres of Muslims by terrorists, notably, have never provoked mass protests in Jammu.

In Kashmir, too, the massacres of Hindus in the Jammu region have never been a catalyst for anything other than polemical condemnation - and, on occasion, baseless claims that these killings have been engineered to defame the anti-India movement in the State. Days after Kulhand and Lalon Galla, old-city Srinagar was convulsed with violent protests against a city pornography ring - but not one shop downed shutters to express grief against the obscene theatre enacted in the mountains.

Politicians need to intervene if this culture is to change. Major political parties such as the Congress, the People's Democratic Party and the National Conference are complicit in, and responsible for, the partitioning of people's grief. Although all parties condemned the killings in Kulhand and Lalon Galla, not one led a mass protest against it in Kashmir. Nor have political groups ever organised demonstrations in Jammu against the killings of innocents north of the Pir Panjal mountains.

Each such act of silence, sadly, makes it that much easier for the armies of the jehad to achieve their objective.

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