The Kot Charwal carnage

Published : Mar 03, 2001 00:00 IST

The formation of a village defence committee by a Muslim shepherd community provokes terrorists to carry out a brutal massacre.

AT first, the soldiers who arrived at Kot Charwal thought that the residents of the still-smouldering shack must have run off into the dense woods around the village to escape the terrorists who had set their home on fire. It was not until the afternoon of February 9, as the embers cooled, that they started clearing the debris, using freshly cut branches of fir trees. The first charred body emerged an hour later. Soon they found the burned body of a woman, wrapped around that of the infant she had been trying to protect. By late evening, 15 bodies had been found. Seven were of children, the youngest of them just four years old.

The carnage at Kot Charwal illustrates the dark side of the current ceasefire, now due to run until May. Its victims were the families of Bakkarwal shepherds who had dared to take on terrorist groups active on the mountains above Rajouri. Residents of th e Salohi mohra (hamlet) had formed the first all-Muslim Village Defence Committee (VDC) in the district in December, after one local resident was executed by cadre of the Harkatul Mujahideen (HuM). The VDCs are local self-defence groups, officiall y equipped with rifles to help guard remote mountain hamlets against terrorist attacks and intimidation. Although the VDCs were set up to protect vulnerable Hindu minorities, the formation of a wholly Muslim unit at Kot Charwal was a development of some significance.

With the number of troops thinned down in the wake of the Ramzan ceasefire, Kot Charwal's villagers knew that reprisal was imminent. What they had not expected was its sheer brutality. A group of terrorists arrived late that night at the home of Mohammad Shafi. Shafi, a young herdsman, had aided Army operations in the area for a year, and had been instrumental in setting up the VDC. But on that fateful day, as it happened, Shafi was not at home. The terrorists began beating up members of his family, dem anding to know where he was. Taking advantage of the darkness, his wife and children ran into the woods. The terrorists then surrounded three nearby dhokes (shelters made of wood and earth), only one of which was occupied. The families of Abdullah Remo and Bashir Abdullah lived here together, using the other two huts to house their flocks of sheep.

No opportunity for escape was left this time around. The dhoke was bolted from the outside. Then one group of terrorists clambered on to its roof and cleared a hole to lob hand grenades inside. A few minutes later, kerosene was splattered over the structure, and it was set on fire.

The next dhoke that the group moved on to turned out to be Shafi's shelter for the night. Alerted by the noise and fire, he was ready. Troops from the 4 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry picked up a distress call from the VDC member's single-frequenc y wireless set, and responded immediately. For the four hours it took the soldiers to make their way over the mountains to Kot Charwal, Shafi continued to exchange fire. Three days later, he was himself a part of the operation that ended in the killing o f the 10 HuM and Hizbul Mujahideen cadre who had executed the carnage, including their "commander", Kasim Bhat.

WHAT led Kot Charwal's Bakkarwal community to take on terror? Hundreds of Hindu families had left the heights around Kot Charwal in the summer of 1998, after the mass killing 28 villagers in nearby Prankot that April. Prankot is now just an abandoned clu ster of dhokes. The region's Gujjar and Bakkarwal communities, though in general hostile to the politics of far-Right Islamic groups, chose to stay on, making their peace with terrorist groups. Few people are certain just why Shafi started to aid the Army. Some believe that the HuM's cadre had harassed women in the village, but no one is willing to discuss the issue in any detail. "We were not treated well by the terrorists," is all village leader Mohammad Ismail will say. "They claimed to be fig hting for Islam, but they were just thieves."

Offensive operations in the high mountains were scaled back last autumn, and Kot Charwal's villagers were left increasingly vulnerable to terrorist violence. In November, Shafi's mentor Rashid Bakkarwal was tortured and then executed in the middle of Sal ohi mohra. HuM cadre left a note on his mutilated body, threatening to kill any villager who dared to bury him. Early the next month, Kot Charwal's village leaders asked 4 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry's Colonel Varinder Singh for help to set up a VDC. The Colonel, in turn, asked the Rajouri Superintendent of Police Rajesh Kumar for weapons and ammunition to be issued to the villagers. Ten rifles were promptly made over to the village, and several young residents were given impromptu lessons in their use.

By January, Gujjar and Bakkarwal herdsmen who were allegedly cooperating with the police and Army were being executed on a regular basis. On February 3, for example, Hussain Mohammad Mithu, Jahir Bakkarwal and Abdul Karim were executed at Bandrei. The th ree are believed to have played a key role in the elimination of three terrorists in 1998. "Some of these killings," argues 163 Brigade Commander J.S. Jaswal, "were in fact the consequences of property disputes or private feuds." In one case at Darhal, t he murder of an old woman, allegedly by her daughter-in-law, was claimed to have been one carried out by terrorists as reprisal for the elimination of four of their cadre days earlier. While such stories were on occasion put out to avoid criminal prosecu tion or gain compensation, the fact remains that Muslims opposed to the Islamic Right were increasingly under attack.

For the moment, the Kot Charwal massacre does not seem to have achieved its objectives. That the Army and the Rajouri police promptly eliminated Kasim Bhat's HuM unit, made up of nine Pakistani nationals and a Doda area operative of the Hizbul Mujahideen , has given village residents some sense of security. A police post has now been set up in the village, and additional rifles have been distributed to the VDC. Several village residents also volunteered to join the Jammu and Kashmir Police after Chief Mi nister Farooq Abdullah made available 10 jobs. And if the Prankot massacre sparked a massive exodus, there are no signs that Kot Charwal's Muslims intend to leave their homes. But the killing of Muslims who are hostile to terrorists continues. On Februar y 18, another Mohammad Shafi was shot dead and then beheaded at Narkot, near Prankot, on charges of being an Army informer.


SUCH killings are not new: and neither, in fact, is the mass murder of Muslims in the Jammu region. Seventeen Muslim villagers, including three women and three minor girls, were massacred at the Bachchai mohra near Surankote on June 28, 1999. The sole survivor of the mohra Bachchai massacre, Zubeida Bi, said that the killings were the outcome of a power struggle between two factions of the Hizbul Mujahideen, which pitted members of her family against the other group. Year after year, ordin ary Muslims have been the principal victims of terrorist violence, although the mass massacres of Hindus and Sikhs through Jammu and Kashmir have figured more prominently on the front pages of newspapers. And, unlike in the Kashmir Valley, there is littl e evidence of local support for terrorism in areas like Rajouri. Of the 224 terrorists killed in the district last year, 212 were foreigners, mainly of Pakistani or Afghan origin.

Sadly, that has not formed the basis of a political effort to build a people's consensus against terror. Not one mass protest against the killings has so far been seen in Rajouri or Jammu. Two days after the Kot Charwal killings, the hyperactive elements from among the Hindu Right in Rajouri busied themselves with the attempted rape of an eighth-grade Hindu girl by a Muslim classmate at Gambhir Brahmana. Muslim schoolteachers were singled out for attack by local Hindu groups after the incident. The same politicians found no time to agitate against the killings at Kot Charwal, or to mourn the Muslim victims of an effort the Hindu Right claims to hold so dear. While Farooq Abdullah and top politicians from New Delhi did fly into the village to express th eir grief, local figures from the National Conference, the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party evidently felt that the six-hour trek was not worth their while. The contrast with killings of Hindus and Sikhs is only too stark.

Part of the problem is the bizarre framework of politics in rural Jammu. Both Hindu and Muslim politicians, along with terrorists of the Islamic Right, have made careers out of representing themselves as defenders of communities under predatory assault. Examples are not hard to find. The Mendhar massacre of Hindus on July 1, 1999, had its roots in the elopement of local resident Shankar Lal and Faheen Kauser. Muslim communalists insisted that the girl had been abducted, while their Hindu counterparts cl aimed that the police were harassing Shankar Lal's family. Terrorists joined in the fracas, threatening local Hindus that failure to return Kauser would invite their wrath. In August 1997, the marriage of school teacher Manzoor Hussain with Rita Kumari p rovoked physical violence by the Hindu Right. Hussain subsequently approached the Farid Khan group of the Hizbul Mujahideen for vengeance, who in turn massacred eight Hindus.

"If Hindu soldiers kill Hindu villagers," says one senior official acidly, "no Hindu politician will say a word. And if Muslim terrorists kill Muslim villagers, no Muslim politician will protest." In Rajouri today, it does not even take attempted rape or cross-community marriage to incite communal violence: a football match or a traffic accident is an adequate pretext. Underpinning the hatred is a decade of violence, which has fuelled a desperation exploited by politicians unable to deliver development or progress to the region. Sadly, the ceasefire seems certain to see a dramatic escalation in the levels of tension. In the first seven weeks of this year, 31 civilians have been killed in Rajouri, as against 65 in the whole of 2000. The ceasefire was su pposed to bring peace: but in Rajouri, it has taken the war to a new, even more ugly level.

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