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Massacre in the mountains

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001

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Even as killings of Hindus in the Jammu region receive much attention, the heightened levels of violence by the Islamic Right directed at ordinary Muslims who come to have any contact with the Army, pass largely unnoticed.

THE three Pakistani nationals who died with Mohammad Younus Gujjar were buried at one end of the rows of unmarked graves in the small forest glade behind the Surankote police station - the last stop for terrorists without a name. Younus' body, however, was carried away with little ceremony by the numberdar (headman) of Marhot, a small mountain village in Poonch district where the 18-year-old had grown up. Apart from a gaggle of excited Surankote schoolchildren, few people gathered to witness the event. If some of the adults had come to mourn the herdsman-turned-terrorist, others made it clear that they felt nothing but relief at his violent death.

Younus and his unit were engaged and eliminated by troops from the 9 Paracommando Regiment and the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group (SOG) near the twin hamlet of Dara Sangla, above Surankote. Although there is no real evidence for it, for there are no surviving witnesses, Younus and his unit is believed to have executed five Gujjar herdsmen at Sangla on May 6. That massacre was part of a growing war by the Islamic Right against Muslims in the mountains of Jammu, targeted at civilians perceived as collaborating with Indian security forces. Massacres of Hindus in the Jammu region, notably the May 10 killing of seven shepherds near Kishtwar, have received media attention, but the heightened levels of terrorist violence directed at Muslims has passed almost unnoticed.

Mohammad Yusuf Gujjar, Abdul Razzak Gujjar and Mohammad Ayub Gujjar were kidnapped by a group of terrorists on May 6. Mohammad Yusuf's brother, Misri Gujjar, was taken along with his friend Mohammad Rashid, from another corner of the village. Misri Gujjar's body was found the same evening, riddled with bullets fired at point-blank range. The other four were first tortured and then beheaded. Two bodies were found the next day in a mountain stream that runs below Sangla, and two more in front of the local school. The execution, local people believe, was carried out to avenge the elimination of three terrorists at the village on May 1. Those terrorists, like Younus, were believed to be part of the Lashkar-e-Islam, a breakaway faction of the Hizbul Mujahideen born five months ago, and opposed to any form of dialogue with the Indian government.

Similar killings have become alarmingly regular. Large-scale killings of Muslims, like the February massacre of 15 villagers at Kot Charwal in Rajouri, or the Sangla killings, are relatively rare. But each day sees the elimination of Gujjars and Rajput Muslims by terrorists, often for 'crimes' as small as hauling loads up the mountains for Army troops. Large-scale killings too seem to be growing this summer. Five members of a family were killed near Reasi on April 28, again on charges of aiding the Army.

The carnage has been at its worst in Poonch, a district which has seen some of the highest levels of infiltration during the Ramzan ceasefire and some of the most bitter fighting in recent weeks. The hills around Surankote see engagements almost each day, and encounters in which over 10 terrorists are killed are not uncommon.

PAMROTE village is perched just above Surankote, a half-day walk across the Suran river and beyond or a few hours by road. It is home to the most powerful family in the area, that of local MLA Mushtaq Husain Shah. But he does not live there, neither do his neighbours. Terrorist violence directed at Muslims has ensured that anyone who can afford to do so has moved to Surankote, or farther afield to Rajouri, Poonch or Jammu. Troops patrolling remote mountain areas such as Hari Marhot, Jhamu Shid and Phagla say that they often come across abandoned Gujjar dhokes, stone shelters erected on the high-altitude meadows where they traditionally used to migrate with their herds each summer. Taxi-drivers refuse to drive into some areas, like the densely forested road from Surankote to Rajouri, through Bufliaz. "People are scared," says Marhot's numberdar, Mohammad Hussain, "and some have even started buying land in the plains."

At least some of the violence in the area seems to be driven by village feuds and caste hostilities. Disputes over land between Gujjar herdsmen and Rajput-Muslim farmers are common, and village residents often trace killings to such factors. Similar lines of conflict exist between Gujjars and Rajputs on the one hand, and ethnic Kashmiri residents in areas like Thana Mandi. Few of Poonch district's terrorists, who are believed to make up less than a quarter of those active in the area, join the ranks of the jehad for ideological reasons. "If a Rajput boy becomes a militant," says Hussain, "then one of our Gujjar boys will have to do so as well. It is the only way to protect the community. Otherwise someone will point a finger at us, and accuse us of helping the Army. After that there is no investigation or trial, just execution."

Economic imperatives also fuel the confrontation between the inhabitants of mountain villages and the Islamic Right. Mohammad Akram Gujjar, who lives near Jhamu Shid, spends the winters in New Delhi, working as a mason near the Bara Hindu Rao Hospital. He returns each summer to help his family move its herds up the high pastures, carrying with him his savings and a small slip of paper from his employer detailing his time in New Delhi for local Army officials. Although the Gujjars' buffalo herds are huge, the revenues they generate are increasingly insufficient to make ends meet. This is because Jammu and Kashmir has no milk marketing structure, and despite its huge livestock holdings is a net importer of milk. Mohammad Akram and other Gujjars and Bakkarwals (shepherds) invariably turn to the Army in the summer. Hauling supplies up the mountains for Army units pays Rs. 45 a day, and it is by far the best employment on offer.

Unsurprisingly, then, the violence has become something of an economic opportunity for the poor of Poonch. Many young people make a living guiding Pakistani terrorist units across the Line of Control, and then over the Pir Panjal Ranges into Shopian or Doda. Their knowledge of mountain passes and forest routes is, residents say, well rewarded. If some of them join terrorist groups, others turn to the Army and the police. Much of the SOG is made of recruits from Poonch, Rajouri and Doda villages, as is the Army's Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry and the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles. Villagers from Poonch also make up the shadowy covert units run by the security forces, which seek out terrorist groups in the high forests. The massive infiltration into Jammu this summer, the consequence of the Ramzan ceasefire, has brought death to some, but it has also ensured a source of livelihood for others.

GROWING violence directed at Muslims ought to have been the basis for building a meaningful cross-community consensus against terrorism. Sadly, local politicians have ensured that nothing of the kind happens. On May 10, terrorists kidnapped 11 Hindus grazing their herds near Atholi village near Kishtwar. Four of them managed to escape, three with bullet injuries, but the other seven were butchered, some by gunshots and the others by knives. This was the first major massacre of Hindus in the Jammu province since six Hindus were shot at Kot Dhara near Rajouri in August last year. Investigators suggest that the Atholi massacre was intended to scare Hindu shepherds off the high pastures, and point to the fact that it was preceded by a series of major security force successes against terrorists operating in the Kishtwar area.

Even as Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and Governor Girish Saxena condemned the killings, mobs of activists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party fanned out on the streets of Kishtwar, forcing public institutions and businesses to close down. The town has a history of communal violence, and the police responded by imposing curfew. Leaders of the Hindu Right, like the party's State president, D.K. Kotwal, called for Village Defence Committees (VDCs), militia units set up to protect Hindu-dominated villages, to be equipped with assault rifles. Doda's VDCs have often been provoked by the Hindu Right into aggressive action against their Muslim neighbours, and the demand was clearly intended to spark such behaviour. No mention was made of the fact that Muslims in Doda have, year after year, been by far the principal victims of terrorism in this area, as in other areas.

If Hindu chauvinists used the Kishtwar killings to bring about a generalised Hindu-Muslim polarisation, their Muslim counterparts in Rajouri responded to the massacre at Sangla by pretending that it never happened. No politician thought it worth his while to visit the village, or even Surankote town, to express support or sympathy for the families of the victims. No processions to condemn the violence, or strikes to demand action against those involved in the killings, were organised in Poonch. Muslim communal leaders in Rajouri, active over the recent months in causes ranging from the desecration of mosques in Punjab to the publication of an image of Prophet Muhammad in Time magazine, had nothing to say about the killing of village residents for no crime at all. Neither did the Hindu and Sikh leaders of Rajouri and Poonch, who have regularly protested against terrorist killings of their co-religionists, see it fit to make any expression of solidarity.

TO those who have taken the trouble to look at the facts, the tragedy is all the more stark. Official data make it clear that all of Jammu and Kashmir's major religious communities share the pain of violence inflicted by right-wing religious terrorism. If Hindus and Sikhs have been killed for no real reason other than their faith, far larger numbers of Muslims have paid with their lives for opposing fundamentalism. If Hindu homes have been destroyed by terrorists, so too have Muslim homes. If village temples have been set on fire, so too have village mosques and shrines, for propagating a folk religion that the Islamic Right finds obnoxious. And violence has inexorably undermined the democratic rights of all communities. In early May, 14 newly elected sarpanches and panches, both Hindu and Muslim, announced their resignation from village democratic bodies because of terrorist threats.

Seen from Surankote, then, the Union government's Jammu and Kashmir policy seems faintly surreal. No one in the region saw the gains the Union government insists the Ramzan ceasefire had secured, only the upsurge in death that it brought. Now that the ceasefire has been called off, few people believe that things will change in any significant way. Violence, not dialogue, is shaping political life in Jammu's mountain villages. If Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is indeed serious about creating a meaningful peace, he might do well to try and secure it on the ground, not in committee rooms.

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