Published : Aug 18, 2001 00:00 IST

Terrorism reaches a new high, but will the new-found official machismo help stop the fires?

THREE days before Mujib-ur-Rahman was shot dead by the Doda Police, the Lashkar-e-Toiba commander wrote the last entry in his battered green 'log book'. "August 3," Rahman recorded, "The warriors of the Lashkar-e-Toiba have killed 19 unbelievers. This is our challenge to the Indian government."

It took the government just another five days to bite the bait put out by the Lashkar commander, who used the code name Abu Ali. On August 9, the Jammu and Kashmir government ordered the imposition of the Disturbed Areas Act in the districts of Doda, Udhampur, Jammu and Kathua, bringing the entire State under the blanket of the controversial piece of legislation. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, for his part, promised drastic new legislation to help end violence in Jammu and Kashmir. The new laws, Advani said, will resemble the lapsed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, and it will be targeted at overground supporters of terrorist violence. While vulnerable Hindu communities in Jammu are elated, they are likely to discover that this new official machismo amounts to nothing at all.

The small village of Ladder, 40 km by a dirt road from the nearest major town, is an unlikely candidate to have driven events of such long-term significance. On the morning of August 3, twenty two people from Ladder had taken their cattle up to Sharot Dhar, a high-altitude pasture a few hours' walk from the village. That night they stayed in two separate dhokes on the pasture, ten Dalits inside and outside the smaller stone shelter higher up the hill, and the upper caste Rajputs in the larger one. Around midnight, two terrorists arrived at the Dalits' dhoke. "They asked us to line up," says 14-year-old Dev Raj, "and confiscated all our belongings. They took our ghee, our blankets, and even the small ring I was given by my parents. Then we were marched down to the other dhoke."

Some of them in the Dalit-occupied dhoke smelt trouble. "I told them some of us were sleeping outside," says Tara Chand, who was inside when the terrorists arrived. "They asked me to get the others, but I used the opportunity to run off into the darkness and hide." Four others, out on the pasture, followed him. The others were lined up, with the Rajputs in two rows, inside the second dhoke. "One man, with a gun, asked Panna Lal if he knew what the gun was," Dev Raj recalls. "Panna Lal said he did; it was a gun. Then the man asked if he knew what came out of guns. Bullets, Panna Lal told him. 'Have a close look at a bullet,' the man said, and started firing." Dev Raj and four others were injured. They spent the night playing dead, hiding among 13 bodies.

More people almost died the next day. Hundreds of Hindu activists from Kishtwar arrived at the village of Atholi for the last rites of the Ladder victims. Many of them were members of Village Defence Committees (VDCs), armed with .303 Lee Enfield rifles. Egged on by their leaders, the mob began to throw stones and eventually burned down two Muslim-owned shops. At least eight rounds were fired at the Atholi Masjid after mob leaders claimed that masons who were working on the Masjid wall were building a "bunker for terrorists". A Jammu and Kashmir Police Special Operations Group (SOG) unit present there responded with warning shots, preventing further violence.

But even as the violence in Atholi ended, curfew had to be imposed in Doda and Kishtwar. Muslim chauvinists now spread rumours that the Masjid had been demolished. In fact, the broken portion of the Masjid wall had been brought down by the masons, who were working to repair a crack in the structure.

MASJID AND MANDIR share the same square in Atholi: a sign of the region's syncretic traditions, now under threat. It is not hard to understand the anxieties driving Hindu chauvinism. The Sarhot Dhar massacre was the third this summer, following the killing of four village residents in a pasture above Tagood village on July 20, and the massacre of eight others near Cheerji the next night. The long series of communal killings since 1993 has, predictably, bred bitterness. Ranbir Singh lost his brother Balbir Singh in the Sarhot Dhar massacre. "I don't want violence," he says, "but my brother's wife is eight months pregnant, and I will also have to look after his son Ankit. Who will give us justice?" Very few people in Ladder bother to make any secret of their feelings. Kunj Lal lost his son, constable Rishi Kumar, in an ambush at Manjakot near Rajouri earlier this year. He now heads the local VDC. "We are not like the Kashmiri Pandits," he says. "We are ready to be killed, and to kill."

Politicians have been quick to cash in on this kind of sentiment. Janaki Nath Thakur, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader from Kishtwar, insists that his party cadre and local VDCs had nothing to do with the violence in Atholi. "The Muslims there are blowing the whole thing out of proportion," he claims. "If we wanted violence, we would have shot people, not at a mosque wall. Hindus are being killed, and then asked to maintain the peace." Muslim politicians in the area use similar language. "We have restrained ourselves so far," says National Conference block president Ziauddin Mattoo, "but our patience is not endless. If this continues, we will have take up arms." Kishtwar abounds with similar talk. Here, wealth locally generated by the Dul-Hasti hydroelectric project, billed as the most expensive of its kind, has given birth to a new elite keen to gain political power. Competetive communalism gives this new elite status and legitimacy. In January, for example, Kishtwar's historic main mosque burned down in an accidental fire. The town's emerging Muslim leadership led mobs which burnt down government buildings and liquor shops owned by Hindus claiming that the mosque had been set on fire by the Army.

But it is far from clear if rural Hindus and Muslims have responded to terrorism in particularly different ways. Consider, for example, the May 10 massacre at the all-Hindu village of Sazaar, a few hours' drive from Ladder. When terrorists arrived at one of the five hamlets in the village the previous evening, local leaders asked personnel at a nearby local police post not to respond. That night, members of the Lashkar unit, evidently regular visitors to the area, purchased a goat for Rs.1,000 and roasted it nearby. The next morning, they asked for guides to help them go up the mountain. Once on the ridge above Sazaar, one man was sent down to demand that personnel at the police post surrender their weapons, failing which the remaining hostages would be executed. The policemen refused to oblige them. Seven hostages were killed, and three injured.

Hindus, then, have like Muslims sought to keep the peace with terrorist groups. Villagers at Cheerji have no real explanation as to why those killed in the August 20 massacre lined up in the darkness if they expected to be killed. Investigators believe that the same terrorist group had visited the pastures above Cheerji earlier. On this occasion, however, the Lashkar unit's visit had been preceded by a fight with a migrant shepherd, Noorani Bakkarwal, over pasture rights. Hindus in Kishtwar rent out summer pastures to nomadic Bakkarwal shepherds and Gujjar buffalo herdsmen, but as livestock holdings have grown, fights over access and prices have escalated. It is now believed that Noorani Bakkarwal persuaded the Lashkar unit to settle the dispute. Intelligence officials based in Doda also believe that Hindus are often used to haul food to terrorist groups up the mountains, since troops are less likely to be suspicious about their actions.

CLEARLY, the real problem in Doda is the state apparatus' inability to provide real security to rural communities. The decision to invoke the Disturbed Areas Act has little evident link with the scale of violence. Both 1998 and 2000 saw more massacre deaths than have taken place this summer. Nor can incidents like the August 7 shootout at the Jammu railway station be cited as reasons for invoking the Act, for the city has seen far worse in past years. Official data show that the problem lies not in the absence of special powers, but in the physical absence of troops. In 1997, 11 Army battalions and almost nine paramilitary battalions were stationed in the police district of Doda, which excludes the tehsil of Ramban. The next year, despite a series of communal killings, two Rashtriya Rifles battalions were withdrawn. During the Kargil War of 1999, almost all Rashtriya Rifles battalions were pulled out, along with the Border Security Force (BSF). Three Rashtriya Rifles battalions and the BSF did not return.

Geography and recent tactical decisions have combined to create this situation in the district. Doda is spread over 11,678 sq km, only a few hundred square kilometres less than the area of the entire Kashmir Valley. Over 60 per cent of this area is made up of the single tehsil of Kishtwar. Kishtwar comprises four major areas. The northern valley systems of Wadwan and Marwah are protected by just one Army battalion. Wadwan technically falls under the command of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, but even the single company traditionally despatched there each summer did not arrive this year. As a result, Wadwan has become home to one of the largest concentrations of terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir. To the south, the Dacchan and Paddar valley systems are again unsecured. An Indo-Tibetan Border Police company based at Gulabgarh, a few minutes' drive from Ladder, was pulled out in March. This is a fact of some significance given that all recent massacres have taken place in the Paddar valley.

Kishtwar is not the only area to have suffered from this unexplained unwillingness on the part of the authorities to commit troops for the maintenance of peace. The 5 Sikh Light Infantry pulled out of the south Doda area of Gandoh early this summer, leaving one of the district's worst-hit areas open for terrorist operations. Army officials now claim that this decision was taken in order to shore up defences along the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway in the build-up to the Amarnath Yatra, but the battalion was moved out in April, months before the pilgrimage. More worrying, the thinning out of troops has come at a time when terrorist groups have been able to assert their authority over civil society more effectively than at any point in the recent past. During the Ramzan ceasefire, the Hizbul Mujahideen in Kishtwar began imposing de facto taxes on the treasury at Marwah. Salaries and dues worth Rs.20 lakhs are estimated to have been diverted before the ceasefire ended. More alarming, 43 Kishtwar residents are believed to have joined terrorist groups between March and June, up from next to nothing in previous years.

Why has Doda suffered from such shabby security cover? One explanation is that terrorism in its remote mountains rarely makes the front pages. But it is also hard to ignore more cynical considerations. The withdrawal of formal cover has been mirrored by a massive proliferation in the numbers of Special Police Officers (SPOs), paid Rs.1,500 a month to work with the SOGs and VDCs. Doda now has some 7,500 SPOs, including the 1,000 additional posts authorised by Union Minister of State for Home I.D. Swami. But only 2,700 of them are actually deployed with the district police in operational roles. Although VDCs have played a valuable role in protecting villages - all of this year's attacks have been on pastures - some of them have chosen to function as a kind of private army for Union Civil Aviation Minister and Doda-Udhampur MP Chaman Lal Gupta. "He would not have secured a majority in the last election if VDCs had not intimidated Muslim voters," claims the National Conference's Ziauddin Mattoo, "they will be used again."

Gestures such as the invoking of the Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act will not help bring peace to Doda. The experience of such actions in the Kashmir Valley, Rajouri and Poonch shows that they did nothing to end terrorism. For the past year, Doda has in effect been held by its SOGs and their SPOs: 93 terrorists were killed between September 2000 and August 2001 - a record for any 11-month period. Their work, however, is simply not enough. Across Kishtwar, the high mountain pastures are being evacuated to make sure that no further massacres take place. This winter, officials say, more SPOs will be recruited and trained to defend those out on the high-altitude pastures. But in the days since the Ladder massacre, not one company has moved into Doda: a sign of just how serious the Union government in fact has been in trying to tackle the problem.

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