Massacres and cold facts

Print edition : July 31, 1999

While the sharpening of the communal divide has been the thrust of the terrorist massacres this summer in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP-led government's response has appeared to be centred round anything but ground realities.

ON the afternoon of July 19, Panna Lal's friend, a forest guard named Abdul Qayyum, dropped by at his home in the hamlet of Lihota, a 10-kilometre walk from the town of Thatri on the Doda-Kishtwar highway. The forest guard had heard that a group of terro rists planned to attack Lihota's Village Defence Committee (VDC) that night. No one took the warning seriously.

By next morning, Panna Lal's wife and three daughters were butchered in the fourth major massacre Jammu and Kashmir has seen in three weeks. His mother Parma Devi and brothers Shiv Lal, Krishan Lal, Lekh Raj and Mohan Lal, Mohan Lal's wife Dalipan Devi a nd infants Naresh Kumar and Satish Kumar were among those killed. Shiv Lal lost his entire family: his wife Thakri Devi and sons Bagh Singh and Mohinder Singh. The 15 deaths meant that almost half of Lihota's population of 39, living in a cluster of five huts, was wiped out in a single night. The villagers were targeted for participating in the VDC, a programme to arm local residents against terrorist attacks.

The attack on Lihota began at 8.45 p.m. Two of the nine villagers who had been armed with .303 rifles were keeping watch from a make-shift bunker on the fringes of the hamlet. When they noticed a group of about 10 terrorists moving near the hamlet, warni ng shots were fired. A full-blown exchange of fire soon broke out. Other VDC members returned fire but the bunker was eventually overrun. The villagers who were inside were killed and the route to their homes was now clear. But the seven surviving VDC me mbers displayed exemplary courage. When one terrorist clambered up a hut and lobbed a grenade, which claimed several lives, a shot up the chimney killed him and injured two others. Wireless intercepts identified the two terrorists, who succumbed to wound s, by their code names Akbar and Iqbal.

The carnage would have been worse if three residents, Amrik Singh, Bhushan Kumar and Ramesh Kumar, had not continued to hold out. Other residents say they continued to return fire until past 9 p.m. when reinforcements finally reached the area. Three chil dren, Surjit Singh, Sunil Singh and Mukesh Singh, loaded empty rifle magazines while some women supplied water and food to the defenders. This last line of resistance allowed the survivors, including many of those injured, to run into the woods. At 6 a.m ., two women informed the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel stationed at Batara of the incident. Personnel of the Special Operations Group at Fixoo reached the village after fighting off an ambush midway.

Local residents recognised three of the intruders as Manzoor, Abdul Hamid and Parvez of the Hizbul Mujahideen. The rest of them are believed to be of Pakistani or Afghan origin. The Hizbul Mujahideen's Shakeel Ahmad group is also believed to have been re sponsible for the second major attack on VDC members this month. On July 22, three VDC members were kidnapped from Dudu-Basantgarh in Udhampur and murdered. Five Muslim members of the VDC at Purnara were kidnapped from Kansar Top and taken to Dudu-Basant garh to call out three VDC members there. Darshan Kumar, Vakil Singh, Ramesh Chand and Sudesh Kumar responded to the calls. While Ramesh Chand escaped the minute he saw the ploy, his three comrades were shot.

THIS is Jammu and Kashmir's second summer of communal carnage. The summer of 1998 saw a string of killings, beginning with the April 19, 1998 butchery at Prankote village in Reasi which claimed 28 lives. Twenty-five members of a wedding procession were k illed at Chapnari, near Doda town, on June 19. The villages of Kishtwar district, Thakrain-Hor and Sarwan, witnessed the murder of 17 Hindus on June 27, possibly a reprisal for the killing of four members of the family of Mohammad Qasim, Hizbul Mujahidee n commander for Doda, at their home in Machlal village eight days earlier. It is rumoured in Doda that the killings of Qasim's family members were carried out by VDC vigilantes with Army backing, a charge officials deny. The summer of murder ended with the gunning down of 34 road construction workers at two outposts just across Doda's border with Chamba district in Himachal Pradesh on August 3.

What purposes do these communal massacres serve? One objective is simple. Right-wing terrorists, like a plethora of communal politicians in and outside the State, hope to accentuate the geographical fault lines between Hindus and Muslims. Each massacre s parks off Hindu migration to areas south of the Chenab, while Hindu communal mobilisation contributes to Muslim consolidation north of the Chenab. Politicians of the BJP benefit from such killings in Hindu-dominated areas, while the National Conference, which functions as an affiliate of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the Jammu region, benefits from Muslim communal consolidation. Sadly, there is no mainstream political force which has attempted to strengthen the traditional trans-communal cultural and social ti es of the area.

The massacres also serve one further purpose: they allow terrorists to present themselves as defending a besieged Islamic minority from a Hindu state. The massacre at Mendhar on June 1, for example, had its roots in an affair between Shankar Lal, a local resident, and Arifa, the daughter of Sher Mohammad, another local resident. The two eloped in mid-May, following which Muslim communalists insisted that the girl had been abducted. A police case was filed and investigations began. Hindu leaders decided to make political capital out of the issue, claiming that the local police harassed Shankar Lal's family. On May 2, a fracas broke out at a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) office in Jammu when Sub-Inspector Prem Nath and Assistant Sub-Inspector Mohan S ingh reached the location to search for Arifa and Shankar Lal.

Terrorists joined in the fracas, threatening local Hindus that failure to return Sher Mohammad's daughter would not be tolerated. The intervention triggered the Mendhar massacre.

If the sharpening of the communal divide has been a key thrust of the massacres this summer, an upsurge of frontal attacks on security personnel has been the second. Before dawn on July 23, terrorists attacked a residential complex situated on the fringe s of the Border Security Force's (BSF) sprawling Sector Headquarters at Bandipore, 90 km west of Srinagar. Constable M. Rajappa and his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Surekha were injured and his wife Bharati was killed in a burst of fire at one of t he three multi-storey apartment blocks. Deputy Inspector-General S.K. Chakravarty was shot dead when he arrived at the scene of the shoot-out, the consequence of the careless use of a searchlight that illuminated the officer's position. The Joint Directo r of the BSF's intelligence unit, the G-Branch, Mahendra Raj, was also killed in the fire along with Sub-Inspector K. Bhaskar.

While initial reports suggested that 12 hostages had been taken by the terrorists, it is now clear that the people who were saved by National Security Guard commandos were not hostages. These residents had locked themselves in a room at the far end of th e apartment. Man Singh, a BSF jawan, told Frontline that he and his wife cut a hole in the false ceiling to crawl into the adjoining flat. There they joined 10 other survivors, including six children, of the first shoot-out. Man Singh claims to ha ve seen two terrorists inside the building just before dawn.

The successful conclusion of the BSF operation offers no cause for celebration. Data obtained by Frontline make clear that the BJP-led government's much-advertised "pro-active" policy on Jammu and Kashmir last year has been something of a disaster . The ratio of terrorists killed for each security personnel has been registering a steady decline since 1997 and has reached a record low after the Kargil campaign began. This would suggest that India's military and strategic planners have been unable t o respond effectively to new terrorist tactics, notably the widespread use of explosive devices. Also disturbing is the fact that the ratio between the number of terrorists killed and the civilian lives lost has been declining. Signs of trouble were evid ent well before the Kargil campaign, illustrating the fact that redeployment of troops cannot alone account for the phenomenon.

While the presence of the troops has already been thinned by the Kargil war, the State administration is determined to undermine what remains. A welter of recent and flagrantly election-related transfers, notably the shunting of Inspector-General of Poli ce P.S. Gill to a somewhat ill-defined post in charge of operations, constitute a sign of the State Government's lack of will to end the violence. If trends for the first six months of this year are sustained through 1999, more Hindus and Muslims will di e in terrorist violence than at any time since 1997. So, too, will more members of all the forces deployed in Jammu and Kashmir. None of these cold facts appears to have informed the Union Government's rhetoric on Jammu and Kashmir, which increasingly se ems more centred around statements made in Washington and London than on ground realities.

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